John Fremlin's blog: How B players hire C players

Posted 2018-03-18 23:00:00 GMT

Jack Welch, GE CEO popularized segmenting workers into letter groups: A players (top 20%), B players (70%) and C players (bottom 10%). Steve Jobs is popularly quoted, A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn't take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.

I've been on interview loops for hundreds of candidates at companies that claim to want to hire the best. Out of those hundreds of interviews a few really outstanding candidates come up. We manage to get them rarely. If our aim is to hire the best, why do we often fail?

Often, an interviewer will have a negative reaction to the candidate, leaving feedback like aced the interview but don't want to work with them. This makes it difficult to justify a strong effort to hire. Once, I was on a loop with a superstar candidate. I and several others noted that. One of the other interviewers was a famous figure in an academic branch of engineering. The interviewee argued with the famous figure. It seemed to me that the candidate was probably right but the interviewer was so offended we couldn't extend an offer.

For nearly every firm, there are people who are much better and much worse for the job than those working there. The quote about A players hiring A players is justified with the idea that somehow people at the top won't mind hiring people better than them — as they might be more confident and willing to embrace challenging points of view. I don't think that's always true as the example above suggests.

A thought experiment that I've found useful is to imagine how a superstar candidate would experience the interview. I liked to bring this up when training interviewers. The questions would be super easy and interviewers themselves would make basic mistakes. How could such a candidate communicate in a way that did not appear arrogant?

Well I found out. I once interviewed such a senior candidate. I was asking a systems design question. The candidate would easily complete designs based on my suggestions but was cautious about suggesting anything himself. It was a little confusing as he was obviously very capable and knew how to design for all the different trade-offs I could think up. I felt I was missing something and gave him very positive feedback. The other feedback showed him acing the coding interviews. This superstar wasn't dinged for arrogance — he'd carefully avoided mentioning mistakes made by the interviewers. Unfortunately, he wasn't enthusiastic about joining our company — understandably. He would have been working with people much less capable.

This is a hard reality to reconcile with wanting to hire the best. People better than you might not want to work with you. Much more comfortable to hire those who do — but the benefits of a little humility can be extraordinary!

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