If people really are the most important resource…

Disagreements between senior managers should not be uncommon. Of course, the nature of the disagreements is crucial. A certain level of ego is required to want a senior position, so there will be some conflicts that simply arise from clashes of personal pride, self-interest, and self-regard. This type of friction is generally unproductive and, naturally, needs to be minimized.

But, guiding an organization is a complex type of pursuit and strong, respectful, thoughtful, and dynamic exchanges are beneficial to the overall health of any collective enterprise.

Having spent over a quarter of a century as a Chief Technology Officer, I was very used to disagreements amongst the senior staff. They truly ran the gamut from seeing strategic issues differently all the way to petty personal issues and everything in between. One disagreement between a CEO and myself, though, I found perplexing as I was, and continue to be, certain that I was correct.

CTOs are in my experience always under some level of pressure, though some times are worse than others. It almost seems that regardless of what you do, there are more projects to handle than there are staff and time. Things in information technology change at a pace that is always seemingly frenetic. And, making everything work together so as to keep the organization optimally ticking is the mark, in my mind, of an effective technology leader. But, it's hard work in the sense that the job is not unlike putting together a puzzle where the pieces are constantly changing.

So, I found myself in one of those crunch periods we all face. To add to the troubles, a key member of the Technology Team (and a direct report) had left for a better opportunity and a replacement was needed. Given all the demands I faced, the CEO suggested that I remove myself the hiring process, which is something I’d never done within the department. She questioned if I could afford the time. My response was that I would absolutely not remove myself as I did not feel that I could afford to not be part of the process.

The problem is that, simply, one of my deepest core principles of management is that hiring well is the single most important task we face as managers. And, to my mind, it’s easily one of the hardest jobs we do as managers. Nonetheless, in my long career I have known but a handful of people that I thought hired really well. It’s kind of an exceptional skill, even among people for whom exceptional is an expectation.

Another senior manager I once worked with famously made the statement that “everyone is replaceable.” It's a statement that is made and I hate it as I find it lacks the appropriate nuance. Ironically, this manager is one I find to hire very well. In a sense, his statement is accurate: everyone will be replaced and organizations will go on after people leave and their replacements arrive. But the statement also falls short at the same time. Workers are far more than the collection of tasks they are hired to perform. They bring differing levels of capability to their job, they will establish different types of relationships with various stakeholders in the organization. They will have different interest, energy, and commitment levels, so they contribute in different ways. One’s leaving a position will create numerous ripple effects and impacts, some positive and some negative. The same is true of someone newly hired. Hopefully they will be able to perform the job they’re hired for, but they will also bring so much more that is different, both good and bad.

Consequently, hiring well is profoundly important for both the manager and the organization. Having great employees removes a huge portion of a manager’s burden. Thus, it’s easier (and there’s more time) to work the manager’s ever-changing puzzle. And, of course, good people always improve an organization (provided the organization is open to them). Always.

Thus, the mistake I think the CEO was making when she asked if I might be better off by stepping aside from the hiring process is that she saw the task as getting somebody in to perform a collection of job responsibilities. She saw this aspect of a manager’s job as mechanical, let’s say like Newton’s universe, whereas I saw it as relative, much more like Einstein’s universe. That is, to my mind you don’t put somebody into a job and simply get a set of completed tasks as outputs. Rather, you get a whole collection of effects, short-term for sure and potentially long-term, minor as well as potentially major, a lot of which can’t be easily foreseen. Meeting job requirements is a base expectation. But, there’s a lot more to hiring well. A whole lot more!

The lesson is to not treat hiring transactionally. People are not like goods or supplies or systems or services that you purchase. They’re far more complicated and impactful. Ironically, we are often much more attentive and careful when spending money on non-human resources, which is a fundamental mistake managers make. Hiring well is simply the most important and possibly most difficult thing we do as managers and, therefore, should almost never be delegated regardless of what else is competing for our time. Make it your top priority.

In the end, the CEO and I agreed to disagree, I was part of the hiring process, and, happily, we hired really well in this particular instance. Everything else got done, too, but the most important things should come first.