A man shopping at a garage sale spies a sign above a dog: “Talking dog. $10.”
The man asks the dog, “Can you really talk?”
“Sure,” answers the dog.
“That’s amazing. What’s your story, why are you being sold?”
“Well,” says the dog. “I recently returned from Afghanistan where I worked for the U.S. Army. Since I’m a dog, I was able to spy behind enemy lines. I’d then return to the base and debrief with the generals. Before that I was in Iraq working for the State Department, reporting directly to Hilary Clinton. The Iraqi leaders didn’t notice when I’d slip into secret meetings, so I’d listen and then fly back to the Pentagon to debrief Secretary Clinton and the president. Then, I met my master, and he wanted me to retire and come live with him here. And now he’s selling me. I don’t know why.”
The man returns to the dog’s owner, ” I can’t believe you have a talking dog! That’s amazing!”
“Yup, it’s a talking dog alright,” answers the man, in a bored tone.
“Well, I’ll take him,” he says, handing the man ten dollars. “But, I gotta ask. Why are you selling a talking dog?”
The man looks at him impatiently and replies, “Cause he’s a liar. He never even met Hilary Clinton.”
I don’t advocate hiring liars, but I do challenge clients to avoid establishing arbitrary criteria in their hiring and promoting plans. Too often decision makers focus on the wrong things, like subjective standards or conditions for a given job. These observations forced me to question whether most companies would hire their industry’s equivalent to Steve Jobs.
According to biographer Walter Isaacson and most accounts, Jobs was neither typical nor particularly likable. Best known as the co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple, we remember Job as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution-the person who influenced forever the entire consumer electronics field.
Steve Jobs was not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation, however. Apparently driven by demons, he could force those around him to fury and despair. But his personality, passion, and products were all interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as part of an integrated system-a system propelled by a binary view of the world. You were wonderful or terrible-either one or the other, sometimes in the same day. Stories of his tantrums, including rows with Bill Gates, have long dominated the hallowed halls of Apple, his bad behavior even prompting those who worked for him to establish an annual award for the person who best stood up to him during the previous twelve months.
Jobs could trace both his success and failure to the same root element: the refusal to accept that the bounds of reality and politeness applied to him. He and his team did the impossible, because Jobs didn’t realize it was impossible. Obsessed by perfection and compulsion, he wanted precision and excellence, and he didn’t let civility get in his way.
Jobs’ is a riveting story of the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, table computing, and digital publishing. He stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness and applied imagination. He built a company where leaps of the imagination combined with remarkable feats of engineering.
Not always nice and occasionally not very smart, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and magical. We will remember him as the greatest business executive or our era, but would your company have hired him?
When I work with clients to set up a succession plan, I often encounter an inability to spot exceptional talent and a general unwillingness to hire those who embody it–usually because it doesn’t come tidily packaged. Instead of decision makers saying, “This is a talking dog! What else matters?” they will evaluate the dog against the talent rubrics they created in some off-site meeting. My experience has taught me that there are four reasons for this behavior, reasons people don’t hire the best and brightest:
- They simply don’t know what gold looks like. They wouldn’t spot a talking dog if it bit them before it spoke.
- They feel threatened by the idea of hiring someone who might outshine them.
- Status quo talent practices make them feel secure-replete with all the random metrics.
- Star performers can be high maintenance-challenging traditional approaches, insisting on innovation and improvement, killing sacred cows, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Average people are easier to manage.
Continuing to hire average performers won’t position you for a competitive advantage, much less an exceptional advantage. You’ll need to do more. If you want a Steve Jobs or a talking dog, you have to create an environment in which they can do their best work. Or, you can let your competition hire them. Your choice.