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Hiring People, Not Skills

It was always important to Sansom (my business partner) and I that at Zero Gravity Labs we place an intense emphasis on culture and that we try to be purposeful about how it emerged. I knew that we would create an environment where we valued diversity, where we put emphasis on growing the skills and knowledge of our team and one where we mixed great work with the right work, the right environment and a place where they could grow as people. I knew we would do all of this. However, I also knew that the people we picked to be on this journey with us would be the most important cultural decision we could make. So with all the emphasis we were/are placing on trying to be purposeful about culture and more specifically about people we also made a conscious decision to change the way we think about the entire recruiting and hiring process. While I admit we do not have it completely figured out. We are continuing to look at our process, learn from it and refine because that’s in our DNA but there is one thing that I can say emphatically and am proud of when I look at our associates – we are living our values and we hire really great people, not skills.


Adapting To A Changing World


The workforce is changing, that is not a surprise, but I don’t think enough companies are adapting at speed. Of course, every company has to find people to work on specific projects or to bring a specific product to market, but think about your best associates, did they stay on that project/product forever? Of course not, they wanted to be stretched, and you wanted to stretch them. However, if you focus your hiring (or even your job description) on finding someone to fill a role because they have the right technical skill-set you are going to be disappointed in the long run. It is more important (in my opinion) to pay the utmost attention to how adaptable they are, what their potential to be a key player in your organization (with your help) is and how they are going to fit in your culture. If these are not your areas of focus you are setting up a situation bound to fail (for both you and your associate) when the associate comes to you after two years and wants a new challenge.


Today the way we write job descriptions, the way we level jobs and even the way we interview is a setup for the old world, the time when you expected employees to work for you for life. Employees would come in at a junior level and keep moving up that single silo in your company. In today’s reality, the best associates are those who don’t want a single path; they want diversity in their roles. They want to be stretched and challenged and want that to happen on a 12-24 month cadence.


If you want those types of employees (and believe me I do) then what is the point of hiring for a specific role description? You need to have some “table stakes” skill requirements and then go out and hire amazing people, not skills but people. If you do so, then in 18 months when that employee wants the next challenge you’ve set both you and them up for success because they are the type of “person” you want in your business and they can learn the new skills required for a new stretch role.


“Start-ups succeed in large part because their founders, executives, and early employees are highly adaptable, entrepreneurial types who are motivated to out-hustle, out-network and out-risk their competitors - and who thus generate outsize rewards - Reid Hoffman”


This also completely changes the interview process. We have an amazing teammate who screens the resumes for the table stake skills, but our interviews are about the person. We still mix in some homework because we want to see the person a second time and see the interaction between them and the team. We want them to share how they thought through a problem and how they share knowledge with others, but otherwise we’re hiring for people, not for skills.


We have a big vision; we believe that as innovators and disruptors we can be a part of shaping the world. To achieve our vision we need wonderful human beings with a desire and aptitude for learning to be on the journey with us. We need great people who want to grow their knowledge, but more so want to share it and collaborate with others to do wonderful things. Oh, and we need these same people to be adaptable to the pace of disruptive technology and shift their focus as needed.


With those needs in mind, it makes great sense (to us anyway) that we put the majority of our focus on hiring wonderful humans and that we know that those great people can (and will want to) grow the additional skills needed.


I appreciate that we don’t have it nailed but in the culture of experimentation & innovation that we are living daily at ZGL why would we not also turn the lens on the hiring process and adapt it to the modern, culture rich business we are trying to build?


I would love to hear from you on how you’re adapting your thinking on hiring and culture. Please connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter to continue the conversation.





Michael G. Cohen is General Manager and a founding member of Zero Gravity Labs.


Connect with Michael or any member of our team (we are hiring) by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.


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