The Value of Great Talent

How important is it to hire the right people? I think we all agree that we want to hire good staff, but defining what makes someone “right” can be difficult. Do they need to already have the technical knowledge or skills your job requires, or do they just need to be teachable? How important is it that they work well in a team environment, and how good does their spelling and grammar need to be? What about their oral communication skills? Is a college degree paramount, and if not, what other factors will you evaluate?

I’ll be writing a number of articles about hiring, interviewing, and personnel selection to tackle all of these questions, but in this blog post I want to step back a bit and lay the foundation. Doing a good job at hiring staff is incredibly important because great staff make a huge difference for your team and work. If you evaluate staff on a 1-5 scale, with acceptable performance being a 3, you might think that someone who is a 5 is about twice as good as the average staff member. In reality, that person may be ten times better, despite you paying them the same amount.

This idea that a great employee is ten times more productive than a mediocre employee, both quantitatively and qualitatively, comes from both The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks and from my own observation. In my current position, I have about forty part-time staff and seven full-time staff, and I track their work closely just as Brooks and others that he writes about tracked their staff.

I oversee a service center, so I look at issues resolved, time to resolution, and the amount of initiative a person demonstrates by taking work on without asking. Averages become obvious when you track data like that, as do outliers.

For Brooks, he was looking at lines of code written combined with the effectiveness of that code. As a software engineer and a lead person in the development of an operating system, Mr. Brooks was overseeing a lot of people and a lot of work, and efficiency was key. Someone who got the job done at an acceptable level was certainly contributing, but an employee who was better would write up to ten times the amount of code. For Brooks, “better” was a difficult thing to communicate, but he pulled no punches: the better programmer is smarter and more diligent, and both of those qualities were necessary to be ten times better than other employees.

There is no professional development tool or appraisal and development plan that can help your employees become smarter. You can provide them education and professional development opportunities, but some people will do better than others, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. Because we can’t change a person’s base intelligence, we oughtn’t worry too much about it. There are other factors we can control, and those have to do with how we manage people.

This means that if we want to have great staff, or even good staff, we need to do two things. First, ideally, we’d hire great people. Fred Brooks would argue that hiring great people exclusively is the way to go because they are so much more productive than the average employee, but I think a case can be made that every employee needn’t be great, and I’ll write about that elsewhere. Second, we need to help our existing staff become better.

This blog post is the first in a series on hiring great talent, developing your employees, and managing your workforce. As more posts are written, you’ll see them automatically added to the series box at the top of this post, as well as all other posts in the series.


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