Two of my favorite blogs are written by Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz (founders of the new VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz). Both individuals have impressive track records building companies and investing in the next big thing at just the right time. Ben Horowitz recently wrote a post titled, “Hiring Executives: If You’ve Never Done the Job, How Do You Hire Somebody Good?"

While this post offers great advice, such as, “It is imperative that you hire for strength rather than lack of weakness,” and, “backdoor reference checks can be an extremely useful way to get an unbiased view,” it doesn’t address one of the biggest pitfalls in executive hiring. That pitfall is what I call the “hiring someone without enough horsepower” trap.

This pitfall is dangerous because it is MUCH easier to find someone who is “okay” than to find someone who is “great.” Over the past few years Bomgar has grown significantly (33% in 2010 alone), and that has led us to do a significant amount of hiring. While some openings have been for individual contributors in various groups, just as many have been for strategic positions where the right fit is critical and where I am personally involved in the hiring process. In an effort to combat the tendency to hire the first person that is “good enough” or “should be able to do the job,” I’ve started to listen for specific verbal queues when I debrief with those involved in the hiring process. If I find myself and others using certain terms to describe the candidate my thinking is “let’s get ‘em.” If I hear and feel other descriptors, it usually means “time to pass.”

What are those verbal descriptors? Here is a list of questions with the words I listen for in bold/underline:
Can the following questions be answered in the resounding affirmative?
-Is this person truly outstanding and the best in the world at what they do?
-Is this person THE strategic hire that I/we originally envisioned for this position?
-Is there a consensus that this individual is a slam-dunk / perfect fithome run?
-Is this a person we would want our kids to work for some day?
-And my favorite: Would I/we describe this person as game-changing to our organization?
On the flip side there are certain phrases that trigger my “time to pass” reflex.  These quotes include, “they could definitely ‘do the job’, but…” or “there may be someone better, but it might take a long time to find them…” or any other feedback that isn’t laced with a bunch of enthusiasm. Inevitably the person who could “probably do the job” can’t, and you lose 18 months with the wrong person because you “didn’t want to spend months searching.” (By the way, you have to do the search anyway; you just do it 18 months later.)
Another good test is how you feel the next day. A great question to ask yourself is, “Am I still completely pumped about hiring this person, or has my enthusiasm waned?”
In summary, the biggest trap in strategic hiring is hiring someone who doesn’t have the horsepower to be “game-changing,” because someone who does have the horsepower to change the game is always really hard to find.  It is worth the wait. And with that, Happy Hiring!

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Joel Bomgar