When was the last time you hired someone who scared you?

Matt Baty Matt Baty
20th April 2022

In a briefing meeting, to discuss an important, new hire in a brand new area of a major Real Estate business, an ex-colleague once asked the CEO a question that has always intrigued me: “when did you last hire someone who frightened you?”

For years, working both in-house and as a consultant I could never understand why you would want to hire someone who scares you. Isn’t the very nature of fear also a sign of mistrust? If we have learned anything post the credit-crunch it’s that transparency, honesty and authenticity are traits that are of paramount importance.

It's only recently, during which time the world has changed yet again that I feel I understand what this question actually means. Most hiring leads are risk averse in recruitment. Instinctively we seek out measurable reassurance that we aren’t giving that mission-critical role to someone who is going to unravel years of hard work, credibility and strategy in an instant. We fear the ‘mythical beast’, the shiny new executive sweeping in and showing up our own shortcomings; after all, even the most senior, qualified and intelligent people fiercely guard the cupboard full of skeletons gathered from years and years of ‘faking it until you make it’ themselves.

As a result, hiring leads in ESG, at all levels of an organisation tend to trust competitors to coach, develop, teach and challenge their hires across the period of their previous tenure to attain the standards necessary to ‘slot right in’ when they transition across. Is the best gauge of future success, past achievements? Of course, the experience gained and honed by years of working in a similar field means that the tacit knowledge of a role and industry gives even the most incompetent professional a head start- they look, sound and feel like a peer throughout the interview process.

It’s often cited that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, or in business-terms, 5 years (assuming a 40 hour working week). There are many variables, but in most situations, or at least where an individual’s background uses similar skills, the time to genuine value is not insurmountable, and can be reduced by good induction, immersion, and critically by hiring people culturally aligned to not just the organisation itself, but the people within the team. With an area as new as ESG, genuine experts possessing the industry experience many firms desire are in short supply. It’s not that they do not exist, it’s just that they may not immediately look and sound like what you envisage.

So the concept of hiring someone who frightens you is more about how you internalize feelings of anxiety about the unknown; what if you get it wrong? In a market where oven-ready skills are in abundance, this perceived risk is easily avoided. The recruitment process is quick but largely superficial. Interviews are typically evidence-based; a candidate will articulate their suitability through speaking the same language, evidencing the same reference points or bringing over to the hiring company knowledge, contacts and experience regarded as an insurance policy for their suitability. But what about when the market is new, or evolving in a way that doesn’t throw up the people fitting this profile? What then?

That is when things can get scary. And this is where one of the most accurate predictors of success of all, cognitive reasoning and actual performance assessment become the most powerful indicators of all. This is where the selection process needs to dive deeper. In simple terms, a bright, engaged and motivated candidate, for whom a role represents a genuine opportunity for career enrichment can transform your department, and your approach to ESG.

Measuring culture fit between a candidate, a hiring lead and an organisation is challenging, particularly when the time is not taken at the front end of a search (whether run directly or through a partner) to fully define what it looks like, and crucially, what it really shouldn’t look like. When the market is saturated with candidates, the reasons are obvious; if you get it wrong well there is someone else in the trench, ready to go over the top should the initial hire not work out.

Currently, in ESG recruitment the opposite is true. Within ESG, due to the perceived shortage of candidates at the right level, frequently three errors are made:

1. A hiring lead makes the decision to offer a candidate they know is not a great cultural fit because they feel they have no choice

2. A decision is not made at all, or a candidate removes themselves from the process due to indecision, multiple layers of interviews or excessively long time-frames

3. A position is kept vacant and a search continues, each new search partner promising to be better than the last Each of these outcomes (or lack of outcome) presents future issues; someone is hired and does not work out, the available talent pool is exhausted with the most suitable candidate either overlooked or discounted, or the myth perpetuates that ‘there is no-one out there’.

Defining the ‘best fit candidate’ is an elaborate dish containing a blend of complex ingredients, including, but not limited to:

1. A candidates’ personal values

2. A person’s intellectual capacity for change and assimilation of information

3. The stage in a person’s life

4. A candidate’s key drivers

5. A candidate’s fears.

In other words, who they are.

Can you hire with total disregard of a candidate’s career experience? No. I have seen this happen, rarely with positive outcomes. However, within ESG, it is rare to come across a CV where a candidate has no academic base to their career; whilst they may not speak your corporate language, they are likely to posses skills and speak a language familiar to the ESG universe. Measuring someone’s cognitive ability in these situations is an important part of the puzzle - a useful insurance policy.

Roles in ESG are emerging and evolving at a ferocious rate across all industries. It is likely that whilst common themes and approaches exist, there is not (or at least not yet) a ‘one size fits all’ for job functions and departmental strategy that can be replicated / plagiarised through people movement.

As a result, by mapping the actual tasks required for success within the role, and understanding the mental horsepower required, you can start to build a picture of the candidate’s true capability and avoid the ‘false positives’ (or negatives) that can present in an interview situation. Interviews favour candidates who are confident in unscripted conversations, have like-for-like experience and are socio-economically aligned to the person interviewing.

And, let’s face it, interview skills are often in short supply, right through an organisation. Incorporating cognitive intelligence and psychometric testing (there are a range of ‘off the shelf’ products available) alongside interviews that delve into the person as well as the skills and experience can give you a better grasp of the future potential of the employee and, crucially how quickly and accurately they can assimilate new information; critical in ESG where the terrain is changing so rapidly.

Hiring the right person is no exact science, but by coupling behavioural and cognitive assessments with thinking differently about the actual recruitment process, you can unlock one of the greatest challenges that ESG resourcing faces; finding the right people in an candidate-led market.

So hiring someone who frightens you needs not be the risk you think it is; the fear comes from going against the grain, but making an informed judgment based on measurable information. Whilst this approach is far from fool-proof, by stripping away the ‘work mask’ of a candidate, looking at the engine rather than the bodywork, you may well find you hire people that others have overlooked. Scary? Yes. Potentially life-changing? Also yes.

Matt Baty

Sustainability & Sustainable Impact Research

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