The “Ying and Yang” of hiring traits

Doing something a bit different today (and a bit of a confession before we start – it is a long read today.  I thought about doing it in two parts — everybody likes a serial — but didn’t make sense this time….so please accept my somewhat “sorry, not sorry” regrets, bear with me, and away we go.)

I’m stepping away from the whole Digital & Customer Experience sphere to talk about something completely different (and not in a “Monty Python-sque” kind of way.)

And I hope this whole piece doesn’t come off as self-congratulatory or conceited in any way – it is just observations I’ve picked up along the journey to where I find myself.  Maybe it helps someone or spurs a thought – maybe it doesn’t.   I’m just throwing it out there for points of view and further debate and discussion if nothing else.

My current thoughts for writing this are spurred by all the discussion points on LinkedIn about interviewing for jobs, what you look for in applicants, what candidates can do on “their first 100 days in the job”, etc.  There seem to be an abundant number of articles and run up on the topic at the moment as people look to start either new jobs or crank up the job hunting exercise in the New Year.

So I thought I’d look at the subject from my perspective and past history – granted it is not a deep pool of knowledge to deal with as I’ve only probably hired 250-300 people directly over my career (most likely a lot more…but erring on the conservative side of things.)

All that being said, given all the situations I’ve found myself in (especially since I spent 15+ years of my career being “a hired gun” for a number of companies and global consulting houses); and as I build out my new company, I’m fascinated by all the discussion around the various aspects of the endeavour.

Particularly with the fact that an endless number of employee engagement surveys in the news lately that tell us a vast majority of the workplace don’t like their jobs – other than it allows them money to live life.

So how do you find the “right people” to make your company not only run, but grow, thrive and prosper?  What are the traits that will make the magic happen?

When I look at a prospective candidate (aside from the obvious aspects that everyone will state – and makes their candidate sound like a golden retriever – “honest, loyal, sits well, plays well with others, etc.”) the one aspect I look at is that I seem to take a “Ying/Yang” type of acknowledgment to the process – and thus is the framework of this particular article.

The trait I look for, explore most, and relish like a well-mined diamond is ambition, while the one that I find prevalent in my past sadly is entitlement.  I’ll chat about the latter first as that is probably the more engaging one.

As I’ve written before here, having worked for a string of large holding company advertising/marketing agencies across the globe for almost two decades, I find the worst trait of that particular industry as a whole (and is most likely one of the factors quickening their demise in the eyes of their clients) is that the person feels that the agency is lucky to have their presence in the building – and if they don’t feel special enough, they can find another shop who will appreciate them to the level of their expectation.

To frame it in a modern day methodology, it is probably the same feeling that people of an older generation have about the thoughts of employing “millennials” at the moment (or at least that is the angst you pick up in people mentioned when they write about current hiring trends.)

I have numerous stories that can illustrate this particular nuance – but a couple of them stick out like a sore thumb – and therefore making them epic in my book.  Let’s give a couple of them a spin….

I had just started at this agency (I believe I was wrapping up the end of the first week of the gig), not only running a small department of 40+, but most of the accounts across the entire agency from a digital perspective as well (as the general account management staff was lacking in pretty much any sense of digital knowledge – stop me if this rings a bell for any digital people reading who work(ed) in “integrated agencies”.)

That particular morning, I was sitting at my desk and one of the junior people in the agency came up to me and requested to solve a particular problem for them.  I asked them a few initial questions and realised it was ultimately a project management issue – and asked the person to go to talk to the PM assigned to the task to find out the details and work up a solution.

They returned a few minutes later – more than a bit flustered.  I asked what the issue was – and was given this response:

“Nigel (not his real name) doesn’t think he has to worry about it.  He only has three weeks left at the agency, he has another job lined up and he is going to let the next PM worry about it.”


So I went to have a chat with “Nigel” at his desk – who pretty much reiterated the same storyline back to me without any sense of shame or regret – three weeks left until contract runs out, don’t really have to worry about it – someone else will have to deal with it.

Being new at the job, I wanted to make a quick decision right then and there – but of course, had to go through the right channels – so I spoke to his direct supervisor (as I was instructed to by the head of HR) – and spoke with the head of the project management department.

“Tell Nigel to pack up his stuff in a hurry, he’s going home in the next five minutes.  Not sure what happens in regards to the next three weeks – I’ll let HR sort that out – but he won’t be spending it here.”

