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How to Make Smart Hires, Even if You're CEO

CEOs are generally the worst people to do their company's hiring. But most entrepreneurs want to do this themselves. Here's how.

As your company grows, the most important and hardest decisions will be those about who gets hired and who gets fired. Forget what you hear about technology giving companies a competitive advantage. The only sustainable competitive advantage is provided by talented, committed and passionate people.

Unfortunately, CEOs are among the worst possible people to do their company’s hiring. This nugget comes courtesy of my friend Jay Goltz, a successful Chicago serial entrepreneur. Jay notes that CEOs tend to be:

  • Short on time, and often, distracted
  • Bad listeners. They’re always selling themselves and their businesses rather than asking and learning about the job candidate
  • Too good-natured and trusting, and not skeptical enough to ask the hard questions. 

Yet most entrepreneurs at least want to have a hand in hiring. How can you give yourself a fighting chance of doing a good job? Here are a few ideas and rules that have helped me over the years:

Check the facts. Nicely.

People lie on their resumes all the time. So it’s perfectly reasonable to ask detailed questions about a resume and to take everything on it with at least a grain of salt. It is not perfectly reasonable, however, to assume the worst about someone simply because you find something on his or resume to be a bit puzzling.

For years, I looked younger than my age. I once flew to France for a huge meeting involving millions of dollars. I walked into the room and was treated so shabbily by these folks that I was dumbfounded. I had lunch and went right back to the airport and flew home. I later learned that when my alleged business partners first saw me, they didn’t think I was old enough to have done everything listed on my resume. Instead, they instantly decided I had been lying. I wasn’t. It was a real lesson in managing information and expectations.

Look for accomplishments, not credentials

Degrees are nice to have, but a candidate’s ability to get things done is what matters. There are plenty of “smart” people out there who aren’t people smart. If the new person can’t get along with the natives as part of an effective and collaborative team, then his or her book smarts don’t mean squat.

Look for the best person for the job, not the best person

Too many CEOs think that they should hire any great person who comes along, and figure out a good job for them later. As important as it is to have super-talented people, trying to “warehouse” them is a losing strategy. Get a clear job description, understand the criteria for a successful candidate, and fill that particular job.

There are no easy jobs

Every candidate should have the basic required skills. But the right prospects are the ones who have the ability to get the job done. Ability is the result of mental and physical toughness, resourcefulness, and powerful concentration.

Age and wisdom are not the same

At some point, young or first-time CEOs often think they need to add some “grown-ups” to the management mix. This is a sure sign that they’re scared. They’re scared of being alone and responsible; scared of being in way over their heads; and scared that they’re going to screw things up. These hires generally fail miserably, because the new person doesn’t have the requisite energy and enthusiasm, isn’t comfortable with the rest of the employees, starts off by criticizing the way the entrepreneurs runs the business, or is just way too focused on financial and compensation issues. Beware.


IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Sep 19, 2012


Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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