Why you should hire people smarter than you

You shouldn't be the smartest person in the room -- but you should be hiring the smartest person in the room.

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Mark Zuckerberg does it. Bill Gates did it. Steve Jobs did it. These and other savvy executives -- both within the IT industry and outside of it -- understand that the key to improving performance and a competitive edge, not to mention improve retention and engagement, is to hire people smarter than you.

A successful organization is one that emphasizes continuous learning and knowledge-sharing, and those factors contribute to improved performance, increased enthusiasm and engagement, says Matthew Gonnering, CEO at Widen Enterprises. "This is the easiest path to improving performance for your entire company. You're encouraging everyone to share their knowledge and not hoard their expertise -- you're being open to what others know, and open to sharing that," Gonnering says.

That means allowing as many different viewpoints into the hiring process as possible to take advantage of each individual's unique knowledge and areas of expertise, Gonnering says. "We're looking to hire about 30 people this year, and to do that successfully, we're bringing in a lot of people from across the organization. As a human, you can be blind to your blind spots -- you have to get your ego out of the way, make sure you have the experts who can properly evaluate knowledge and skills in areas you might not be strong in, and let them extract from those conversations information about what those candidates can teach you and what you can learn from them," he says.

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Check your ego at the door

So, how do you find candidates who are smarter than you? That's the tricky part -- you first have to take an honest look at yourself and understand your strengths, weaknesses and be willing to put your ego aside, says David Hassell, founder and CEO at 15Five.

"It's not all about who's smarter in terms of IQ points, and it's not about ceding leadership capability at all. It's about understanding that you don't have to be threatened by those who have deeper and broader skillsets than you, and trusting them to inform you and lead you in certain areas," says Hassell.

You have to know what you don't know and identify people within your organization who are experts in that domain who can determine the difference between a candidate who's good and one who's great, without letting fear get in the way, Hassell says.

"People who are threatened by candidates who may have greater knowledge and expertise tend to be 'B and C players' -- and they tend to hire 'B and C players'. A lot of managers who are 'A players' are generalists and they have a broad and honest understanding of where their strengths and weaknesses are, and in turn, they tend to hire other 'A players,'" he says.

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Locus of control

Hard skills are often easier to focus on, but Hassell says he recommends his team also look at less-tangible qualities that are more difficult to measure, like passion for the work, personal and professional values, their work ethic and how they approach problem-solving.

"Another area I like to focus on is the concept of 'locus of control,' and whether that's internal or external. That means that a candidate is good at taking personal responsibility for failures instead of blaming those on outside forces or circumstances. Can they take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes?" he says.

If you don't have the necessary knowledge to assess candidates in a certain area, and if you don't have that capability within your current workforce, bring in a third-party objective advisor to help, Hassell says.

"Recently, I had to drive the hiring process for a salesperson. I have a broad understanding of the skillset we needed, but I wasn't entirely comfortable with the depth of my knowledge there, so I brought in an outside advisor with a really deep, specialized knowledge of sales. He took a look at our candidates and was able to assess from a place of expertise," Hassell says.

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Rework recruiting

Designing your recruiting and hiring process to attract A players starts with developing a great existing team and a great culture, says Hassell, but also with taking a cue from the product development and marketing worlds to help reach pools of candidates. Most great hires come from referrals, so trying to up the percentage of great workers who are recommending your organization to friends, family and colleagues can really help.

"A players want to hang out with other A players, so you have to work on creating that great environment, getting referrals and retaining as many as you can. You want your company to be the place were someone says, 'This is the best place I've ever worked.' A 'net promoter score' is something they talk about in the product and marketing world, but it can be applicable here; also, if you have the greatest culture in the world but no one knows about it, you're not going to get very far," he says.

Use sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn and Indeed to promote the best parts of your culture, and actively get your HR, marketing and PR departments involved in every aspect from targeted mailings to customer and client lists to the news and accolades you share on your website, Hassell says.

Fear is the mind-killer

Why aren't more organizations hiring this way? It really comes down to the psychology of fear and resistance to change; changing the way you approach your own position and your own reactions can be a good place to start if you want to hire smarter.

"We're all susceptible to this to one degree or another. Fear, resistance and trying to remain in control can be a really subconscious reaction, and so you have to first bring awareness to your own responses," says Hassell. Look objectively at your candidate pool, your recruiting and hiring processes and ask, 'Am I really focused on hiring people who are top-caliber? How do I really feel about that? Anxious? Threatened? How does that express itself in the workplace?

"Try and be as objective as you can, but also have compassion for yourself and for the rest of your hiring teams and just take a real good look. Am I really hiring people who are top caliber? Do I feel threatened? How does that express itself? You have to look objectively, but also have compassion for yourself and for this process of growth for yourself and your company. Now you can say, 'Oh, I'm doing that thing again where I don't want to let go,' and you'll have much more capacity to take a different action when you're faced with the next situation," Hassell says.

Remember that you're still the executive leader, and that you hired -- and are hiring more -- top-tier, elite talent for a reason. They're going to help drive your organization and your business to new heights, says Gonnering. "It's understandable to be worried about becoming irrelevant, or not wanting to admit to your peers what you don't know -- it can be really scary to face that. But you have to be willing to try new things, to experiment, which will lead you to the 'next big thing' customers love. Being open to that unknown, that experimentation is really opening up the organization to all kinds of possibility," Gonnering says.

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