Things That Don’t Scale — Like Relationships


This century, the US job market has been brought to you by, in part, an experiment in Human Capital:  the failed attempt to scale the hiring process.

Wharton’s Peter Cappelli has written extensively on this and related topics.  He believes that the so-called skills gap is not real.   He asserts that automated screening processes have contributed to creating a faux mis-match between available labor and open jobs.

’One manager told me that in his company 25,000 applicants had applied for a standard engineering job, yet none were rated as qualified.  How could that be?’

Peter Cappelli in TIME, June 2012


This is what happens when we want something human to be transactional, rather than part of a relationship.

And work is about relationships.   We commute, we work with our teams, we provide service to our customers, and so forth  Commuting is fairly transactional.   The rest of it, not so much.

Relationships don’t scale.

When I was part of running a personal services business, we were barraged by resumes from people we didn’t know.  We wanted to hire people who would learn to understand our very particular service offering.

I had been through frustrating work experiences where people didn’t respond to me, even to say “no.”  That hadn’t felt good.

We decided to respond to everyone.   And to add something to the process, we offered free services to every applicant.   My thought was that we’d talk with them after they had sampled our wares, and see if they “got” us.

This turned out to be a very effective screen for us:  almost nobody came in.  It wasn’t overly efficient on the front end; I wrote individual emails and made phone calls.

On the back end, though, we avoided a costly interview process with people who couldn’t be bothered to use our services for free:  people who didn’t really want to work for us.

Later, I had a hideous experience interviewing with a large consulting firm.  It involved automation, and unskilled interviewers.

I didn’t get the job.  (This was a good outcome, for all concerned.)

The bad taste left in my mouth disinclines me to recommend this firm, years later.   Fortunately for them, I don’t purchase multi-million dollar consulting contracts.

Bad, automated front-end experiences with people who might be customers:   a bad idea.

Some parts of the hiring process can be automated.  Many firms don’t send rejection letters.  Why not?   It would be simple to automate, and in a well-mannered way.   A polite “no” could even engender appreciation.

Last week, a Paul Graham blog post was re-tweeted, uh, everywhere.   He talked about the importance of doing things that don’t scale.   (He gave a shout out to a firm that wrote thank you notes.   I’m a sucker for a thank you.)

Your hiring process can build relationships, or it can tear them down.

And because work is about relationships, and not transactions, your hiring process is a good place to do things that don’t scale.

Especially when you might want applicants to be your customers, too.

Photo: Hanson Bros. Scale 04.06.09 [96] by timlewisnm under Creative Commons license

The A Player: Meme or Mantra?

So, I read on the internets that 20th century management sage Peter Drucker had a habit of asking executives whether they had any “dead wood” on their teams*.

Execs would usually confess to harboring under-performers.  Then, Drucker would supposedly ask, did you hire your under-performers, or did they stop performing once they hit your shop?

I smell a related meme.

People who are growing teams have been telling me,  “A Players attract A Players.   B players attract C Players.   So I only want to hire A Players.”  (It might be more of a mantra than a meme.)

When someone’s not performing, it’s tempting to decide they’re a “C-player.”   In this view, performance is a fixed characteristic.

It’s like like being tall, or having brown eyes.  They were born that way.   And when you hired them, they fooled you.

Hmmm.   Where’s the manager in all of this?

The A Player terminology seems to be lifted out of the Topgrading paradigm, in sort of a warped way.

“Topgrading” is a method designed by Geoff and Brad Smart, most recently described in Who: The A Method for Hiring.

It’s simple.   Figure out what you really want before you even interview.  Then, ask the right questions to see whether a candidate fits the bill.


Though my own methods differ from the topgrading approach, we largely agree.

  • Hiring is a huge investment in money and time.
  • Thoughtful, well planned hiring is all too rare.
  • Most firms don’t execute on a truly consistent process.
  • Many very skilled senior professionals don’t know how to interview candidates.
  • And even minor improvements — like taking time to gain internal agreement on job responsibilities — make a big difference.

I don’t think that the Smarts would describe people who don’t fit into your company as Losers.

When you hired someone over an internal candidate, and probably paid them a premium, you thought they were an “A Player.”  Right?

Recent research by Wharton’s Matthew Bidwell points out that external hires often don’t perform at expected levels; it’s tough to retain them, too.  You don’t always get a good return on your investment.

And this doesn’t just happen at large firms.  Faced with challenges assimilating new managers, Twitter’s Dick Costolo has taken to teaching an internal management course himself.   Wired‘s Michael V. Copeland reports:

 As managers were piling in from places like Google and eBay or promoted from within Twitter, Costolo saw a consistent Twitter management style evaporate. “I realized that all my managers were managing differently,” Costolo says.

Performance is about more than skills.  Cultural fit and management support are critically important.

Successful people can falter when they move to another company — we read this story about A Players over and over in the business press.

There are any number of reasons that someone might not perform well in a job.

And yet, there are two main reasons that an employee can’t do a job:  they don’t have the skills; or, they don’t fit into your culture.

It’s kind of a Loser move to call someone you hired a “low performer” or “C player.”   Whether you hired them, or whether you made them, they’re your responsibility.

“A Player” is jargon, a shorthand for the perfect candidate — someone who’s got the skills and cultural fit, and who’s extremely likely to perform to meet or exceed your expectations.

Finding them requires your effort and focus.  You’ve got to define the job, its expected outcomes, and the skills and interpersonal attributes required to be successful.  You have to have the right conversations to identify them and bring them on board.

But when they join your team, your work’s not done.   Facilitating their success is your responsibility.

Managing isn’t like throwing someone into the water and letting them sink or swim.

A team’s coach makes sure that players are drafted, trained, outfitted, briefed about the opponent, and on the field when they need to be.   That’s management.

If you want use the A Player terminology without stereotyping people based on a meme, do read Who, or its less conversational prequel, Topgrading: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method That Turbocharges Company Performance.

Then, apply the method.   Not just the mantra.

(*This is one of those stories that smells potentially apocryphal.  Just saying.)

Loser, by bre pettis, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License