Love the Rebels – Hiring for Innovation
Emerging Trends in Hiring Job Requirements
In 2019, Ukraine elected a very unconventional president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky was a comedian and an actor with no political experience. One newspaper wrote,
“Ukrainians are waking up this morning and discovering that the last few months were not a dream. They really have elected a man who currently stars in a TV series as the president - as the country's next real president. And it wasn't even close. The pressure will now be on Mr. Zelensky to demonstrate that he knows what he is doing. Throughout the election campaign, he avoided serious interviews and discussions about policy - preferring instead to post light-hearted videos to social media.”
He didn’t check any boxes that we would expect the leader of a country to have, no experience, no past political life, and no degree in law or political science. No one expected him to be competent or successful, but given the war with Russia, he proved to be an outstanding leader.
Similar stories abound. We find that those least expected to perform often perform exceptionally well, and, unfortunately, many so-called high potentials fail.
CEOs consistently reply to surveys that they are looking for employees who can solve problems, think broadly, and innovate. But are our hiring practices providing this?
We still hire to the job description and look for the standard requirements such as education, grades, and experience, even though research has repeatedly shown that they are not good indicators of success. And they are even less effective as indicators of an innovative mindset or out-of-the-box thinking.
Managers believe their job is to control, provide direction, and focus on achieving goals. The traditional work environment has not fostered innovation or allowed for freedom of action. It is filled with formal and informal rules about what we should and should not do.
Can we change this? Perhaps. We can try to influence hiring managers to rely on different indicators of success. We can learn from firms such as Google and Microsoft. And we can change who we bring to the table.
Can You Interview for Innovation?
Interviewing is more of an exercise in fortune telling than a scientific way of assessing potential or skills. Even well-executed structured interviews do not predict success with any reliability. If they were as reliable as many believe, turnover rates would be much lower than they are. According to a Jobvite survey, 30% of new employees leave their jobs within the first 90 days of getting hired. The U.S. government has a stringent hiring process with interviews, reference checks, and background checks, but 60% of hires leave within two years.
We can only reliably test for skills and knowledge when we assess talent objectively. We do not yet have a way of objectively evaluating potential or whether a person will excel or fall apart in a crisis. We can use the traits of those who have performed well during a crisis or those who are consistently innovative, but there is no guarantee these traits will predict the same results in others. If fact, basing predictions on the traits of others in similar roles who performed well is risky. The world is changing too rapidly, and what were high-performance traits yesterday may be very poor ones for the future.
Providing the Right Environment
Putting people into narrow job descriptions or prohibiting them from contributing ideas or time to activities outside their scope is a sure way to kill innovation.
Providing an environment where people excel is more important than background, skills, or education. The old saying, “get out of the way and let me do my thing,” applies to many jobs in today’s workplace.
Rather than try to pick the rebels, the innovators, or the creators deliberately, we should hire people from a broad spectrum of different traits and create an environment where they can innovate. Google and other firms have done this over the past few years. They have focused on teamwork, giving employees real and significant problems to solve and providing training and resources to help.
Francesco Gino at Harvard has done experiments where she divided newly hired employees into two groups. One group was asked to describe their uniqueness and how they could sculpt their jobs so they could express themselves. The other control group went through the usual onboarding process. Seven months later, the first group was more engaged and had an almost 20% lower turnover rate than the control group.
The lack of constraints may be why freelance workers are more productive than regular employees. It may be why startup environments produce more innovative products and solutions, where rules are fewer and control is less.
Emerging Trends in Hiring and Work
Traditional methods of selection and job requirements are giving way to new approaches. More firms are hiring people for their skills, not their educational background, grades, or previous employers.
In the most advanced and creative firms, candidates who were blocked by their lack of education or skills, or by being in the wrong location are being embraced. New hiring requirements focus on a willingness to take on a variety of challenges, whether skilled in those areas or not.
At the lower end of work, more work will be automated or redesigned. Current employees will be replaced or need to upgrade or learn new skills. Jobs will be increasingly more demanding and require higher creative and analytic skills. This is what has happened in the automobile industry, where robots have replaced thousands of workers and required the remaining workers to develop skills in computer programming, analytics, and program management. Figure 1 below shows the shift away from hiring low-skilled workers toward redesigning jobs so that parts of what people do can be automated. As parts of jobs are automated, the people holding those jobs will need higher-level skills that automation cannot replace.
The way to ensure success is to select employees with a willingness to learn, a broad general background, and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances.
Future for Recruiters
Recruiters are not immune to these changes. A range of tools, from conversational chatbots to sophisticated CRMs, can take over the bulk of a recruiter’s work. Innovative recruiters will use the time freed by these tools to focus on developing skills that will deliver more value, such as better marketing, using analytics to continuously improve the recruiting process, and building relationships with potential candidates.
Hiring people who do not have the usual skills and traits can bring new perspectives and innovative solutions to problems. They can help others see things in a different light. Convincing hiring managers to hire these people is a recruiter’s biggest challenge.
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Hiring the Unconventional (video)
Wanted: Rebel Talent (Francesca Gino, Harvard video)