You have young stars in your organization, frontline or midlevel employees who are already informal leaders. If they continue on their talented trajectories, they'll one day join the ranks of your top team. Many businesses train these promising pups by giving them so-called "stretch" goals or assignments: Tasks that are slightly above their current skill levels, based on the idea that they'll learn by doing.
Nothing wrong with that. But while reading Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Hard Choices, I was struck by how she'd taken something of the opposite approach with some of her key early hires as Secretary of State. Rather than entrusting young stars with "stretch" assignments, Clinton hired established leaders--people with enough credentials to be Secretary of State themselves--to deliver on high degree-of-difficulty tasks.
In other words, she gave stretch assignments not to promising young stars, but to highly credentialed leaders.
Granted: Running the State Department is not the same thing as running a small business. So when culling the world of politics for hiring lessons, you have to consider the advice with a grain of salt. Still, Hillary's approach is one that entrepreneurs--or anyone making hiring decisions--can learn from:
Some commentators said the appointment of high-profile diplomats like [Richard] Holbrooke and [George] Mitchell would diminish my role in important policy- and decision-making. That's not the way I saw it. Appointing people who were qualified to serve as Secretary themselves enhanced my reach and the administration's credibility....I was proud that men of such stature would agree to serve in these roles as part of my team. After long and distinguished careers, neither Richard nor George needed to take on what were by any measure difficult, if not impossible, assignments. But they were patriots and public servants who answered the call.
There are three takeaways here for business leaders:
1. Purpose is a potent recruiting tool. How did Clinton persuade Holbrooke and Mitchell to take on their assignments? In her words, they "answered the call" as patriots and public servants. In business terms, you could say they believed in the missions Clinton assigned to them. There's no secret to why this works: Regardless of pay grade or task, employees str more engaged if their duties intersect with their personal beliefs. Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill calls this purpose-driven leadership. She believes it's essential to driving change-management and innovation initiatives.
2. Top talent raises credibility. In the same way a respected CEO or CFO can bring gravitas to a startup as a board member or full-time employee, Holbrooke (a decorated diplomat) and Mitchell (a former Senator) enhanced the State Department's credibility. Clinton admits that their "stature" was a point of pride.
3. Leaders subordinate their egos. Clinton was unconcerned Holbrooke and Mitchell would "diminish" her role in important decisions. She was also unconcerned that commentators might see it that way. For founders, this is an important lesson. If you want to recruit a credentialed, high-profile talent, you need to tune out any insecurities you might have about your board members or investors (or even the media) perceiving you as not really being in charge.
Can all of this work in entrepreneurial settings? Absolutely. Sara Blakely, founder of the Atlanta hosiery and lingerie manufacturer Spanx, used a hiring approach comparable to Hillary's back in 2002. At the time Blakely was facing a major inventory problem. She was unable to stock stores, in the aftermath of a demand-spiking appearance on Oprah.
So Blakely hired a highly credentialed executive named Laurie Ann Goldman to serve an inventory consultant. How credentialed was Goldman? At the time she was hired, she was actually on maternity leave from Coca-Cola, where she ran the global licensing division. In that capacity, Goldman expanded Coca-Cola's licensing business to 54 countries and nearly $1-billion in retail sales.
Why did Goldman opt to work for a startup like Spanx? It's safe to say Goldman was engaged by the company's mission--and specifically, its inventory problems. She was such a fan of Spanx' fishnet tights that on three separate occasions, reports Fortune, she visited Saks Fifth Avenue in Atlanta to find a pair.
But her size was always sold out. Finally, a frustrated Goldman vented to a salesperson about the company's supply-chain management. The COO of Spanx happened to be in the store that day. A conversation began. And that's how Goldman became the inventory consultant.
You know how the rest of the story goes. Goldman did a great job. Six months later, Blakely asked Goldman to become CEO. "She was able to fill in the gaps and make the company work as a well-oiled machine," Blakely told Inc a few years ago. Goldman served as CEO until her resignation earlier this year, building Spanx into a $250-million company.
Of course, not every big-name recruit will yield such a fruitful, long-term solution. But the success of Spanx points to what's possible when you heed Clinton's approach, and aim high with your hires.