The myth of only hiring high performers

One of the things that’s surprised me over the last few years: most people are coachable, but the majority of managers/leaders are looking for people they don’t have to coach. 

This shows up in job descriptions regularly. Sometimes it’s arrogant, like when a founder or executive says “high performers only, we are not here to babysit you.” Other times, it’s more subtle, with a bullet point or two emphasizing the search for someone who is “highly autonomous.”

On the surface, this makes a manager or leader look/feel smart. You’re hiring someone who’s ready to go to work, they are motivated, and they will deliver results without needing much (or any) support. 

There are a few problems with optimizing this way… 

  • Talented, creative individuals often think about things differently, and coaching is also about finding common language. If you optimize your team, as many startups do, for “being fucking awesome” you’re missing a whole set of folks who don’t use that language.  

  • Building (or changing) a pipeline of candidates takes time, and optimizing only for high performers typically replicates structural bias, making it difficult to find talent that is diverse, inclusive, and innovative.

  • Hiring for people who just “get it done” will amplify whatever is already happening in your company/team. In the short-term this can get you to the “up and to the right” chart, but as Seth Godin notes it is an approach that is easily gamed

It is brutal to say out loud, but the truth is that looking for people you don’t have to coach often masks weak internal operational structure. Hiring people who welcome coaching and embracing it internally, on the other hand, is the foundation for a good company/org culture.