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July 01, 2015

Working Smart

Five Reasons Why “Simply Hire the Best” Is Not a Winning Strategy for Your Organization

by Greg Long and Butler Newman

Reflect on your last conversation with your human resources leader about your company’s need to do a better job of finding great people. How did that go? In all likelihood, the conversation quickly devolved into a series of questions similar to these: What level of experience are you looking for? What is your salary range? Will you pay for relocation? What specific roles do you need to fill, and how would you describe those roles?

These are obviously good and relevant questions. They also hint at the challenges presented by a strategy that relies only on “hiring the best.” A hiring-only strategy gets derailed by the realities of today’s workplace. Five of these new realities are presented below:

There Aren’t Enough of the “Best” People to Go Around

Who can argue with hiring only the best people—in theory? But this approach quickly bogs down when the math hits reality: the laws of statistics dictate that only so many people fall within the top 10 percent. As more companies vie to hire those few people, the cost of hiring them becomes prohibitive. This reality leaves organizations to hire as many of the best that they can find and afford, and thus “settling” for the many merely “good” people available in reasonable numbers and at affordable costs.

Results Aren’t Certain

What if you were able to hire only the best? The results might be stunning, as was the case in 1992 when the U.S. Olympic team was first allowed to include NBA stars. The 1992 Dream Team dominated the Olympics with an average margin of victory of 43.8 points. The United States ruled Olympic basketball after that.

However, in 2004 another Olympic Dream Team was assembled, a team that clearly demonstrated that results are not certain, even with the best talent.

According to an August 2014 article by Julian Kimball on Triangle Offence, “[The United States’] lofty status was demolished during the 2004 Olympic games in Athens as Team USA sputtered to a bronze medal, suffering humiliating losses in the process. It was an eye-opening moment, as the team was defeated an unfathomable three times—one more loss than they had suffered in all previous Olympic competitions.”

In response, a new director of USA basketball and a new head coach were appointed, and a new philosophy that demanded a three-year commitment from players so they could gel as a team was adopted. With many of the same players, the “Redeem Team” took the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, finishing with a perfect record. More proof that results cannot be guaranteed by talent alone.

Worker Expectations Have Changed

Work has changed. Roles are more dynamic than ever. People in those roles have new expectations of how long they plan to stay in a role, how quickly they want to advance in their careers and what they expect from organizations in return for their contributions.

According to Jeanne Meister, a Partner with executive development firm Future Workplace, their recent “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey showed that “91 percent of millennials (born 1977–1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years.”

The new generation of workers are impatient. They want to make a difference, and they want to make that difference now. And they want to be rewarded when they succeed. If they are not rewarded, they quickly look to find another organization they hope will be more appreciative of their efforts. Even if they are rewarded, their focus turns to the next challenge, which often means the next role, whether in the current organization or a new one.

Those factors combined result in an increasingly transient workforce, one that is always in some low-level state of flux demanding clear focus and a systematic way to reach competence.

What we really want are people who consistently produce results that matter to the organization.

Talent Isn’t Everything

In the movie Moneyball, Peter Brand convinces the manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, that he doesn’t really want to select players based on their physical talents, their potential or even their competencies. Instead he should focus on selecting players who produce the specific outcomes needed to win baseball games. Outcomes, such as getting on base, preventing base runners from scoring, getting batters out (especially in critical innings), and so forth, are what win games and are what managers should evaluate.

Every game, whether in sports or business, has its own critical set of outcomes that, if produced well, result in a winning performance. For the teams in your organization to win, you must understand and identify those critical outcomes. Only once the critical outcomes are mapped can candidates be selected who will be able to produce those outcomes at a consistently high standard of excellence.

In the sales arena, we often hear managers say, “I want people with the ‘it’ factor” or “Just keep the people who are the best producers and get rid of the rest.” But we all know scores of people who seem to have the potential to succeed but just don’t live up to their potential.

What we really want are people who consistently produce results that matter to the organization. So start by first identifying the focus areas, or outcomes, that matter.

