The natural

Came across a few paragraphs in a Fast Company article about leadership that made me think a bit about all the smart folks I know and how they got so darn smart. The usual spuspects are school or raw brain power. But how much does talent play into the equation in professional success? Here’s the excerpts that got me thinking:

So if leadership can’t be taught or transferred, how do you foster it? Where do you find leaders, and how do you create them? The truth is that in most fields, it’s a natural process. Leaders are men and women who have chosen the right profession. They’re good at it, and because they’re good at it, they like it, and because they like it, they’re even better at it. They’re so good at it that they’d rather work than play. They’re naturals, and excelling comes naturally as well. They’ve understood their field from the start, and they’ve studied it without even knowing they’ve studied it. They could look around from the day they joined an organization and understand the talents of those who went before them, understand the people around them, and know when and just how hard to push them.

What they have is precious — nothing less than a gift. They may realize when they’re relatively young that they have a genuine talent and that they can go quite far, much farther than they originally thought. But often, they don’t become serious until midcareer, because their own talent surprises them — they were not that brilliant when they were in college or just starting out. Academic excellence, after all, rarely translates into professional success, and the special intelligence that makes leaders thrive in their field is not necessarily an intelligence that transfers well to other fields. They are extremely well prepared, and they push themselves hard. Most crucial to leadership, they give off a unique aura, the sum of their confidence, their tone of voice, their feeling for command. They are not people you want to fail.

After reading the GLAT sillieness, the end goal for Google (or any other company for that matter) in avoiding hiring false positives makes sense at the surface. The thing that I don’t think these tests uncover is those naturals out there. Just like school isn’t a predicter of professional success, interview tricks while probably successful at making sure nincompoops aren’t hired, they just as likely might miss the naturals out there. Just think, one of those false negatives may be walking away from their failed interview with billions in incremental revenue in their heads. Is a billion in revenue worth hiring some false postives? I’d certainly say so! You can always fire low performers. But you can’t make super stas materialize from thin air.

Given some of the most talented people I’ve worked with came from very non traditional backgrounds, the “avoid false positives at all costs” model doesn’t hold a lot of weigth for me. Should we kick all of the stupid people out of America so we can have the best country in the world? Of course not. You can’t have diverse society without, well, diversity. I think the same should hold for companies. Now I’m not advocating keeping standards low for hiring practices. My strategy preference would be to hire for diversity–not just from the racial perspective, but from the professional, experiencetial and acedmic perspectives. But that sounds too vague. Exactly!

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6 Comments on “The natural”

  1. Greg Linden says:

    This is an interesting post, Andrej. I hope you don’t mind some lengthy comments on this one, but I love this topic.
    Starting off, why do you think the GLAT discourages diversity? I think it’s mainly a test of enthusiasm. Those who really, really, really want to work at Google will spend the time to nail it. Google is seeking people who really, really, really want to work at Google.
    On leadership, how to you screen for leadership qualities like “a unique aura, the sum of their confidence, their tone of voice, their feeling for command”? Every Stanford/Harvard MBA meets this criteria, not because their particularly competent or particularly strong leaders, but because they’re simply arrogant and overconfident. When I look for leadership qualities, I look for two things: enthusiasm and a track record of execution. People are attracted to people who gets things done. Real leadership is based on success, not a cult of personality.
    On false positives, can you really always fire someone? It’s actually quite difficult to fire people. While you’re going through that effort, the person is costing you and your team productivity. I think a false positive is much more expensive than you seem to be claiming.
    On diversity, why does “no false positives” necessarily eliminate diversity? Sure, some firms think that “no false positives” means only CS students from Ivy League schools. But, done right, no false positives simply means a brutally rigorous screening process that filters on competence, enthusiasm, and ability to get things done.