My thought was that he wouldn’t be getting paid for the next three weeks and he could do whatever the hell he wanted until he started his new job – but didn’t know the particulars of what the HR policy was, and at that point, I didn’t care.  Nigel was out on his arse as far as I was concerned.  I wanted to tell him the news myself – but apparently that wasn’t the “correct procedural way of doing things.” (or as I’ll now dub it “The Proper British Way.”)

I thought that might help clarify the problem and nip these types of issues in the bud – what could go wrong when you fire someone who is refusing to do their job because “they don’t feel like it” – alas it was just the start of a worrying trend.

I was quite lucky that I got to hire more than a few good people during my time there (who soon left after I did it seems – and most don’t work for agencies anymore), but we continually ran into issues over the course of my time there, particularly with the “legacy staff” (the ones that had been there for years and either didn’t like, or feared, change.)

If they were creative staff, it was not their problem that the site didn’t launch on time…it was project management, or technology, or account management.  Pick any of those departments and question why things weren’t going to plan, and it was a rotating wheel of excuses to blame other people and other departments.

In other words, no sense of accepting blame or responsibility for anyone or anything was standard operating procedure — or “culture” as it is now dubbed.  Frank & honest chats were out it seems – the sole thought I have upon reflection is that these people wouldn’t have survived five minutes in the halls of Microsoft in the early 90’s (my longest-standing client, so I often use them as a point of reference.)

One of my strengths I have strong self-believe in (and others may tell you differently, I don’t know) is I can recognise when someone isn’t a right fit for the role in which they have been cast – which leads me to my second anecdote.

I was asked by the regional CEO of the agency during the preliminary interview process to help assess the agency as a whole, and the employees as part of that review – and was more than on board with it.

The agency had been badly leaking both big name clients and revenue over the previous three years – which at the time was a massive sin as “digital” was supposed to open new doors for agencies at the time, not weld them shut; and the CEO stated that he was looking to reform this quickly – or so he instructed me upon my hiring.

Having helped to successfully reverse the trend at a few stops in my career already, I was more than keen for the challenge.  Which brings us to the next chapter in the saga.

The individual at the same agency who was leading the technology team (let’s call him “Tom” – not his real name either) was not the right person for the job – I knew it, I believe he knew it and his co-workers definitely knew it.

He was a “nice guy”, but ill-equipped for the particular needs of the position – he had limited leadership skills, he was uncomfortable speaking with clients and answering their questions, and was more interested in sitting (hiding?) behind his monitor writing code eight to ten hours a day than helping to foster, mentor and grow his team – which I had documented plans on doubling in size over the next six months.  He was the technology lead for the agency simply because he’d had the longest tenure in the department, not because he had the skills to do so.

I let the CEO know by both speaking with him and documenting it, that this was going to be an issue by the start of my second week at the engagement – of course, I pretty much knew at the conclusion of my second day after speaking with Tom, the members of his department and a few others in the “digital wing”, but didn’t want to be seen as pushing it too much in the early days.)

And the CEO, at the time in apparent consultation with the HR department, decided not to do anything about it at the time for one reason or another.

Fast forward three months in the future, and I’m helping to consult on an ill-fated pitch several time zones away in another part of the world – as part of a global agency network team, which includes my regional CEO travelling along with us for some unknown reason.

We are in a car the night before the pitch, on the way back from dinner, and the CEO gets a call from his deputy back at the agency.  There is a major technical issue with a client’s project — and “Tom” has rejected the requests of the deputy CEO to help decipher it, and insisted on going home at the regularly appointed hour like it was any other normal day.

I was handed the mobile phone in the back of the car in an apparent attempt to resolve the issue.   After 30-40 minutes and several calls to numerous people across the agency, I manage to not completely resolve the issue, but at least strap a band-aid on it by recruiting a couple technical resources who were currently contracting at the agency to help out Tom – who finally agrees to help out himself….as long as he is given time in lieu.

The CEO, with no apparent irony, at the end of the evening’s proceedings elects to hold me fully responsible for the issue ever breaking out – even though I previously had nothing to do with the project at all, having never even heard of it before the phone call (it was an assignment that had been run by a different department in the agency– one that usually didn’t have many dealings with the digital side of thing – but apparently had been using digital technical resources for months without my knowledge.  Read what you want into that as your own risk.)

But the CEO decides the next morning, over breakfast at the hotel, that I finally be allowed to look for a new technical director.  The rub of the whole thing, in retrospect, was the timing of it, and I was never able to confirm the facts that led up to the decision.

I do know that Tom resigned over the issue as he didn’t like the stress of being relied upon.  I’m not sure whether this resignation took place that first night after he agreed to help (and therefore the CEO knew about it), or it took place upon further reflection by Tom at a later date.

