"We'll find value in players that nobody else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality." My Moneyball approach to hiring cuts straight through this problem...
You may have heard of Moneyball, the movie where coach Brad Pitt and economics nerd Jonah Hill use baseball stats to lead mid-tier team Oakland Athletics to an unprecedented 20-game winning streak. When finances were stretched, they believed that, of the 20,000 notable players in the baseball market, “there is a championship team of 25 people that we could afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them. Like an island of misfit toys.”
When his unconventional approach was questioned, Pitt hit back:
This is the new direction of the Oakland A’s. We are card counters, at the blackjack table, and we are going to turn the odds on the casino.”Now I’m no statistician, and I have only a rather vague likeness to Brad Pitt, yet during my career I’ve developed my own ‘Moneyball’ approach to building teams of massive value. In these Moneyball teams, every player – maybe not the full package on their own – had a unique value-add, and, supported by a set of characters able to work together, was able to bring out their own special magic.
I’d like to tell you a story from earlier on in my career. I was working for a blue-chip global consultancy firm in London. My remit, within a reasonably tight budget, was “to beat McKinsey”, and build a team that could operate at the CEO level.
Normally, this firm would recruit candidates with top academic qualifications, from leading Ivy League schools. I wanted to try a more diverse approach, so instead we went to second-tier academic institutions, but looked for first-tier characters.
His name has been changed to protect his innocence, but I’d like to introduce you to Miguel, a small, stocky, eccentric and rather erratic Greek guy. He couldn’t communicate well. When you’d speak to him, he’d talk so fast, with no gap in his sentences, that you could barely make out what he was saying. Miguel had good qualifications – and I don’t want to cast any aspersions on the Greek education system – but he went to a school that we’d never heard of. He was unshaven, overweight, and shouted a lot.
Yet Miguel had a unique magic and a unique passion. He had an ability to analyze a company at a speed and depth that nobody else could even anticipate. Give him a company to look at, and a day and a night later, he’d have a 120-page report on company on my desk 8am next day that was fantastic.
Now he couldn’t present it. He wasn’t presentable in a corporate environment. We didn't care that he was a bit unconventional, as what he brought to the table was a key part of our value model. Miguel had a detailed analytical mind, a magic passion to find the killer insight, and frankly we were lucky to have him.
Hire For Exceptional Value & Character, Not Generic SkillsThe lesson here is that we should recruit on exceptional talent. Seek out those unconventional characters who haven’t quite made it or have had a setback; who are high quality but want to get back on the horse.
Why? Because in the long-term, failure can make you a much better leader. As Archie Norman, chairman at ITV and successful turnaround CEO at UK supermarket Asda (since acquired by Walmart) told me, Archie Norman:
“By the time it comes to 35, if it’s all gone swimmingly and it’s all pulled through and they have been mentored by the CEO and been on programs, that’s fine, but it’s a bit of case unproven.”
Where To Find Your Moneyball TalentYou could try placing a recruitment ad on LinkedIn or The New York Times with the headline “Talented Misfits Wanted”, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When you place a job ad, people still have the expectation that you will include some kind of job titles and role descriptions, so don’t veer completely away from the norm. Instead, consider advertising a number of positions at once, with a very broad salary range that would encompass both entry-level and much more senior roles.
Then, as the applications come in and you decide who to interview, positively discriminate for character over pure competence.
Here are some areas where we’ve consistently found color and character:
- People who’ve had challenges in their upbringingMany
of the people who end up as the top CEOs have had tragedy in their
early years that makes them more determined and more resilient. For
instance, the mother of Sir Stuart Rose, former CEO of Marks &
Spencer, committed suicide when he was 26; the brother of Sir Martin
Sorrell, died at birth; and the mother of Lord John Browne, former CEO
of BP, survived Auschwitz during the Second World War.
Harriet Green, CEO of Thomas Cook, believes that the loss of her father to brain cancer when she was just 14 has increased her courage, perspective and her appetite for taking on risky corporate “turnaround” challenges: “When you're a child and your family's quite dominated by cancer, the worst that could happen has kind of happened. What's the worst that could happen [in my career]? I fail. But is that lymphoma or leukemia? No.”
- Either recruit the first-born or the last-born in a family
The first-born normally is used to taking on responsibility, and the last-born usually has something to prove.