  2. Andrej Gregov says:

    >Starting off, why do you think the GLAT discourages diversity? I think it’s mainly a test of enthusiasm.
    I agree with you that one purpose of the test is to attract people that really want to work at Google. But it also contains a lot of selection bias. Is Google seeing all candidates that can finish the test? No. What about candidates that can’t finish the test. Should they conclude that they’re not good enough to work at Google? It would be bad if Google never got to talk to the false negatives in these two scenarios. My thesis from my post was that tests eliminate false positive candidates, but they also eliminate false negatives. I’m a big fan of trying to hire with a cross functional end goal. Take IDEO, they hire medical doctors, biologists, anthropologists in addition to industrial designers, engineers and MBAs. That cross functional atmosphere is what makes them great. I don’t see that happening at Google or a lot of other high tech companies.
    >On leadership, how to you screen for leadership qualities like “a unique aura, the sum of their confidence, their tone of voice, their feeling for command”?
    I think you can develop interview questions that target that competency area. Interviews for softer skills like management are tough. Interviewing technical people is much easier. “What’s and array?” “What’s a hash table?” Either you know or you don’t. Testing management knowledge is much more subjective. I think the end goal for management interviews is to get a fit for the personalities and character traits of a candidate that match the company.
    >When I look for leadership qualities, I look for two things: enthusiasm and a track record of execution. People are attracted to people who gets things done.
    That’s perfect because those are traits that your company finds compelling in following someone. Other companies may look for other traits like loyalty, a PHD, experience leading multi 1000 person organizations….
    >Real leadership is based on success, not a cult of personality.
    You can’t dismiss the cult aspect. Bezos, Jobs, Gates, etc. are all cult like personalities. Often I think employees want to follow a cause, not just successful financials.
    >But, done right, no false positives simply means a brutally rigorous screening process that filters on competence, enthusiasm, and ability to get things done.
    The thing I don’t like is when companies come up with the “Microsoft person,” or the “Apple trait set.” As soon as that happens, diversity turns into homogeneity which IMO kills the pace of innovation. Let me give you an example. Take a look at this resume: http://www.megnut.com/work/resume.html. If you exclude Kinja and Pyra, would you consider this person for a position in your company? Probably not. “English degree, what they heck can we do with that sort of person.” I’ll bet you she wouldn’t have passed a Google loop. Google only wants PHD and master degrees. Good for them. But she built Blogger before the mighty Google. Could Google have built it? Maybe eventually. But maybe they could of done it far earlier with a diverse set of smart folks all contributing. A single perspective will never win.

  3. Greg Linden says:

    Great points, Andrej. The IDEO example is particularly compelling. I certainly agree with the value of a diverse group on a team; an echo chamber results in poor decision making.
    No, I wouldn’t have hired Meg Hourihan before she built Pyra. Would you? It’s not at all obvious to me that hiring her (or someone indistinguishable from her pre-Pyra based on resume and inteviews) would have necessarily been a good idea. A lot of success at startups is being in the right environment and at the right time and rising to the challenge.
    This ability to be successful, to rise and defeat any challenge, is what is important. How do you screen for that? I’m claiming that enthusiasm and demonstrated ability to execute are correlated with it.
    You’re arguing that there’s other factors, other things you should look for, but I’m still not clear what specifically. You’ve got 1k resumes in front of you. How do you filter them down to 20 who get phone screens? You’ve got 20 phone screens, how do you filter that down to 3-5 interviews? You’ve got 3-5 interviews, who gets hired? What is your criteria?

  4. Andrej Gregov says:

    >You’ve got 20 phone screens, how do you filter that down to 3-5 interviews? You’ve got 3-5 interviews, who gets hired? What is your criteria?
    Just like an engineer, you’re looking for an algorithm. 🙂 This is a hard question to answer because it depends on the company and what it deems important. But I do think hiring is more of an art than a science.
    If it were my company, I’d look for differing backgrounds. If I hire one SDE from MIT, I might look for another from a smaller school. If I hire several college grads, I might look for some more experienced individuals to offset. If I grab one that comes from a traditional engineering program, I might look for another that is largely self taught.
    It’s kind of like painting. An artist can’t give you a precise algorithm so computers can paint as well as humans because emotion and intuition are at play. So, specific rules aren’t going to help a lot. Or maybe one rule: “no rules” except that you want a diverse work force. Let managers in a company figure out what diversity means to them. Some will like Google type tests. Some will like more subjective and esoteric criteria. As a result of differing hiring methodologies, I’ll bet workers will find their daily work environments more engaging than ones that are populated only by the same folks that pass single standardized test methods. A more engaged work force, in the end, should lead to more innovation.

  5. Greg Linden says:

    Interesting point. You’re essentially arguing for diversity above all else. And against consistency in the hiring process.
    While I see the value of diversity, I’m not sure I understand the value of inconsistency. Seems to me that you want to get as close as you can to a fair, objective, rational, and repeatable hiring process. But I understand that we differ on the the value of intuition in hiring.
    I’m still not sure I understand your opposition to enthusiasm as a hiring criteria. Seems to me that a candidate that is passionate about the work, people, and company will always be better than one who is aloof.
    It’s been an interesting debate! Thanks, Andrej, for bringing it up and engaging in a few rounds of comments.

  6. Andrej Gregov says:

    >I’m still not sure I understand your opposition to enthusiasm as a hiring criteria.
    Actually, I never disagreed with enthusiasm. What I disagreed with was highly structured standardized type testing formats. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely want some structure in the interview process. But too much structure and before you know it, everyone looks the same.
    I do admit I don’t have a lot of details in the “how” department in this thread. But “how” really wasn’t the point of my very first post. It was just about the benefits of a diverse workplace. Sounds like we both agree on diversity but disagree on tactics which is cool. “Viva la difference.” 🙂 Thanks for the discussion!