Grist: Resisting the Power of Pedigree
BY Adam Hanft
In business, as in horseracing, good breeding can be overrated.
As much as we know that sports is a metaphor for who we are, sometimes you need to look beneath the obvious for the connections. So before Smarty Jones -- who recently lost the Belmont Stakes, and an underdog bid for the Triple Crown, by a length -- races into the mists of media memory, it must be said that there is an important lesson to be drawn from his rise out of obscurity. Similar instruction, in fact, emerges from the Cinderella success of Funny Cide, who came tantalizingly close to capturing the Triple Crown last year. The lesson, which belongs on the business pages, not the sports pages, is compelling: It's time to get beyond the breeding. It's bad for your company. And bad for the culture. Consider that neither Smarty Jones nor Funny Cide had the impeccable bloodlines that handicappers lust over. Funny Cide was bought for just $22,000. Smarty's sire, Elusive Quality, commanded a pocket-change stud fee of just $10,000. And, as we know by now, Smarty's jockey and trainer were journeymen, knockabouts, with more grit than glamour on their resumes.
Why is it that we love these scrappy narratives but only after the initial burst of success? We're conflicted, you see. On the one hand, we're programmed to believe in the power of the pedigree. On the other, we cherish the underdog. But in our own business lives, we tend to make decisions based on the conservative calculus of breeding. How many of us have the courage -- or intuition -- to hire the Funny Cides and Smarty Joneses of our industries when they trot into our offices with talent and passion but not pedigree?
The short answer is, not enough -- and that's both ideologically and practically wrong. If we're true entrepreneurs, if we are truly trying to create a new and different business culture, then why are our stables all too populated by those who went to the brand-name colleges and worked for the brand-name companies? Part of it is the ADD world we live in -- the right school and employment history are a quick sales pitch. They go down easy. The long-shot approach is more difficult, more of a gamble.
Take Matt, a really smart marketing guy who works for me. When I introduce Matt to clients and tell them he's a graduate of Harvard Business School, I generally don't need to say much more. Matt is now vetted. Now, the fact is that Matt is terrific at what he does. But part of me feels guilty for taking the easy way out. I'm like the horseplayer who only bets on favorites when I should be working harder to find the other Matts out there, bred on less glamorous farms.
And in truth, when I look back, many of the best people I've hired graduated from schools without the marquee names you see decaled on rear windows by proud parents. Or have labored at companies you've never heard of. The reason they succeeded isn't just that they were good. They also had something to prove: that they were more thorough than the thoroughbreds. In much the same way, we sensed, imponderably, that Smarty Jones and Funny Cide understood their own lack of privilege. By contrast, some of my worst experiences have been with the people from the best schools. When I told a friend about this column, he e-mailed me back and said, "See! Your legion of Ivy League ex-assistants weren't entirely worthless."
These are some of the practical reasons to be pedigree-agnostic. The ideological reason is that every entrepreneurial venture is really a Smarty Jones in its own right. You're battling against competitors who look superior on paper, who are bigger brands in whatever industry you call home. How can we ask our potential clients to see us for what we're worth if we don't extend the same legacy-free objectivity to the people we hire? And once you find, hire, and promote your own Smarty Joneses, watch them capture the imagination of your company and the media that cover it.
Geneticists at Texas A&M are currently working on a project to identify genetic markers for successful racehorses by pulling apart their DNA. That's one research project I'm rooting against. There's nothing more wondrous than talent emerging from unexpected sources. It makes both business and ethical sense to seek it out. Yes, building an organization that way involves a degree of risk. But with the vast majority of new businesses failing anyway, if you were going to play the odds you wouldn't be reading me right now.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited Inc., a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.