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If Not the "Best Person for the Job", Then Who?

By Evan M. Dudik

The Plot Thus Far: In The Business Maverick #5 I warned of the dangers of hiring the best person for the job, with a focus on demanding that your recruiter or VP of Human Resources find an "expert" to fill that demanding top management slot you desperately need filled.

I warned that contrary to conventional wisdom, specialists with track records of spectacular success can lock you in to solutions that put you in grave danger of failure when you need to tack the ship of business to a new heading.

So what is my recommendation? If not to hire "the best person for the job," then who? At the end of The Business Heretic #5 I promised a more radical solution. Here it is. For your top management positions, I recommend hiring just the opposite - a generalist.

What do I mean by a generalist? Here's the official IBM biography of chairman Louis Gerstner, who has led a spectacular turnaround of a behemoth company many had written off for dinosaur-like extinction:

Prior to joining IBM, Mr. Gerstner served for four years as chairman and chief executive officer of RJR Nabisco, Inc. This was preceded by an 11-year career at American Express Company, where he was president of the parent company and chairman and CEO of its largest subsidiary, American Express Travel Related Services Company. Prior to that, Mr. Gerstner was a director of the management consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., Inc., which he joined in 1965. A native of Mineola, New York, Mr. Gerstner received a bachelor's degree in engineering from Dartmouth College in 1963 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1965."

Look at that breadth - from engineering to MBA (no intervening work experience!) to the stratosphere of generality, strategic management consulting to travel services to the food industry to the computer/information industry! Now Louis Gerstner is the kind of person who is going to be a superstar at whatever he turns his hand to. He probably would have made one heck of an engineer if he'd chosen to remain in his undergraduate specialty. You may not be quite in the market for that level of horsepower.

However, we can learn from his biography. The ideal generalist is: Someone who has been highly competent in a variety of roles - but not necessarily a superstar in every one.

Now the crucial thing is that this generalist have in his or her background a few years of highly successful success in a specialization - and then have been promoted or surfaced into a more general capacity. For example, one of the best COOs I have ever met, whom I call Tom, has the following background:

Generalist Experience:
  • Master's and doctorate degrees in public administration - not an MBA and not an engineering degree
  • Leading research and development projects at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
  • Deputy CIO for the Department of Defense
Specialized Experience:
  • B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering
  • Managing the design and development of Navy shipboard missile, display, computer, and communications systems.
  • Managing software and system development for sensor and communications spacecraft, communications, and computer networks; architecture development of very large defense system networks

As important as these resume qualifications are the broad personal interests of this manager, including philosophy, psychology, languages, political science and auto racing.

It is crucial to find a generalist with specialist experience because:

  • You want someone who "has been there" - knows what it's like to be a specialist and can relate to their needs for precision. This helps in communicating with specialists you'll hire lower down, or contract with.
  • You want someone with a built-in "fraud detector" - someone who can understand the interlocking logic and details of specialists you hire or contract with - and can tell when statements aren't "hanging together." You can only acquire a "fraud detector" by actually being on the front-lines of specialist work. Otherwise any old proposal or objection can sound good to the naïve generalist.

It doesn't matter so much what the person has specialized in. Why? Because most fields of human endeavor in the arts and sciences have similar overall logical structures - whether it is engineering or marketing or philosophy or advertising or finance. Each one has its peculiarities - but the overall structures are the same. A generalist, if he or she is any good is able to comprehend the entire structure of a field by getting well into one.

That very fact is what allowed Louis Gerstner to jump from engineering to consulting to travel to food to computers. As an engineer and a consultant, he'd learned what to look for to get a firm understanding of each industry. As he freely admits, he knew next to nothing about computers or chips when he took over at IBM. But what he did know was how to learn enough about them and the business to lead those who were the ultimate experts.

Equally important to having both a general background and specialized experience, it's a good idea if your candidate has resurfaced to being a generalist having once been a successful. Otherwise you'll get someone who was never really comfortable dealing with all kinds of different things, but actually seeks the protective confines of a specialty. That's what so impressive about Tom's resume above.

Don't get me wrong: identifying a generalist doesn't mean identifying somebody who is "soft." You want them as hard-nosed-but as open-minded-as you can get them.

I believe that this kind of person will become only more important in the future to successful companies. For example, the heroes of the moment are the geeks who can grind out excruciatingly complex computer code under incredible time pressure. This is a specialized - and highly laudable talent. And many of these folks are achieving high status as managers and executives.

But I wonder how far that will carry them when the production of computer code becomes more automated. Where will they be when computing becomes, as it will, more biological than mechanical, and when computing itself succumbs to gene-based biology as the dominant force shaping the future?
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