Next in the nascent series questions Tyler Cowen asks that I like: how do you hire?
Cowen: When you’re hiring staffers or hiring in other capacities, such as the university, obviously, we look for people who are smart, people with good values, people who work hard. But what is it you look for in particular that maybe other employers or other senators or other people don’t think carefully enough about?
Sasse: I think the only two talents I have from a work standpoint are, I’m pretty good at sussing out when a strategic vision is missing and building a menu of choices about what strategic choices we should be making. What do we need to decide for this corporation, this small business, this not-for-profit, this college? And the second is, I’m decent at team building, and the reason for that is, I only hire people who are big cause, low ego. And that pairing is hard to find. Yeah, great to be smart, and of course, there’s a minimum threshold of how smart people need to be.
But fundamentally, what I want is people who want to be a part of a cause that’s bigger than themselves and they want to do something that matters. They’re always asking that deathbed-like question, “If I get the cancer diagnosis at 50 or in my old age at 85, when I look back at my life, will I think I spent my 30th year well?” Well, it depends on whether or not I was pulling on oars for some cause that’s bigger than me and doing it in a way that I didn’t care who got the credit.
And I want people on a team who, in that Aristotelian sense, distinguish between deliberation, decision, and action, such that you have a team of people who want to fight really hard when you’re deliberating among strategic choices. You want people who really are not bashful about trying to lay out pros and cons of both their position and everybody else’s position in the room and fight really, really hard.
But then finally, when you pull the trigger and make a decision, I want people on a team who don’t remember what side they fought for because this was the decision we made. And once we made this decision, we’re going this way, and nobody’s going to get credit because it was originally their idea or get blamed because it wasn’t their idea. We want it to succeed because we’re on a team. And that big-cause, low-ego impulse, those are the people that are fun to work with, too.
Cowen: We all want people who are smart, have experience, dedicated, cooperative, diverse, and so on, but what’s the quality you look for that you think other people doing hiring are undervaluing? What’s your entrepreneurial secret to hiring well?
Gawande: I think it’s again, that thing: What is your goal?
Cowen: What is your priority?
Gawande: Yeah. The secret to the hiring is actually, before you ever meet anybody, know what the heck you’re trying to hire. The hardest part sometimes to get people to understand is, what is it you are asking them to do? In two years, give me the list, their score card. What are the five things that they will have accomplished? And then make sure you show it to them when they come in the door.
And ask yourself as you are interviewing them, and then assessing who you’re going to pick. Not “Do I like this person?” or “Would they be fun to be around?” or all of those kinds – those are factors. The ultimate question is, will they be successful in this list of things that you said would define their success in two years? And being again faithful ... Maybe it is my focus talent. Intend. Do what you intend to do, and do it with intention. Over and over, that’s what people fail to do.
We’ve got up to now 90 percent consistency in delivering on people who, as we call them, A-players. And most of it is in that front end, before they’ve even walked in the door, being clear about that step. And then, they don’t tell you all of it, and that’s how you talk to their references. That’s the other real big mistake people make.
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