My wife is an elegant, well-educated, well-read woman. She is also a grand southern lady, though, and in addition to all the good this brings into my life, it sometimes leads to humor. Every so often, she breaks out a “southernism” that cracks me up. For example, when we were considering how we might finish some work on our house, she once said, “Let’s just hire it done!” She said this with such an accent that it caught me off-guard. Trust me, some strong kissing ensued! I love the southern in my wife.
Now, I mention this phrase because I’m concerned about a bad tendency in some hiring I’ve witnessed recently. Firms today want their senior execs to be strong in a huge variety of areas. They want them to be good speakers, great at PR, skilled at fundraising, experts in accounting, knowledgeable in HR, technologically adept, up to speed in all legal matters, masters of the specific work of the company, great dancers—well, you get the point.
The problem is that they end up with generalists rather than skilled and exceptional specialists. In other words, they can end up with execs that are a mile wide and an inch deep, execs who are jacks of all trades but masters of none. A friend of mine calls these kind of people Swiss Army Knives, people who have many blades and tools but usually only of medium or low quality.
I’m not trying to be insulting. There is a place for the generalists in this world. I consider myself a generalist. Yet if firms only hire generalists—Swiss Army Knives—they won’t have the stellar, finely-honed, specific skills all firms need in order to succeed.
I know of a university that is looking for a president. I’m sure they are looking for a good-looking person who can raise money and raise the profile of the school as well. There is nothing wrong with this. Yet this school already has a temporary president in place who is wise, experienced in growing academic programs, skilled at leading both faculties and students, expert in accreditation processes and, by the way, a fine professor and scholar. He’s just not a natural at the glad-handing and flashy people skills. What this school should do is keep this man in place and when it comes to the PR side of the job, “hire it done.”
In other words, they shouldn’t lose the depth and skill of a man just because he isn’t a generalist—just because he doesn’t have every feature of a university board’s dream candidate. Turn him lose at what he does well and as for the rest, “hire it done.”
This is one of the arts of hiring. We find good people. We deploy them in their strengths. We set them in teams so their weaknesses are rounded out by people of complementary skills. All else we contract out. Successful firms take all types—introverts and extroverts, geeky technicians and PR teams filled with big personalities, specialists who are one-dimensioned and generalists who can see the big picture and hold it all together.
Take a look at your hiring and ask yourself if you have moderate results because you hire generalists of moderate skill. Dare to hire the specialists. As for what they lack—in the immortal words of my southern wife—“hire it done.”