System v. Talent: What Are You Recruiting For?

Tim Sackett Business Development, Driving Productivity, Hiring Bias, HR, Tim Sackett

I’ve always been a huge fan of talent over system. I was never a system believer. My take was, give me the best damn talent, and I’ll kill your system every single time. Every. Single. Time.

I think I was wrong.

San Antonio Spurs’ recent NBA Championship is a great example of a system beating talent. The Spurs literally looked like a team from your local YMCA league—old, slow, not very athletic, passed the ball way too much. They made the younger, more “talented” team of the Miami Heat look old, slow, confused, and flat out not very good.  The “system” that was run by San Antonio was far superior to the talent Miami put on the floor.

As I’ve become more experienced (editor’s note: older), I’ve learned that dealing with idiosyncrasies that talent brings to the table just aren’t worth it. When I was less experienced (editor’s note: younger) I was willing to put the energy and effort into “managing” talent because of my beliefs that talent was that much more superior to your system. Who cares that I had to do a little hand holding and make concessions? Just give me the talent. I don’t care if I have to call and get them out of bed in the morning, I’ll take it!

Many of us have this problem in Talent Acquisition. We hire for talent, not system. Some of you say, “Oh Tim, you’re talking about hiring for ‘cultural fit.'” At which I’ll say, “No, I’m not!”  I’m talking about system, not culture.  I’m talking about how you get your work done on a daily basis. That’s operational, not  cultural.  You could argue a system is probably more successful with a great culture, but it’s not necessarily a must-have.

Hiring for the system allows you to take “grinders.”  That’s what it really takes to be successful in business—smart people who are willing to work hard. Not highly talented, great personality, beautiful people (what many of us would consider “A” players). Grinders are those workers who are the glue to your organization. Give them some direction, a little vision, and start the machine up.

It’s probably more naturally inclusive than your “hiring for cultural fit,” which usually leads to just hiring a lot more people who look a lot like yourself. System hiring is about getting good people who have demonstrated their willingness to buy in to what you’re doing, and work hard doing it.  They usually aren’t the highest paid, or those with the biggest titles. They probably aren’t job hoppers, and usually are more loyal. System hiring is about filling roles with capable people who are under-appreciated.

How do you find system hires? You are looking for people who are willing to accept and “own” a certain role.  We need an Accounts Payable Clerk, not an Accounts Payable Manager. You want to be a Manager, “eventually?” Yeah, we don’t need that. Thanks, we’ll keep looking. These folks usually get looked down upon by HR folks. “Oh, Tim, he doesn’t want to be promoted, he ‘thinks’ he’s just happy being an everyday engineer. We need people who want to be leaders!”  No, you don’t.

Not everyone can be a leader in your organization, if you want a system. A highly successful system takes role players—people willing to accept a position and do it well… employees willing to listen and trust in their leadership (Oh, boy, that might be the toughest find yet!).  Systems don’t work well when everyone is questioning the system. That means those leader types, those free thinkers, usually struggle in a system.  That kind of talent wants to change and make things better.  The system needs order and consistency to be effective.

It takes a highly confident, secure leader to run a system. Because, when things aren’t going like you want, you must have the conviction to stick it out and let the system work itself out.  Change is the killer of systems.  I wonder how many of us are “hiring for talent,” but trying to run a system, and all the time wondering why it’s not working like it should?