A woman shows up for a job interview. It’s a management position, but not a high-level one. While she’s waiting, someone drops down in the chair beside her. It’s the legendary head of the company. “Are you here about a job?” he asks. Speechless, the woman nods. The CEO then asks her about the more challenging issues facing the industry. She forces herself to focus and quickly relays some thoughts on the subject. He asks her to elaborate, so she lays out her thinking in detail. When he spots weak points in her argument, she acknowledges them but explains why she’s taking the position anyway. After a bit more spirited back-and-forth, the living legend gets up. “I’ve got to run,” he tells the candidate. “When the human resources people call you in, tell them I’ve just hired you.”
Pretty strange, isn’t it? The CEO didn’t look at a résumé or check references. He didn’t want to know about the woman’s experience or qualifications, what sort of job she was looking for or what her salary requirements were. He didn’t even say what he was hiring her to do.
How can such a process possibly work? It goes against everything corporate recruiters know and do. Senior leaders aren’t supposed to waste their time hiring lower-level personnel. Vetting potential hires is a routine and time-consuming process best done by HR experts and managers trained in reliable, systematic tests and techniques for sorting applicants, analyzing employment histories and work experience, and evaluating personalities and work styles. Hiring is now a science, with no room for personal, intuitive judgments.
Or is it? Ask a superboss — a category of leader I’ve studied for the past decade — and you’ll get an earful to the contrary. Superbosses — those leaders who not only build and sustain winning businesses but also propel the talent beneath them to the same sort of success — might favor people with advanced degrees and other formal credentials. They might employ some of the tests and psychological evaluations popular among human-resource specialists. However, they complement those rote tools with a more creative style of talent spotting. They sniff out promising employees in the craziest of places, which allows them to get engaged, brilliant, creative people who truly stand out.
Ralph Lauren once spotted a beautiful woman, Virginia Witbeck, in a burger restaurant in New York and loved her outfit: a man’s jacket, old corduroy pants, and an old fur jacket she had turned into a vest. He approached her table and offered her a job, telling her he wanted people with style. She worked in his design department for four years without a formal job title, serving as a muse and sounding board. She was a presence; Lauren wanted her around simply to hear what she had to say.
You and Your Team
Superbosses also adapt their organizations to utilize brilliant new hires, recognizing that to do otherwise would be to pass up new opportunities to create value. At Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse restaurant, once you’re in “you just sort of … create your job,” one of her former proteges told me. At George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, employees didn’t even have job descriptions. They were assigned tasks on various projects, according to what was needed and who was available. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels also lets his ensemble’s ideas and abilities constantly shape and reshape their contribution to the show. Writers sometimes become performers, and performers or assistant directors sometimes become writers.
Advertising guru Jay Chiat once remade his whole agency to take advantage of the capabilities of a British account planning expert that he brought on board. NFL coach Bill Walsh changed the very way his teams played football in order to find the best use for new talent, letting positions be defined by “what the player can do” and encouraging coaches to rewrite playbooks accordingly. And jazz great Miles Davis let new additions to his band — for example, John Coltrane or Herbie Hancock — take the group in entirely new artistic directions. The result was something Davis would never have created on his own. But that was precisely the point.
For most people in HR, some of these ideas might seem crazy. But ask yourself this question: Are you satisfied with the way your organization currently recruits and hires new talent? Are you attracting the best of the best and using them to their fullest potential? If the old methods are not working, maybe it is time to be more innovative and start hiring like a superboss.