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Stop Hiring and Start Attracting Talent

Building a great team starts with being a great leader.

I’ve been told that I hire well. My team is respected, even envied, for its skillset and professionalism. As a result, I’m often asked to interview people for other managers. And while I like being viewed as having some mystical sense of people, I’m no better at picking someone from a resume and a 20-minute interview than anyone else.

To prove I’m far from perfect, let’s review some of the amazingly bad choices I’ve made over the years:

• A technologist I hired once blogged confidential material he obtained after he was let go. A kind soul—and another winner of the “Information Security Lifetime Achievement Award”—had let him in and given him a USB stick to extract the data, since this ex-employee had forgotten to bring his own.

• One employee filed an HR complaint when asked to put away his cell phone at a meeting.

• Another employee presented such an olfactory challenge that his coworkers stocked air fresheners for post-meeting spray downs—and let’s not forget he was also terrible at his job.

What I’ve learned is that hiring isn’t about having some kind of divining rod that finds talent. It’s about being a good manager who is sought out by good people, being the kind of leader that others want to work for. The most admired employees on my staff are people I’ve known for a long time, some of them for decades. When I have a job opening, I have a trusted group I can go to. And if they aren’t available, they can refer me to someone they’d personally recommend.

Any individual manager at a big company—let’s say me—has a limit to how much they can change things. There are high-profile projects to complete, but there’s also the everyday drudgery of working an office job. And sometimes people who have worked hard won’t get a promotion when they think they deserve it because of larger organizational dynamics.

And so I try to emulate the managers I’ve respected over the years by being honest about what I can and can’t do in terms of both day-to-day task assignments and long-term career opportunities. And, following another lesson I learned from my mentors, I try to increase the odds in the employees’ favor. One way to do that is to let them showcase their own work. This increases their profile in the company so that when the good projects and jobs become available, their names are more likely to be considered.

Nothing makes me happier than someone who works for me getting a new role, even one in another group. I think it reflects well on a manager to have his or her people be chosen for advancement.  No one wants to do the same thing forever, and it’s unfair to hold someone back just because they are so good at their job that they’ll be hard to replace. It’s part of a manager’s job to build a succession plan for key staffers.

I think it reflects well on a manager to have his or her people be chosen for advancement.

Part of that planning means making sure that there are back-ups for key positions. And because everyone has different skill levels, that means constant training. That’s why I’ve never understood when someone tells me they’re too busy to teach their employees. Opportunity is only possible when someone else knows how to do your job as well, or better, than you.

Over the years, and with every new management lesson I’ve learned, I’ve hired some really smart and talented people. In contrast to the bad choices I’ve made, there are people like Adam . He came to me for a job interview almost a decade ago, referred by a former coworker I greatly respected. Adam had a strong resume and I knew he could do the job. But I didn’t hire him. I went with Lisa, who was recommended by another old friend. At the time I said, “I’m very sorry, and I wish I had two jobs, but I only have one. I think this other person will find the job to be a career and you won’t. But should anything ever come up, you’ll be first on my list.”

Lisa did, indeed, do very well. And she stayed on long after I’d left that company for a new position. As for Adam, I was true to my word. He was my first hire at the new company. After two years, my boss, seeing the quality of Adam’s work, promoted him to another department. But we didn’t lose contact, even after he left for another job.

And so when I took on yet another role, with more responsibility, Adam was again one of my first calls. We’ve been working together again for almost two years now. In that time, he’s been promoted again and he’s built out his own department, with his own employees. Some of them have flamed out spectacularly, but one in particular, a young man named Bank  (not his real name), became both an employee and a friend.

Through an organizational change, Bank recently got reassigned to another group and he has more career possibilities. Adam was both happy for Bank and upset. I reminded him of the different ways in which we had worked together, and how he would likely be seeing Bank again, because he had become one of those managers that good people want to work for.

David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

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