First Who, Then What

1. WHO 2. WHAT

Continuing on the path of understanding what makes good into great, the next step is understanding the value of the idea “First who, then what“. This is the third chapter of “Good to Great”.

For most companies, “what to do” is often considered more important than “who to do it”. It is very common for large companies to treat employees like interchangeable gears. Back at IBM they even had a term for people that did software. On charts, we were often referred to as Programmer Units. I’ve never forgotten this attitude that all programmers were the same. This kind of thinking is prevalent amongst management structures that every worker is the same caliber.

Unfortunately for everyone’s sake, this is not the truth. Also unfortunately, the decision to focus on “what” before “who” tends to skew the results towards failing. According to Jim Collins and his research team, “who” is always more important than “what”.

The logic is this. If a manager is looking to build the right team, he or she is going to have to find the right people for that team. Much like professional sports, the individuals have to fit together and have to be in the right jobs. As Jim states, you need not only to get the right people on the bus, but you also have to get the wrong people off the bus. Once you have the right people, you need to make sure they are seated in the right locations. This goal is tied to the level 5 leadership model since the leader needs to trust the team and have strong faith that most things will take care of themselves with the right people involved.

I can relate to this perspective from the early days of Citrix. We had very few people and were always constrained to hire very few engineers per year. The team we had was strong and even though we were very different people, we worked hard and worked exceptionally well together. We would often disagree but we would always come to a conclusion.

We had an interview process that was very picky. We didn’t want to hire the wrong people. We wanted obviously to bring in the right people and have they do the right things. It’s common sense really but you would be surprised how uncommon this thinking usually is. As part of the process we had the ability to veto people. It only took one dissenting vote to turn someone down. Of course, it was necessary to justify it and argue the point but it was the way things were done.

As a result, we hired some exceptional people. Most of these people made a large contribution to Citrix and some continue on to this day. Overall, we were hiring for Citrix’s future and this process payed off.

Back to “who then what”. If you decide to hire people this way, you will be allowing your company to grow in unexpected ways. A bus of the right people is able to tackle unknown markets much easier than the wrong people. In other words, the bus of talented people is able to navigate much easier through difficult times and wonderful opportunities. It is like you are hiring for any possible situation.

That is where “what” finally comes in. The best laid plans are often changed. Something which is good now might be terrible later. Conditions are always fluctuating. The universe is not constant. People can adapt much easier than a leader can plan for. You would need to be omnipresent to be fully aware of all the possible outcomes.

The point of this is that the right “who” can handle any “what”. Any “what” cannot be handled by any “who”. This is the fatal flaw for organizations that treat all “whos” the same. Replaceable units are a mixed bag really. The mixed bag is poorly suited to tackle the random whats that will be coming.

In related hiring ideas, don’t hire the genius unless he or she can work with the team. An island of intelligence is close to useless if there is no way to get there or back. Also, never hire someone that never admits to not knowing the answer to a question. It is healthy to admit not knowing things. It is extremely unhealthy to pretend for the sake of deception. If you have any doubts during the hiring process, don’t hire. Even in desperate conditions, hiring when you have doubts is going to be a waste of everyone’s time.

If there is a need for shifting people around or even firing, do not procrastinate. Everyone suffers when decisions are not made quickly.

Finally, throw your best people on the biggest opportunities instead of your biggest problems. Opportunities are always bigger potential growth areas and are also the most challenging to get going. Problems are important to solve but do not require your best people.

When I was involved with the interviewing process, I would typically ask very difficult questions. I didn’t expect to get a decent answer but I wanted to see how the interview candidate would approach the problem or idea. Some candidates would answer “find out from a book” which was always an instant turn off. Others would attempt to remember things from school. And the last group would answer using their minds.

I had a great deal of respect for the people that used their minds creatively. This fits in with the theory that it isn’t necessarily what you know but rather how you look at things that makes you the right kind of person. “Good to Great” classifies this as either innate abilities or character traits. Based on the research, these qualities had more strength than knowledge, skills, or background.

If you hire the right people, your company is on the path for great success. If you hire the wrong people, you bog your company down into the average. It seems like a very simple choice. I guess it depends on the environment that hires people. Obviously nobody wants to hire the wrong people, right?


Live near Brisbane, Australia. Software developer currently focused on iOS and Android. Avid Google Local Guide

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