But I was informed when I returned to the office three days later that he would be leaving – but serving out his three months notice period first (dead man walking!) unless he got another position at a different company first.  Once again, in retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t hear Tom arrive at the office every day from miles away – what with those massive set of steel balls he had developed with that stance.

The “Ying” to this hypothetical “Yang” is the trait of ambition.   People exchange ideas about one having ambition or being ambitious – but it seems to be mostly talk – or discussed like ambition is like the classic Wall Street stance of the word; in which you’d stab your friend in the back to get ahead and look good to your bosses in the hopes of promotion.

Sure, in simple everyday terms, it has roots in “working until the job is done…not because the clock tells you it’s time to go home” – but there are several other aspects to it – both clearly stated, and those implied – at least from my perspective.

You have to be naturally curious of course, have the ability to not only answer questions, but also ask the difficult ones of your co-workers and clients, and you have to have conviction (or to use an earlier term, “have to have balls” – just not as big as Tom’s it seems.)

To quote a long-held digital parlance (and sure to come back upon the latest film release of a particular movie franchise this week), you have be almost “Jedi”-like about it (although I wish they take the terms “jedi”, “ninja”, “rock star” and other stupid nomenclature and bury them at the bottom the sea…but that’s to discuss on another day.)

You have to have foresight, but also be able to back up what your opinions are, why you have that train of thought, and then the various abilities to explain them to your audience.  It is not an easy requirement to be met in my eyes – but when you find it, it is worth its weight in gold.

My first real business mentor and I started up a company a couple of decades ago – and as co-founders, we “boot strapped” our way to having a fairly first successful year – growing the company from the two of us to over 50 employees in just under six months.

Our first hire as a company was a lead technical developer – who actually made more in salary than either of us did in our first year – for the main fact that he was the aforementioned “Jedi” characters.

You could put him in a room and he could explain what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it and how it worked from start to finish – be it to another developer or the CEO of the client.  He could help other developers, mentor them, discuss, learn and teach them techniques he knew.  He could sit with creatives, project managers, planners, etc. and have a logical conversation that all of them could understand as he related what he hoped to do and discuss their concerns with empathy.

He was certainly worth more to the success of our company in the first month than either myself or my partner – and we recognised it (it also helped that we had both worked with him before too.)

He had ambition in that not only did he know what he needed to do his job, but was willing to learn different aspects of what wouldn’t be considered his job.  You never got the “this is not in my job description” from him – he was willing to give it a go, use the whole occurrence as a learning experience now, and apply it going forward as well.

Of course, there are hundreds of variables that going into getting the “right hire” (whatever criteria that fits are left to the individual to decide up) but these are just a couple that struck me as I read what others are articulating.

So what are the traits you most desire/abhor when you look to hire a candidate?


Fun side note:  About a year after I left that position at the agency, I was referred by a few contacts to a “pure play digital agency” that was in “some trouble” (read: a massive amount of shite of their own doing, as told to me by a wide variety of sources through my network.)

I met with the regional CEO in their offices a couple of times, and we had a good frank chat where he mentioned he could use my help in a variety of ways as a consultant to get the agency “back on track.”

After some fruitful and probing initial discussions, I received an email back from the CEO a couple of weeks after our last meeting – apparently “Nigel” worked there – and didn’t have nice things to say about me (shocking!)

I instructed the CEO as to the actual back story of my interactions with Nigel, but never heard anything back from that point. Coincidentally, the particular agency no longer exists in any way, shape or form – flamed out in a massive explosion of even further lost clients and disappointing work that continued soon after our meetings (so happy to miss the implosion on a first-hand basis if nothing else.)  It was such a rolling shitshow, the entire global network of agency offices were wiped from the face of the earth by its holding company a few years ago.

Nigel also continues to this day to tell untruths on his LinkedIn profile about the level of seniority, his responsibilities and title of his position when he worked for me – another shocker!

The fun world that advertising is – there is an inside joke on how incestuous it is as you are more than likely to run into those you cross paths with more than a few times in your career.

With the digital aspect being new (as “new” as the past twenty years can seem – particularly when three years’ experience can delusionally classify you as an “expert” in the agency world) it only makes it worse.  One of the (too numerous) reasons I pulled the plug on working with/for agencies.

As one of my business partners eloquently says the single biggest inhibitor to success is being willing to tolerate mediocrity” – and that is the agency world in spades over the past two decades – with no end in sight going forward.

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