Opinon: Turning hiring on its head

Opinon: Turning hiring on its head
Here's a novel idea: hiring staff who aren't just competent, but who are humble, helpful people

I recently revisited the 2010 movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the one where he is the ultimate socially-awkward geek. I also read the new book Haunted Empire:, which portrays Apple Boss Steve Jobs as a passionate virtual psychopath; charismatic, but almost impossible to get on with.

Both companies thrived under bosses who recognized brash, technological success over, well, being a nice person. It worked. Both Apple and Facebook were wildly successful. Depressing? 

Actually, this experience is unusual. Most companies at least pretend to lay on the charm to get and keep customers and staff. Note job ads seeking “team-working ability” or “good communication and interpersonal skills”.  

Employers in an Economist Intelligence Unit/SAP survey put soft skills in the top three most crucial and difficult-to-find attributes for their staff. Which got me thinking about niceness.

Twenty years ago I interviewed Andrew Makin, the then new-ish boss of Clear Communications, who was tasked with building a new telco, up against Telecom, the intransigent monopoly. 

What still strikes me forcefully was Makin’s call centre hiring regime.  He didn’t want anyone who had worked in a call centre before; instead he was looking for social workers, nurses, people who had been looking after their old mums, or organising the Red Cross bake sales. 

Basically he wanted nice people who liked helping others. If “emotional intelligence” had been coined in those days, he might have used that. Certainly being loved was a radical new experience for customers at a time where “call centre” meant “technical assistance” – if you were lucky. Clear’s helpline staff were helpful, sympathetic, problem-solvers, prepared to hand out the call centre equivalent of a cup of tea and a biscuit If they felt you had had a hard time with the technology.

By the time Makin resigned in 1997 the company had doubled in value and staff numbers, become profitable, and expanded its services and market share.

The influence of Clear’s niceness hiring policy in all that is totally un-knowable, though it’s interesting that customer service is a major focus of Telecom’s transition to Spark. But it would seem logical when companies are competing globally for customers and staff, that employing nice, helpful people would give you an advantage in both.

Former Maxnet CEO John Hanna says “humble” was the number one capability he looked for recently when hiring staff for Network for Learning, (N4L), the company tasked with delivering a secure Ultra-Fast Broadband package, including content, to the country’s 2500 schools.

Hiring brilliant, pointy-headed geeks who could power through the techie stuff would have seemed like a logical plan. Instead, Hanna looked for “competent humility” as his make-or-break factor. He argued teachers’ experience with government-run IT projects “might have created cynicism”. (“NOVOPAY” screamed the elephant in the room).

Educators needed an amazing IT solution from people who listened, were available and helpful, and who got everything working first – and skited about it later. N4L has delivered a complex system well ahead of time and on budget. Teachers are happy, if their Twitter posts are anything to go by.

Obviously no one is saying we shouldn’t hire competent people, but sometimes the most competent people are also the biggest pains in the butt. And Clear and N4L aren’t the only NZ companies that have tried to surround their customers with tech love. Still it’s uncommon enough to be noticeable. 

It shouldn’t be. Maybe NZ Inc should take to heart US recruiter John Swan’s SWAN hiring formula: pick people who are Smart, Work hard, Ambitious – and Nice. ⋅