- People who’ve been divorced once, but once only
Jon Moulton, managing partner of private equity group Better Capital, actually prefers investing in companies where the CEO has been divorced once, arguing that they are better motivated to succeed: “I take a lot of interest in the CEO’s martial status. One divorce is slightly better than none, because managers are motivated and challenged and sometimes they need to rebuild their wealth. Two is more worrying and three is a catastrophe. I don’t generally make private investments when I see three divorces.”
The Moneyball InterviewThe conventional approach is that you find you’ve got a job gap in your team or your company, so you recruit on skills to do the job and try and interview for fit.
What this approach fails to do is to try to find what’s unique about a candidate, what their special magic is as a person.
So once you’ve got you’ve got your intriguing Moneyball candidate in front of you, get them to tell you their life story. You’re not trying to test on general competencies, rather to mine for core beliefs, talents, their magic. Then match that special talent and magic and see if you can find a role or focus area where they can add unique value within your company.
Daniel Dworkin, a consultant at Schaffer Consulting, in Stamford, Connecticut, agrees, arguing that cultural fit is more important than a box-ticking exercise against a narrowly-defined job spec: “Many companies don’t take competencies up a notch to include how an employee fits into the corporate culture… some companies haven’t even taken the time to figure out what makes their own enterprise unique.” He adds that, “a company can snag unique hires for less money, simply because those candidates – previously deemed to be corporate misfits – feel that they might feel more appreciated within your culture than elsewhere. Some workers are willing to take a hit in salary in exchange for working for a company that ‘gets’ their worth.”
Dworkin also agrees that diversity of skills matters, and that not every hire has to fit the perfect cookie-cutter approach:
“Just like in baseball, you need amazing fielders, relief pitchers and people who are good at stealing bases. You don’t need everyone to hit homeruns.”
At a late-stage interview for someone like the example of Miguel above, I like the “impossible job simulation test”. For example, to test his magic ability to take apart a company and his character. Pick a random company, hand him PC or an iPad with internet access, and give him 90 minutes to do as much research as he can on the company, before giving you a 15-min minute presentation on where the company is and where it should go. Here, you’re looking for resilience, determination and creativity more than the “right” answer.
The Moneyball Onboarding ProcessRather than offering “successful” candidates a full-time position immediately, I prefer a more incremental approach that builds trust and confidence on both sides.
Test a potential new hire’s commitment to the process by inviting them to put some “skin in the game”. This might be an unpaid or modestly paid small initial project that will quickly enable them to prove their worth. Those who are serious about joining your team will rise to the challenge and possibly show themselves capable of a bigger role than you had first envisaged.
As you hone in on a more realistic ongoing compensation package, be sure to include a significant performance-related bonus element that offers a upside for the new hire’s value and commitment – if they are able to make good on their early promise.
If you’re making a more experienced hire – perhaps somebody who’s had some time out of the labor market – or is making an active choice to switch from a more corporate path to a more entrepreneurial startup environment – have an honest conversation with them around compensation, gauging whether they have the character required to play the longer game. You could borrow some words from Brad Pitt:
I'm not paying you for the player you used to be. I'm paying you for the player you are right now. You're smart, you get what we're trying to do here. Make an example for the younger guys. Be a leader. You can do that?”
The Moneyball MarathonThe approach to hiring that I’m advocating above unquestionably takes more commitment from you, the employer: more time, more raised eyebrows and the possibility that some unconventional candidates will not work out.
It may also take you longer to build your true dream team, you might grow it more slowly, and you may come to the realization that actually you prefer a smaller but tight-knit “Moneyball fellowship”.
Am I saying that you should pass up all A+, perfectly qualified Ivy League candidates, through some kind of distorted reverse elitism? Am I saying that you should hire completely incompetent people? No, of course not, but I am saying that you should look beyond academics and the obvious competencies to seek out that added grit, life experience and unique magic. Because that’s when you’ll hire truly exceptional people who will grow with you and join the adventure of your company.
In the modern war for talent, I really do believe that it’s a Moneyball marathon and not a sprint. So make a long-term commitment to hiring the best people and the real characters, then take a deep breath and be patient as you naturally evolve into a talent magnet.
In Moneyball, it took a while for Brad Pitt to get the new team to gel together, people said he was crazy, and he nearly got fired before he went on to his triumphant 20-match homerun. So to leave you with a final piece of his wisdom:
Everyone wants to attack. Quit trying to attack. Let the game come to you man. There's no clock on this thing. This is a war of attrition.”
Photos: Getty Images (top); 'The Turbans' by Suchi Kedia, Emaho Magazine (middle)