Why it’s a mistake to hire superheroes

Welcome to startup interview #27.

In our opening scene, the curtain lifts on a startup conference room. There’s a big monitor on the wall. There’s a brightly painted accent wall behind the monitor. The Aeron chairs are tucked neatly under the reclaimed wood table. The minimalist vibe is pleasant, even a little familiar.

You, the hiring manager, are getting excited. After a parade of people who are either too corporate, too junior, too senior, or not right for the role, you finally have what seems like a viable candidate.

You are struck by your candidate’s deep commitment to their last gig. As they talk about their work, you write down words like “diligent” “dedicated” and “passionate”. They have a can-do attitude that stands out, especially in a startup context.

You want people who are willing to trade predictability/stability for an opportunity to define their own path. You are looking for self-starters, hires who are comfortable with a high degree of ambiguity. You want blank canvas types, not cogs.

So you ask questions that test for that superhuman skill set. You want to know about a time when they built a program or department from scratch. You want to hear about how they crushed it in their last job. You romanticize the all-nighters, and your adrenaline pulses every time they punctuate a story with, “it was crazy times.”

You aren’t concerned about burnout and breakdowns and shouting matches and turf wars. We’re all adults here, right?

The honeymoon period

Here’s the thing: at first, it’s awesome to have a superhero on board. They hit the ground running and many of the things that originally sold you on the candidate in the interview process show up in spades over those first few months. They tackle problems with an intensity and energy that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.

You have a major project on the horizon. Maybe a software launch, maybe a new product, it doesn’t really matter, so long as it’s big and important and mission critical. This is exactly what your superhero says they want when you talk about what’s next in your weekly 1:1s.

The skills that shone so brightly in the first few months seem promising. They have proven they can deliver on small, single-threaded initiatives. They have earned your trust. Now it’s time to step it up. You put your superhero on your massive project.

After a couple of weeks, red flags start to emerge. Those things that seemed so promising in the interview — the passion, dedication, and diligence — start to take an ugly turn.

All hell breaks loose

Your superhero is used to being a lone wolf. While they excel in a purely individual contributor role, the moment you need them to play well with others, all hell breaks loose. The superhero gets in fights in meetings and in 1:1s complains about how stupid all the other teams are, how they don’t understand the business, how they aren’t as passionate, dedicated, or diligent.

They don’t ask for input. They don’t check in at milestones. When you raise it in 1:1s, they tell you that you don’t need to worry. They are on it. They can do it all. They will put in the hours. They will pull all-nighters if they need to.

And suddenly it all drops for you.

You’re transported back to that refreshingly minimalist conference room with the modern take on mid-century modern lines. It’s clear to you now. The interview, the “crazy times”, the intensity, the frenetic energy, the 3 a.m. emails that could easily have happened during business hours, the procrastination, the finger pointing.

You haven’t hired someone who thrives in chaos. You’ve hired someone who sows chaos.


What you should have asked

If you’d listened a bit closer, or asked the right questions, you would have surfaced several problem areas that are closely coupled with the superhuman skills you seek: a marked distrust for peers, a discomfort with teamwork, and the trail of bodies where that energy shifts from being a positive force to being a toxic one.

You failed to register that what should have been a narrative with a colourful cast of characters was a monologue with a single lead playing all the key roles.

In the “oh shit” moment when you realize that the “thrives in chaos” keys are right next to the “creates chaos” keys on the startup employee cliche keyboard of life, you can see it all clearly. And come to think of it, when you did the reference checks, you actually heard quite a bit that indicated stormy waters ahead. But you were pretty far into an interview process at that point and everyone you met prior to your superhero was a dud. And that req had been open for a long time. And, if you’re being totally honest with yourself, you worried the headcount was going to evaporate if it didn’t get closed. And and and.

There were signs. There are always signs. But you didn’t want to see them.

You asked about big projects and taking them from concept to completion. You failed to ask for examples of times when they worked cross-functionally.

You asked about what they’ve done. You failed to ask who did the work, how, and when.

You failed to register that what should have been a narrative with a colourful cast of characters was a monologue with a single lead playing all the key roles, like some sort of startup Eddie Murphy movie.

You heard the stories about urgency and freneticism. You failed to push on the root causes for that urgency, where it was a result of the business and where it was a construct of our superhero.

You called references, but you asked yes or no questions about how they did in their last job. You didn’t ask direct reports if they’d work for them again. You failed to ask managers if they’d hire them again.

Now what

You hired a superhero because the good in the interview seemed so good. And now you have a superhero in your midst and the bad is a problem. A big problem. There’s a really good chance you’ll need to fire them.

Free of your superhero, your team will begin to coalesce. Your cross-functional troubles will dissipate. Your seemingly herculean efforts will be just another Tuesday.

And in their next interview, your superhero will tell tales about how crazy it was and how urgent and how many all-nighters they pulled. And when you eventually get that reference call, what will you say?

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.

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