Lesson #4: Don’t be frightened to employ people that may be smarter than you.

This is an article series based on lessons learned from my great mentor Lionel Morely Joel. Read the first article to understand the background and then dip in and out of the lessons as you please. In today’s lesson, why you need to get over your own ego when it comes to hiring.

Things were going well at Newbourne Publications. The company was growing and we were making good profits. With a few stern words and being put back in my place regularly by Lionel, I was learning fast. And I had just learnt what compassion really meant in terms of driving a company’s culture.

As I was getting more and more involved in running the business, we determined that we needed a new sales director. And not just any sales director, the very best – although this would be a very large investment for the company.

We had narrowed the candidates to two. Both were very good but one was outstanding: a really intelligent and savvy guy. The trouble for my part was that I felt intimidated. I was worried about him being smarter than me, taking some of my ground that I’d worked so hard to earn. So when I was interviewing him, I could sense that I was trying to challenge him and find faults in nothing – I was certainly not being fair to him.

When it came to the discussion on which applicant to hire, I wanted the very good candidate, not the exceptional one. All my life up to date I had felt insecure, and that insecurity was pushing me away from the making the right choice. But Lionel knew me all too well by this point: he knew what I was doing and how I felt. So he called me into his office, lit a cigar, and told me the following.

“Newbourne has come to what I would call ‘the make or break time’,” he said. “We can stay as we are – comfortable, making profits – or we can go to the next level. But to do that we must surround ourselves with the right people; smart people; people that can think for themselves. People that will challenge us and question our decisions. If we stay with current staff structure we will continue to grow, but slowly. Or we can accelerate that growth by investing in the very best staff we can find.”

As always Lionel was right (how long, I wondered, before I would ever be as smart as Lionel). So we employed the right person, and wow did he make difference to the company. Was I comfortable? No of course not, particularly early on. But ultimately I now had Lionel and the new sales director (who was 10 years my senior) educating me and helping me to grow the business.

After taking over the helm of Newborne several years later, I went on to sell the business for a not insignificant amount of money). If it hadn’t been for surrounding ourselves with the very best people a successful sale at an excellent price would never have occurred.

So please, if there’s one thing to consider if you want to know how to hire well: don’t be frightened of employing people that are smarter than you, because ultimately they will make you look better.

On a side note: Sometimes when a young company is growing fast and money is tight, it is not always possible to take on the very best staff, because they cost too much. However, there are some very young and clever people that are just waiting for time to prove themselves. Yes they maybe raw, and often inexperienced, but when you give then that opportunity just watch them go for it. So finding the best does not always mean paying for it. Ignore youth at your peril.


Next: Don’t be afraid to change course, even when you are in front.

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