Rethinking Hire People Smarter Than You

Tips on Building a Diverse and High Performance Startup Team from Brandy Alexander-Wimberly.

“Hire people smarter than you.” It’s an old saying that might need a refresh. Because in the business and technology space, what really matters most when it comes to hiring talent, is knowing how to build a good team.

As a tech startup founder and digital strategist, I’ve been around the block with all sorts of team dynamics and have had to hire people and fire people along the way. So, I can spot team players and bad attitudes fairly quickly. This is important for founders to understand because your team is often more important than your product when it comes to things like raising capital, sales, marketing and morale.

So often startup founders and technology brands focus on “smarts” – an Ivy League education, test scores, big brand pedigree, honors and awards. Nix that.

There are a few personas you should be on the lookout for as you build your team. There are some to steer clear of and some personas that I believe add more value to a team than straight up smarts.

Hire:

The Expert

Hire people with focused expertise that can help to round out your team. Find the best experts you can afford, even if that means hiring remote teams. Each role on an assembly line, robot or otherwise, has a defined goal. Knowledge workers sometimes lose this type of perspective and efficiency. But there is merit in focus and experts often come to the table with intelligence and a passion for their work. Seems obvious, but experts don’t work 9-5. It takes time to truly become an expert at your craft, and that extra effort requires drive, another positive attribute.

Debbie Details

She’s like Debbie Downer, but for details. Every team needs a person who is ready and willing to dig into spreadsheets, write super long recap emails and know where the bodies are buried. Count on her for the nitty gritty, not necessarily the big picture thinking. But that’s ok because this person can do well really understanding how to move the ship forward. Negatives here are because they are so detail oriented, it’s hard to keep them out of the weeds.

High EQ

The “hire smarter people” idea should include soft skills too, the IQ versus EQ factor. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is essentially the ability read other people and react appropriately. The enhanced ability to communicate well with other people is often more important than anything else. But the saying, “hire people that communicate better than you” hasn’t caught on yet.

The Collaborators

You may be lucky enough to find yourself on a team, leading a team or with a co-founder in which expertise, intelligence and passion are valued and mutual respect is inherent. This is the best situation. Pairing people with like-minded enthusiasm and complementary skills is nirvana. Teams that work well together feed off of each other’s positivity and passion. These are the types of teams that can truly disrupt their marketplace.

The Mentor

If you have been fortunate enough to have built your career and are able to lead junior level colleagues, you’re in a good space. Being a mentor is invaluable. The idea of “sending the elevator back down” should always be a component of your own success. Should you hire someone more seasoned than yourself? Absolutely.

Red Flags:

The Genius

I was actually in a meeting once and someone said, “I just blew my own mind.” If you’re picking up that this person’s biggest fan is themself, steer clear. A persona like this is constantly looking for validation, is prone to thinking they’re above the rules and doesn’t take constructive criticism well. They’re often talented, but they’re not the next Steve Jobs, except maybe when they look in the mirror. Hiring someone that displays this type of behavior is a risk because they usually don’t play well with others.

The Gossip

If you’re interviewing someone and they say something negative about their former or current employer, this is a red flag. Someone prone to backstabbing their employers will do it to their colleagues as well. Opening up your team to gossip is somewhat inevitable, but there are gross violators that easily fall into office politics and it never benefits anyone. A few simple questions during an interview will tell you quickly if this person is risk.

The Bully

This person is constantly in a pissing contest with colleagues and when they feel threatened they lash out and cause trouble. When forming your team be on the alert for the self described  “A-Player” without a clear case history of others who agree. This type of personality does well as a manager, but not a leader.

The Trophy Case

This person expects a participation trophy for showing up and probably had helicopter parents. They’re generally young and maybe fresh out of school. They come with a degree, not much experience, but a whole suitcase of demands as if their BS in Economics is a one-way ticket to an executive’s salary and a corner office. Have them call mom because they didn’t get the job.

Excuses, Excuses

I once had an intern that didn’t show up for work because her grandmother ran over a dog. Super sad for grandma and the dog, but is that really a reason to blow off your job? Sure people get sick, but weekly? There are certain personas that are prone to excuses for everything from missing work to missing details. This one is not so easy to pick up on during the interview process, but quickly shows itself early on in the job.

Look at any sports team (yes, the good old sports analogy), the coach looks for specific players to fulfill a role. The athlete doesn’t need to play every position really well. Team building should follow the same philosophy.

While many power players in the tech space may have come from the typical top-tier schools, using that criteria as No.1 defeats the philosophy of building your team. With this model you limit diversity and you’re potentially missing the chance to hire team players that offer valuable “street smarts” and “people smarts”. In the business world, being able to produce is more important than scoring well on standardized tests. So, you need to find a balance.

Should the quote, “hire people smarter than you” get a makeover? I think so and I’d like to suggest we reimagine it to: “hire people who are really good at what they do and can communicate well with other people.”

Maybe then we can add more diversity of gender, culture, color and prioritize EQ over IQ to build teams that can truly knock it out of the park.

Brandy Alexander-Wimberly is an independent technology writer, startup founder and digital marketing strategist. Her work has appeared in Women 2.0, Inc., Fast Company, VentureBeat and Internet Retailer. You can find her blog at www.siliconrustbelt.com and follow her on Twitter @siliconrustbelt.