Thanks to AI and other tools, we're getting amazingly sophisticated at determining which candidates might have the skills and personality necessary for a great business fit. But in a recent episode of the podcast A Call to Lead with Jennifer Morgan (SAP president,  Americas and Asia Pacific Japan), Stacey Cunningham, president of the New York Stock Exchange, identified an important move to take once you've got some data on a candidate--compare them to yourself.

"I think you always want to hire somebody that's better than you," Cunningham remarked. "If you're given that opportunity, take it. Never turn that down..."

Cunningham says it's a strategy she employs every time she's faced with picking a new employee. And like Cunningham, I believe the approach has a wide range of advantages.

One major benefit is that having people who can outshine you also makes it easy for you to keep learning. Experts literally are on your doorstep, so you can ask questions knowing you're going to improve or perhaps shift your thinking. That opportunity for discovery keeps work exciting and offers incentive and motivation for continued effort.

Every hire who's better than you also can fire your competitive drive. You have examples of brilliance right in front of you, and while you might know someone else is on a different level than you are, you still can challenge yourself to do more of what they do and not fall too far behind. That competitive spirit can carry over into general operations to give you the push you need to be more proactive in finding creative solutions.

But for Cunningham, the biggest advantage is pure, unadulterated freedom.

"It's frankly left it open for me to go do new things," Cunningham says. "I say it to people on my team today all the time, make sure that you're not such a key critical person that I can't give you a new opportunity to go do something new because I can't take you out of the job that you're in."

As for what those "new things" could be, if you need some starter points, maybe it's attending a conference you've been dying to go to, exploring new material options first hand. Maybe it's skydiving, or grabbing a leadership book. It could be following in Jennifer Morgan's footsteps with a podcast, or finally putting yourself out there as a speaker. You just need a vision of how you want to grow and be as uniquely awesome as you want, no precedents or permissions necessary. Once you've got that vision, it's simply a matter of filling in the small, manageable steps that can make the growth happen.

But don't make the mistake of thinking it's easy peasy, lemon squeezy. In fact, most of us are going to have a hard time with Cunningham's recommendation for three big reasons.

To start, it's a direct contradiction to our natural tendency to want to be seen as the top dog. We think if we aren't seen that way, we're at risk of loss and ridicule. So it feels safer to hire people who are easy to direct, teach, and advise, and to convince ourselves that doing so gives us a sense of purpose.

Second, when you invest everything you have into a company emotionally, physically, financially, or otherwise, it takes enormous courage to admit vulnerability and say to someone, "I don't have what you have, so I'm going to delegate, step aside, and trust that you'll achieve for me what I'm not capable of." If they miss the mark, you fail, too, and that's as scary as hades.

And last, it goes against everything we've engrained about hierarchal business structures. If we accept we can hire our "betters", then we also have to reevaluate biases about how companies operate and teams interact.

Still, Cunningham is clear that the effort improves the world as much as it helps individual companies.

"Whether this is at work or anywhere else, if you surround yourself with people who make you a better version of yourself, and you're doing the same for them, we're all going to be better off, and I think that's just a good way to go through life."

Published on: Mar 11, 2019
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