All the business owners I know spend more time worrying about their people than about any other single issue. How to find great people, how to keep them engaged and productive. Every one of them has made a bad hire and they're haunted by the memory. I don't blame them; I am too. So I've spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong.

Let's call the bum hire Bill. Bill was recommended to me by a seasoned executive I admired--and still admire. He'd led a big sales team for an established software business for years and he had always outperformed his targets. He was fearless and well-connected. There wasn't, I was assured, a door Bill couldn't open. My company was young, unknown and I knew we needed help getting attention and credibility. Bill seemed just the thing.

When I met Bill, I was a little confused. He seemed to spend a lot of time talking about himself, not his company, not his customers, not his products. He also seemed to have phenomenal ideas about who we were and where we were going. They sounded exciting but I wondered where they came from.

Great Expectations

Young and inexperienced, I was persuaded that we needed Bill, that he'd accelerate our growth and validate our technology. Sure he seemed brash and a little overweening--but I should expect that from a sales guy. I didn't especially warm to him but I've always believed (and still do) that you shouldn't hire only the people you'd like as friends. I'd like to say that I hired him against my better judgment because that would imply that, deep down inside, I knew he was a mistake. I didn't. I believed he could make our fortunes.

What was my mistake? I believed that the fortunes of my company could be transformed by a single person. If that is ever true, then there's something seriously wrong with the business and fixing that is more important than any hire. But I bought into the idea that somewhere out there is a messiah who, singlehandedly, will make your business miraculous. If you think that--and a candidate persuades you of it--then stop and think again.

Bill worked for me for about a year. He got us nowhere. He cheated on his expenses, created friction everywhere he went and was all noise, no heat. When I finally fired him, he argued that he should be promoted. And when he finally left the building, only politeness suppressed the cheers.

In hoping Bill would give us credibility, I nearly lost my own. No company is made by a single individual--not even the CEO.