How Great Leaders Find Great People

There is an old saying that goes if you want someone to climb a tree don’t hire a horse, hire a squirrel. Kind of an inelegant quote but you get the message.

To prepare for this column, the  third in the series on leadership, I again looked through my library of business books to see what truly successful leaders are doing and saying when it comes to hiring great people. What kind of people do they hire? What qualities do they look for in the people they hire? And how do they match prospective candidates to their company’s needs?

Let’s start with  arguably the most successful investor in the country, Warren Buffet. This is what Mr. Buffet says about hiring the right people.

He looks for three things in every person he hires. These three things are: Integrity, Energy, and Intelligence. While energy and intelligence are important and germane to hiring the right person, it’s integrity that he really focuses on. He says, If you don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you. If you hire somebody without integrity, you really want them to be dumb and lazy.” By this he means that nothing matters without integrity. Buffet goes on to say that, “IQ, Integrity and energy cannot be taught.” They are either there or they are not.

Another industry leader, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says that it would be impossible to be successful in the internet space without extraordinary people. His company has three basic questions they ask themselves about the people they hire, before they hire them. 

And they are:


  • Will you admire this person?
  • Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?
  • Along what dimensions can this person be a superstar?


Bezos goes on to say, “The bar has to continuously go up. I ask people to visualize the company five years from now. At that point each of us should look around and say, ‘the standards are so high now. Boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!’”

I always like to say that you should hire in context of the team overall. How great will the team be with this new hire?  I have seen more than one company ruined from hiring the wrong person at the wrong time. In one particularly company I worked with the person hired had a great deal of talent but was kind of a lousy person. The owner, who was enamored of this guy, pushed him on the rest of the team. The team had met with the candidate and gave him the thumbs down. The owner hired him anyway and his presence was so disruptive that the team lost all of the passion and momentum they had built up and went out of business in twenty-four months.

This is what Sallie Krawcheck, former head of Merrill Lynch said  when it comes to hiring for the good of the team. She says, “ I don’t hire the best person for the job, instead I look to put the best team together.”

 Ms. Krawcheck hires for the team. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. It’s a whole team you are putting on the field at one time. It is the best team that runs a company to success. Not a bunch of individuals with their individual agendas.

Another thing she says, which I believe is probably the important lesson of all. “I look for people who make me uncomfortable. I look for people with qualities and backgrounds that are additive to, rather than the same as, the rest of the team. Hiring in this way makes the workplace less comfortable for the team but that is exactly the point.” To that I would add that if it is the right person and the rest of the team understands that they will all benefit from this person joining their team, they will embrace and take advantage of their differences. Particularly when those differences are complementary.

And finally, one last bit of advice from Zappos’ Tony Hsieh (who by the way is now a part of Amazon) 

A lot of our job candidates come from out of town. We’ll pick them up at the airport in the Zappos Shuttle, give them a tour, and then they’ll spend the rest of the day interviewing. At the end of the day of interviews, the recruiter will circle back to the shuttle driver and ask how he was treated (by the candidate) It doesn’t matter how well the day of interviews went, if our shuttle driver wasn’t treated well, then we won’t hire that person.”

I love, love, love that! I think that is one of the most significant benchmarks of hiring that I have ever come across. And it makes perfect sense. Especially for Zappos’ which is all about customer service. They are a company renowned for the great lengths their people will go to, to not only satisfy but actually elate their customers. Someday I’ll tell you the famous Zappos’ red sneaker story.

And just one more piece of advice that I like to live by when looking for people to hire. Hire slowly and fire quickly. Think about it. It’s only common sense.

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