System v. Talent: What Are You Recruiting For?

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?

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Tim Sackett
Tim Sackett SPHR, is the ultimate Mama’s Boy!  After 15+ years of successfully leading HR and Talent Acquisition departments for Fortune 500s and smaller technical firms, Tim took over running the contingent staffing firm HRU Technical Resources in Lansing, MI. Serving as the Executive Vice President, Tim runs the company his mother started over 30 years ago, and don’t tell Mom, but he thinks he does a better job at it than she did!  Check out his blog at Because he's got A LOT to say, and FOT just isn't enough for him.


  1. kd says:

    OK – like where you are going with this.

    Another thought – system hiring is about not spending more than you have to in the macro view. You need an AP clerk who’s happy being an AP Clerk and is good at what they do. That’s going to cost you less than the same person who is trying to climb the ladder to be the AP Manager – if you want that person, you’re going to spend 20% to land them and they’ll hit the ground immediately neutral on job satisfaction, and at the 12 month mark, they’re unhappy.

    The Spurs are geniuses.


  2. Ellen Stuart says:

    I like the sentence: “That’s what it really takes to be successful in business—smart people who are willing to work hard. ” I feel like when you hire someone who has those qualities and that you give him good directions, he can give the best of himself.

    I agree the Spurs where awesome and are a great example.

  3. Steve Boese says:

    The Spurs system has a way of elevating the games of many of these role players, i.e. the basketball equivalent of the AP clerk in the example. So on the Spurs the AP clerk actually adds a ton more value and makes a greater contribution toward winning than they would/can on another team. Boris Diaw is a great example of this, he was on his way out of the NBA before catching on with the Spurs and getting into the right system for him. But I think the tricky part, and Tim talks about this, is confusing ‘system’ with ‘culture’. ‘System’ for the Spurs, and for some workplaces, is more about finding the right mix that aligns with corporate strategy, and then letting people do what they are naturally good at doing, are capable of doing, and in an environment where that makes a measurable impact and contribution. Sharing the ball, running a ton of weakside action, and shooting corner 3s is not a manifestation of ‘culture’, it is strategy, it is ‘system’. In fact, my guess is the Spurs care not one bit about what most HR folks like to call ‘culture’ . They are the most diverse team in the league and at least on the surface, look and are nothing at all like anyone else there.

  4. Kathy Rapp says:

    Awesome post, Tim. Love how you connected the dots.

    Go Rockets.

  5. Ronn Kolbash says:

    I agree with the premise of your post that having a well run system is more important than having star talent. In just about every industry (sports most notably) we over exaggerate the contributions of individual performance – both in success and failure. Certainly there are those who outperform their peers and contribute a larger share. There is little doubt the Spurs had talent (Tim Duncan is certainly HOF material and Tony Parker is no slouch) but what strikes me as a differentiation between the Spurs and Heat is that the Spurs viewed all (or nearly all) their players as key contributors and treated them as such (playing time) whereas the focus on the Heat was more on just three players. While seeking a pure “talent” play may pay off in the short run (it did in the Heat’s case) there can be little argument that a “system” approach (Spurs) has yielded much similar results but over a much longer period of time.

    Creating a system that affords opportunities, respect and accolades to many is certainly more desirable and successful than one that heaps it on just a few.

  6. Sean Conrad says:

    Well the FIFA World Cup finals just illustrated your point remarkably well.

    Germany’s got the system – Argentina has the star. Lionel Messi vs. the German system. Score one for the system.

    I don’t even need to talk about what happened when you are talent based and lose some of your talent. Germany 7 Brazil 1. Ouch. Not even Tim Howard could have saved them.

  7. I think it depends. I know we all hate this sentence but it is true here.
    If as an organization, I want to hire to face new competition or new market, I won’t hire someone who fits into the system because that is not my primary criteria. I will hire someone who can challenge it and bring innovation, new products, etc. Of course, the downside of this could be that I might loose some employees in the process.
    But in general agree with the idea of hiring for the system.

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