“You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you.” – The Joker, The Dark Knight
I’ve recently followed a few discussions about “Hiring by Keyword:”
- A Quora post from a startup founder looking for a co-founder, but that co-founder must know Erlang – thus making an already hard-to-hire-for position impossible.
- A posting for a VP of Marketing for a company “pioneering mobile video conferencing.” The candidate must have previous experience as VP of Marketing at a “mobile video conferencing company” — uh, if this company is the “pioneer,” doesn’t that mean no one has ever done this before?
- An article stating the industry is in a bubble because companies who need Ruby on Rails developers were hiring developers that did not have Ruby on Rails experience — even though great developers can learn it quickly, and a great developer learning it for the first time will greatly outperform an average developers who knows it but is weak otherwise.
- A large public technology company (HP) hiring a CEO who has experience as a CEO of a large public technology company (SAP) — which looked like a “safe” choice on paper, at least until the company ran off the rails in less than a year.
- A thread on Quora mocking a job posting from an HR department looking for people with “five years experience working in social media” — social media is barely five years old, so good luck with that one.
These reminded me of our recruiting strategy at Vontu, my last company, where we made a very deliberate effort to keep our keywords straight.
We were a security company that built security software and sold it to security professionals. So you’d think we should have gone out and hired people with security in their resume and experience with products like firewalls, intrusion detection, and from companies like McAfee and Symantec?
But we structured our recruiting, onboarding, and employee evaluation process to focus on more impactful keywords: great team players, communication and leadership skills, entrepreneurial enthusiasm, customer focus, cultural fit, and functional expertise.
When we focused too much on security keywords, the hire was often gone within a year. Some were from dysfunctional startups and had lousy teamwork skills. Some were good big company people but were not entrepreneurial. Some were used to low-level technical buyers but couldn’t communicate with executives. Some just didn’t like us: they chose us because we were a security company, not because they especially liked the people or culture. They used the wrong keywords of their own.
When we stuck to the more fundamental keywords, we built a great team and were off to the races. We ran circles around competitors who had teams of B and C players with security expertise but little else going for them. And many of the folks who did not work out for us ended up, guess where, at our competitors, because they had the keyword Vontu on their resume. I’m sure they were able to draw on some product knowledge and call on a few Vontu customers their first week at their new job, but after that they had little to offer.
Why is “Hire by Keyword” so damaging?
- Industry experience is often a negative, not a positive, for a new company. Could Hollywood execs have started Netflix? Would a book publisher had started Amazon? Jack Dorsey, not Visa execs, started Square. He admitted, when asked how he learned about the world of payments, “We Googled ‘accepting credit cards.’” http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2011/07/start/plug-and-pay?page=all
- Usually the best employees are doing a job they have never done before. Had Mark Zuckerberg ever been a CEO before? Had Jony Ives run design for a tech company? A motivated Director getting a chance to prove herself by taking her first VP job will usually outperform a jaded veteran who is doing the job for the third time because he couldn’t get a CEO gig.
- Keyword-friendly folks can do a lot of damage in a company. They have a disproportionate level of influence (“he’s from Microsoft – he must know what he is doing”) and can be hard to fire.
- You can attract the wrong candidates – ones who don’t define themselves by the type of people they like to work with or problems they like to solve or stage of company, but ones who define themselves more narrowly. I can’t prove it, but I’ve found a high correlation of failure with people who seek the safety of markets and products they already know vs. seeking out newer, high-growth areas and challenging themselves.
- It drastically shrinks the pool you can hire from, so you have to lower your standards to get the keyword match you are looking for.
So why does Hiring by Keyword happen?
- The best keywords are hard to interview for and to evaluate. It is easy to know if someone worked at Google. They either did or they didn’t. It is much harder to know if they are dedicated, agile, or a great team catalyst. That requires judgement and intuition.
- It seems safe to pick the “obvious” keywords. Contrast the HP board who chose a seasoned software exec as their last CEO (Leo) vs. the IBM board who chose Lou Gerstner in 1994 and was soundly criticized for picking a guy with no tech experience. If Lou hadn’t worked out, how would the board have fared for picking a guy who was “obviously” the wrong choice? Well, Lou was a huge success, and that board is now legendary for taking a risk, where the HP board is on the outs for picking a lousy CEO, but one who probably had the best resume “on paper” of any candidate.
- Boards and bosses like the keywords. If you run a saas company, it is much easier to tell your board you just hired a VP of Marketing from Salesforce than a guy who was a Director at a failed startup but who you know will run the world someday.
The industry is dynamic. Tools change. Skillsets wither. Networks get stale. Companies pivot. But the fundamentals never go out of style – pick your keywords carefully, and you can’t go too far wrong.