Invest wisely to pick the right employees | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

The January-February issue of Harvard Business Review features “A Great Place to Work” as its primary theme. After reading an article about Netflix, I was most taken by several comments recommending the kinds of people to bring into your company.

Patty McCord, a former Netflix chief talent officer, states: “The best thing you can do for your employees, a perk better than foosball or free sushi, is hire only ‘A’ players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else.”

At first glance, the idea of hiring “A” players might confront you. You certainly want improve your workforce‚ but “A” players might be a high bar to shoot for.

You might rightly wonder why the best and brightest would even want to work for you. After all, what you’re into isn’t exactly rocket science, and why would you want to pay best and brightest money to people doing work that doesn’t require best and brightest talent? Wouldn’t the best and brightest get bored no matter how much you paid them and eventually leave contributing to higher turnover costs than you already have?

OK, let’s step back.

If this is how you react to McCord’s quote, then you might be stuck with a mental image of what she means by “A” players. She goes on to clarify that when she refers to hiring the right people, she is really talking about a moving target: one that is right for your business, now, and will also evolve over time. This in fact might confront you more than the idea of hiring the best and brightest, which you could rationalize away on the basis of cost versus return alone.

McCord’s statement that “[e]xcellent colleagues trump everything else,” is what really challenges the average employer.

Who among us has not entered a work place and encountered a longtime employee who, upon casual observation, could easily be found obstructing the daily work flow by simply not being up to speed with the current levels of skill required to perform as the business needed?

How often have we raised a question about the presence of this employee only to be told that they had been there a long time and were really loyal to the company? We might even be asked to make it work with him or her. Clearly the competence of this employee was deemed something we needed to live with.

How often, I wonder, have any of us left or declined to recommend a company simply because it seemed something other than excellence in performance was the order of the day?

As McCord continues to share her insights about the Netflix culture, she emphasizes that maintaining excellent employees requires a constant level of vigilance, as well as a willingness to address both unacceptable behavior and performance in a straightforward manner.

Honestly, I think there are two features of a workplace that are more distasteful to the kinds of people you want to employ. One is a cumbersome policy handbook, and the other is a patently “CYA” performance-review process.

Here is what McCord has to say about the issue of policy in place of high expectations (and I couldn’t agree more):

“If you are careful to hire people who will out the company’s interest first, who understand and support the desire for a high performance workplace, 97 percent of your employees will do the right thing. Most companies spend endless time and money writing and enforcing HR policies to deal with problems the other 3 percent might cause.”

Over-policing while tolerating underperformance puts good people off and sends them looking for other places of employment.

The second unattractive feature identified by McCord that simply screams mediocrity might not be as much an issue for smaller employers as it is for larger ones: the “CYA” performance-review process.

This is hardly even worthy of explanation, because it is so prevalent. Fear of litigation drives these processes. We all know it.

We also know that a related practice, the “performance improvement plan,” is equally bogus and simply a notification to employees to pack their bags as they have about 90 days before termination. Nothing could be more transparent, and nothing could be more unattractive to solid performers with a desire to see underperformers dealt with quickly, with dignity and respect.

The bottom line here: If you want an engaged workforce, select new employees carefully, develop them with care, prune the workforce regularly, maintain skill levels across the board, treat everyone like adults and expect them to behave that way. You may pay a little more on the front end, but over time the payoffs will more than cover the investment.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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