Who (and Who Not) to Hire: A Napkin Sketch from Xconomist Bill Aulet


Last week Wade offered some fantastic tips on how to recruit employees in the midst of what’s shaping up to be a major staffing crunch at local information-technology firms. And it got me thinking about something that Xconomist Bill Aulet told me a few weeks ago during a power lunch at Aceituna, over near the Genzyme HQ. We were discussing Xconomy’s own plans for a couple new hires, and Bill chimed in with some telling insights on what firms, especially startups where each new employee is critical, should look for—and avoid.

Bill spoke to some truths we all know—and he was quick to note that these weren’t just his, but “came from working with others and thinking about this here at MIT.” But he had a nice way of framing things that beautifully put in perspective the challenge of figuring out if a candidate is the right fit for a company. He grabbed a napkin and sketched out a rectangle divided into four quadrants, with “values” (meaning how well the candidate’s values align with the company’s) on the X axis and “contribution” (essentially, how productive the person is) on the Y axis. Like this:

Hiring Strategy Napkin Sketch

Now, a couple things are obvious. A home run is an employee in the upper right—the high contributor whose values align perfectly with those of the company. Just as clear is the lower left—you don’t want that person. If you make a mistake and a new hire falls in this category, it’s an easy workforce-reduction decision. But what was really interesting to me was Bill’s take on the remaining two quadrants.

Let’s start with the lower right, the low contributor who believes in the company and shares its values. I was expecting a tough, cut-bait attitude on this—but Bill explained that such employees can indeed be valuable, if they don’t cost too much and if you can take the effort to channel them into productive work at which they can do well. His essential message: don’t give up on them right away.

Now to the upper left. A talented, high-contributing person who might well be in it mainly for themselves and in any case whose values are not the company’s values. Bill’s message here was adamant—don’t hire them, and if you do, get rid of them and fast. “This person is like poison,” he said, or words to that effect.

Here’s the dilemma, though, says Bill. This brand of high contributor can seem great. “People are closing sales and doing all kinds of things,” he says. The problem is, they have a bad attitude. They might cut corners the company doesn’t want to cut. They might not be forthright. Maybe they undermine company decisions. Whatever the specifics, it means big trouble. As Bill puts it, “That is the most dangerous person, because you think you need them—they have a stranglehold.”

You have to move quickly to shed this type of person, he says. “The deeper they grow roots in the organization, the more disruptive, the more devastating, to take them out. And if they’re there for a while people tend to think their values are the values of the organization—and everything else atrophies.”

All in all, Bill says, it’s the sort of decision that can make or break a company. “The moment you cut corners on values at the top is the day they become meaningless and you have lost your potential ethical compass. Your chances of being a high-performance organization are nil.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at bbuderi@xconomy.com. Follow @bbuderi

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7 responses to “Who (and Who Not) to Hire: A Napkin Sketch from Xconomist Bill Aulet”

  1. Bob,

    Agree totally with Bill’s assessment. Values #1. Regarding a low contributor, one of the keys is to talk to this person early — don’t let the underperformance continue for a long time.


  2. Nikhil Garg says:

    Jack Welch talks extensively about a similar framework for thinking about employees in his book Winning. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in this subject.

  3. tom summit says:

    It seems to me that the headline of this article should be ‘Who to keep and who to Fire’. Otherwise I would like to know how you can know a contributor or if one shares the values of the company. I would doubt hiring managers at an early stage start up would agree with advice that recommends hiring a low contributor because they are cheap and then expending extra effort to channel them into productive work.

    Best startup hiring advice http://blog.pmarca.com/2007/06/how_to_hire_the.html

  4. adTherm says:

    A few thoughts:
    In which quadrant would creative, dynamic, idea-generators tend to fit?
    What if they were slightly eccentric, or individualistic?
    How would you determine whether they truly fit in with a company’s core values?

  5. Richard says:

    Bill nails it, and not just for startups. Also, I have to figure out how to add this graphic to my resume, with my smiling avatar waving from the upper-right quadrant.

  6. Steve Marcus says:

    I agree with Bill wholeheartedly. Assessment of values versus contribution get the conversation started. If you don’t share at least these two aspects, hearing about how great they are with finance or how they can do stand-up comedy is irrelevant if they’re apathetic about the customer and/or their co-workers.

    In response to a few comments on the definition of company values:

    Examples of Company Values –
    Customer Obsession, Innovation, Bias for Action, Ownership, High Hiring Bar, Frugality

    Dedication to every client’s success, Innovation that matters, Trust and personal responsibility

  7. Dave Johnson says:

    This is a useful framework, thanks. It contains an issue I have confronted inside several companies, and been thinking about in my own writing. This issue comes in two parts:

    (1) Bill speaks of the company’s values; indeed, this measurement is the lynchpin of his analysis. Can someone comment on a good way for me to be sure that the decisionmaker in his scenario, whether a VP HR or CXO (including me!), isn’t conflating their values (or their perception of what the company’s values are or should be) with the company’s values when they benchmark this decision?

    (2) In a start-up of 10-35, one can intuit the collective value set. But a company of 125, that’s asking too much. So Bill, how might this guidance need to be shaped for (at least) these two very different contexts?

    Thanks for any feedback.