Hiring for change is different from hiring for maturity. When companies grow and start expanding one of the internal disciplines, there’s a common pattern that emerges: hiring a senior person to kickoff the new discipline and team. There are however a few key criteria to make this role successful.
- Seniority — They need to be senior in their subject matter
- Change — They need to be experienced in change management
- Power — They need to have effective power in the organization
It seems intuitive that one needs an expert person to do this kind of work. However, there’s often a misconception here: the person being hired should be tasked to grow the discipline and the team, not do the actual production work related to their discipline.
For sure, in an ad interim period, or if there’s a gap, they might from time to time cover that part too, yet it’s important to highlight that the seniority here is necessary not as executors, but because:
- It builds trust toward senior managers and team alike.
- It allows to know in which form the discipline can be integrated and grown.
- It allows to hire the right people with the right skill set for the company.
Even if the company is small, remember that hiring a single person to “do the work” will create a single point of failure. Even in that scenario, the new person will work on growth, and not exclusively on direct work..
Hiring a senior person isn’t enough: a person with change management experience is needed, specifically the kind of change management that is about creating a new team and showing the value of a new discipline.
This is a wildly underestimated skill, but ultimately it’s more important than the actual discipline seniority of the person. The reason being that especially at first the new person won’t have the context and connections to practice the more nuanced and advanced aspects of it, so even if they are just mid-level in terms of their discipline, if their change management skills are really advanced, that’s great!
It’s also useful to remember that there are different kinds of change, and this is a scenario of bootstrapping something new (or heavily understaffed and unstructured), which is different from an existing discipline that need to evolve, transform, integrate, etc.
It’s also rare to find a person with change management experience, but good signs for this are experience in new teams, experience as a coach, and experience in open source.
If you hire an incredibly talented person with no interest or no skills in change management, you’ll risk to validate the internal cultural bias against that discipline. The outcome is “see, that didn’t work, stop advocating for it” and the growth of the company in that area risks to be delayed further by two or more years — in my experience, 2 years it what takes for a company to “try again”. This means that the lack of change management skills won’t just harm in the moment, frustrate people, and create an awful experience for a senior person — which, by the way, is likely going to mention the company failure in private conversations — but will also hurt the strategy in the long term.
Hiring even the best candidate with all the needed skills, and then limiting the amount of leverage they have in the company is one of the most catastrophic scenarios. If you hire for this, make sure you empower them to make the needed change. Here are a few things you might want to consider to make this change succeed:
- Be ready to coordinate and start a hiring plan with the new hire — which means, have budget for it.
- Be ready to provide top-down trust and endorsement to this person’s actions over an extended period of time — be public about the company’s intent, share as much as possible the work that is being done and how beneficial it is.
- Be ready to connect the new person to the key people in the organization — ideally, you should have a plan for this even before hiring, even if you must be open to change and update it once the person is hired.
It’s also very important to be realistic and not promise the sky. Even if the person is given enough power, there will always be a limit. Try to be forward in clarifying what that limit is, and how much of a challenge would be to push that limit forward.
Prepare to hire
To make sure the hire is successful, the work shouldn’t start with the opening of the job profile itself, but way before.
It’s important to prepare the ground, making sure that all the stakeholders are open for the discipline growth, and the new hire. This shouldn’t stop just at “ok, we’re going to hire”, but it should identify for each of the stakeholders what value are they expecting. If there’s a mismatch, this should be cleared and made realistic ahead of time as much as possible.
Ideally, there should be a vague but present idea on how the new person will collaborate with them. In some cases this might be just an ongoing check-in, in other cases it might be a more thorough integration with some people in their team.
If this seems like a lot of work, it’s because it is. While it happens from time to time that a new hire hit the ground running and they were able to thrive, why not make them more likely to succeed?
A final note on the preparations is to check if internally there’s already someone else that has an interest in the same area of the new hire. That person might have wanted that role for themselves, they might want to engage and contribute once things start getting in motion, or they are just passionate and want to connect. If you spot them, try to engage them early too as much as the role and hierarchy of the company allows. You might even find it’s better to just “hire” them in the new role!
How to hire
In short, when you want to add a new discipline, or specialize an existing discipline inside the company, you have to look with someone that has both seniority and change management skills.
Write the job profile with these two criteria in mind, and be explicit about what the work is going to be, and also what kind of power and cultural background exists to make change happen. Try to be specific about the situation: while nobody wants to say bad things about the company in a job ad, it’s also important to be realistic and not overestimate the role for the new person coming in. If there’s an uphill battle, find a way to mention it. Some people can appreciate it as a challenge, and some will sensibly decline.
Thanks to Jennifer Fabrizi for highlighting this topic and helping me review the article.