When I’m looking for the next great marketing mind or business development genius, I’m not looking for just an employee. I’m looking for a partner. Being smart and having a great college pedigree is carrying less and less weight these days. Bottom line: Your education is not going to make my clients ecstatic about the work we do or put my company on the front end of innovation. What companies need in today’s world is talent with the ability to think, do, and execute in any circumstance – without anyone holding their hand.
Here’s what I look for when I hire people. It’s not exactly traditional HR wisdom. But I’m not looking for traditional. I’m looking for great.
1. I want someone who has failed. If you’ve failed, it means you got out there and did something big. Maybe this job candidate tried to start a company and went down in a blaze of glory. Maybe they tried to build a product or launch a marketing plan with no idea what they were doing, and it failed. That’s actually good. That I can work with — way more than someone who swallowed the business school textbook. Because if the candidate has been through failure, it means they tried something big. It means they had the wherewithal to get some power, the curiosity to go somewhere with that power, the leadership to get people invested in the project, and the chutzpah to try something crazy.
When you hire a candidate with at least one big, messy failure behind them, you know that person has at least one use case for what didn’t work. It’s much more productive to learn from a project that failed than get narcissistic about one that succeeded. To borrow from Thomas Edison, I want a candidate who can tell me about the 10,000 ways you can’t make a light bulb. That’s much more interesting than if a candidate just shows me a perfectly-made candle.
2. I hire people who got out of the classroom. Full disclosure: I was a marketing major myself. And, yes, it was helpful to learn the basics of the field, but that was far from the most valuable experience I had in college. My best learning experience was when I came in, totally green, and ran a marketing department for a company that had absolutely no budget. They didn’t have anything to lose, so I had free rein to try whatever I wanted – with the catch that I also had no resources. Everything I wanted to implement was on me to make happen. I had to go door-to-door with fliers, stay up all night to make the photocopies myself, and scrounge for anything I could do free, cheap, or stolen.
Was it dignified? No. Was it great experience that’s still informing my business today? You better believe it. There’s no better lesson in cost per lead than when it has to be zero. I want people on my team who have actually gone out there and done things.
3. I need to see references that aren’t professors. Here’s the thing: Textbook learning is at best third-hand. The visionaries who had the idea to pull off the impressive campaigns almost never become professors themselves. They’re out there, having bigger and better ideas. I want to hire someone who has learned from the visionary directly – or is one herself.
There’s no right answer in business. That lesson is different if you read about it in a book than if you’re on the team that actually failed. Brilliant people make terrible investments, successful companies make bad calls, and Windows Vista is somehow a thing someone thought was a good idea. I don’t want to work with people who think they hold all the cards. That’s why I hire people who have mentors from outside the schoolyard.
4. I’m going to hire someone who doesn’t need me to tell them how great they are. There may have been a time when validation from your company or your boss was healthy and productive. But those days are over. A great professional is not going to work at your company for 20 years – and frankly, you shouldn’t hire someone you think is going to do that. That’s what makes people stagnant, stuck in old methods, and unwilling to innovate.
I’m looking to hire someone who’s good enough to leave any minute to go solo or even found their own company. A good performance review is nice for them, but approval from me isn’t their be-all end-all. This person is building something bigger than the company they work for or the person leading the team.
Today’s truly successful professional is a brand all their own. They’re a thought leader, an innovator, a creator that has big ideas and isn’t afraid to share their opinions. They have a network and social properties that stand alone from their title within a business. When I look to hire someone, I don’t spend much time mulling over their resume. I look at their LinkedIn and Twitter, what they’ve been sharing and writing. Who are they connecting with? Do they have any influence?
I don’t want to hire someone who can make a perfect candle. I want someone who’s going to help me invent the light bulb, even if it takes 10,000 tries.
Justin Gray is the CEO and chief marketing evangelist of LeadMD. He founded the company in 2009 with the vision of transforming traditional grassroots marketing efforts through the use of cloud-based marketing solutions.
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