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What Is One Of The Hardest Decisions You Will Ever Make? Hiring Someone Who Is Smarter Than You.

I just finished reading a great book The Talent Fix by Tim Sackett (I highly recommend reading the book and following his blog). In the book, Tim talks about how one of the hardest – and best – hiring decisions that a manager can make is to hire someone that is smarter than him or her.

He gets to the point on this with a powerful observation:

We don’t hire people who scare us .

When I think about this and reflect upon how I behaved as a manager I have to admit that there is a tremendous amount of truth in this statement.

Think about the implications of this hiring behavior. The hiring manager is:

  • Deliberately not recruiting and selecting the best talent available for the open position.
  • Putting their career ambitions or insecurities ahead of the organization.

Does this happen in today’s organization? You bet.

Digging in a little deeper, have I ever done this? Your honor – guilty as charged.

It is not hard to understand the behaviors that lead to this type of behavior. The organizational jungle that many of us live in fosters insecurity, uncertainty, fear, stress, and defensiveness. Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, talks about how environments like this elevate the amount of cortisol in our systems.

Cortisol is stress hormone that is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Cortisol can be life-saving when it comes to alerting us of impending danger. It can also be life-threatening when it remains in your system for an extended time. The long-term effects are that you will live in a state of constant anxiety.

According to the article, Cortisol – why It is Public Enemy # 1:

Elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and  memory , lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase the risk for  depression , mental illness, and lower life expectancy.

How do you combat this?

The easy answer is to work for organizations where you are not in fear for your position and standing on the corporate ladder. The tougher answer is to have the belief and self-confidence that bringing in super-smart people will make your team – and you – better.

Tim Sackett recommends that you include the following question in every interview that you have for new members on your team:

Are you better than me?

The key is then to listen to their answer and look for the candidate that says that they are better than you. Then listen to their reasons why. When you encounter the candidate that picks up on all of the developmental areas you need help in you know you have a winner.

Then ask – does hiring this person scare you? If the answer is yes, you may have found a great candidate.

I know that this may sound naïve and that I may be recommending career suicide. I understand. Believe me when I say that I also committed this hiring mistake out of job security fear (why bring onboard your direct competition).

The reality is that in today’s market, defensive hiring is the new career suicide.


Defensive hiring will make your team – and you – weaker. Today’s market requirements are constantly changing, technology knowledge drives most decisions, and for us older types – we are not getting any younger. Letting you career insecurities prevent you from hiring the very best will put you at more career risk than defensive hiring.

Need an example?

What will happen to a Vice President of Marketing who knows enough about digital marketing to talk with her peers but gets completely intimidated when she talks with some dreaded “millennial” who scares her with their knowledge on where the digital consumer is going?

Do you think that not hiring the millennial who intimidates her and “settling” on someone who is less “scary” is going to help her organization effectively compete in today’ market? I would say that there is more job insecurity in not bringing in the people better than you – in not bringing in people who “scare you” because in not doing so you risk market failure and something a whole lot scarier – being asked to leave.

Hiring super smart people can be scary, but it can also be just super smart.

Patrick Lynch is the President of CMP - Southeast, a talent and transition firm in the business of developing people and organizations across the full talent lifecycle – from executive search and leadership development to organization development and outplacement/career transition support.