Good Coaching Is Often Lacking

An old adage says that people don’t leave their jobs; they leave their bosses. This holds true for top talent as well as poor performers. People look to their supervisor to help them focus on the right things and improve their skills and ultimately their job performance. But today’s supervisors’ ability to engage and develop their people is too often sorely lacking. Supervisors spend their time simply managing the schedule of their teams rather than helping them achieve success.

Successful coaching strategy starts with the assumption that people want to succeed in their roles, that they come to work each day hoping to make a difference for the team, and that their team will win against the competition. But if that assumption proves false, their motivation quickly dwindles. The supervisor’s key role is to not only nurture that assumption but build on it through focused, effective coaching efforts designed to help each person on their team fulfill his or her specific role. When that happens, people are more successful and become more loyal. Who doesn’t want to play a critical role that contributes to a winning team?

A Consistent Way to Win

If “simply hire the best” is an ill-fated strategy, what else can be done to create the type of organizational success that all companies strive to achieve? Fortunately, a clear path can be initiated immediately to begin the journey required to build a reliable and predictably high-performing organization.

Step 1: Identify the critical roles in your organization.

Identifying critical roles begins with formulating and relaying a clear business or sales strategy. Critical roles emerge from pondering the question, “What roles in our organization must be successful and high performing for this strategy to be effective?” The roles that are individually or collectively responsible for a particular aspect of the strategy, and therefore the business results, are the critical roles for your organization. For example, in the sales arena, the critical roles may be:

  • Product manager
  • Field support and customer service
  • Sales leaders

When identifying critical roles, don’t forget support roles that have a direct impact on customer satisfaction, such as finance and customer service. Too many organizations focus on winning new customers at the front door while poor post-sales support is escorting existing customers out the back door.

Step 2: Establish clarity around the five to seven outcomes each of these roles must produce.

The best way to do this is to study the work of the most-respected and top-performing people in the role today. What do they produce on a regular basis that sets them apart from others? What is their mental model of the role? Conducting such a study is not difficult but does require a structured approach and lots of curiosity because most top performers are unconsciously competent. This simply means they have internalized what it takes to be successful in their role, and thus can’t exactly tell you what it is they do differently.

Expressing the results of this study in the form of explicit outcomes creates tremendous focus for the role and produces a clear framework for equipping others to be successful in the role.

Step 3: Create a purposeful program for equipping incumbents and new hires to consistently produce these outcomes.

Equipping people to produce the specific outcomes necessary for the success of critical roles is unfortunately a business practice that is often lacking in today’s fast-paced organizations. Many factors contribute to this common condition. Whatever the cause, understanding and focusing on equipping people to produce outcomes that matter is the key approach to successfully linking business strategies and people into a powerful partnership that can produce exceptional business results.

For example, in a recent case, a business felt the need for more new-hire training, as customer issues were surfacing due to poor performance by new hires. By refocusing the business to understand which outcomes were important to the role, the amount of time spent in new-hire training was reduced by 30 percent rather than lengthened; at the same time new hires were able to demonstrate competence in the role much quicker than was previously the norm. Being intentional in creating programs that relentlessly focus on the specific outcomes desired makes this possible. Such successful programs typically include an outcomes-based coaching program to help managers continue to develop the performance and confidence of the new hires. The benefits of quickly and effectively equipping those in critical roles are obvious.


Leaving the people side of your organization to chance or relying solely on a hire-only-the-best approach to consistently execute your business strategy creates undue and unacceptable risks. As business management expert Tom Peters said in a 2013 online post, “ ‘High potentials’ will take care of themselves. The great productivity ‘secret’ is improving the performance of the 60 percent in the middle of the distribution.”

Peters’ observation is right. Though at first glance it might seem easier to direct the recruiting function to hire only the best, the realities of today’s workplace reveal a better path: hire good people and be purposeful in equipping them to produce great results.

Greg Long and Butler Newman are both vice presidents of organizational excellence at global performance improvement company GP Strategies Corporation and co-authors of The New Game Changers: Driving Performance by Focusing on What Matters.