IQ Interview: Seth Godin Discusses How to Assess and Hire “Linchpins”
By Jamie Danziger
Seth Godin really needs no introduction. He’s the author of Tribes, Purple Cow, Permission Marketing, and many other international bestsellers, and one of the most respected authorities on the subject of marketing. He’s also one of the most influential business bloggers and the founder and CEO of Squidoo – one of the top 100 websites in the US.
Known for his thought-provoking ideas and business strategies, he constantly challenges the status quo and in his latest book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? asks the question “why do you matter?” We recently spoke with Seth about where companies tend to go wrong in their hiring, and how they can do it better.
IQP: Do you have an overriding people strategy?
SG: We’ve moved beyond organizations that are just about filling an org chart - instead the most successful organizations are building tasks and opportunities around extraordinary individuals who make a difference. I call these individuals “linchpins” – people we can’t live without.
If you set out to find the cheapest person to fit into a defined slot, that’s probably what you’re going to find. I want to challenge people who are hiring to say “How do I find the most exceptional person to take advantage of an opportunity?” - not “how do I find the cheapest suitable person to get rid of this problem.”
IQP: How do you advocate people change their selection and assessment criteria?
SG: It starts with caring about what people do, not who they were or where they’ve been. Your credentials or the school you went to are not nearly as important as your ability to ship things out the door, your ability to take responsibility for the work that you do - your desire to connect with projects and people and make change.
If we look at successful brands and businesses in any category, you can divide people in most jobs into “change-makers” and “task-doers” - and it’s the change-makers who are the ones that are able to disrupt a marketplace efficiently for an organization to generate significant growth.
If you have that once in a lifetime business where you’re on a roll, you know where you’re going and you just need someone to do a task, then all of this is irrelevant. For most businesses most of the time though, the opportunity to hire someone is in fact an opportunity – and the person you want to hire is someone who in the past has demonstrated a desire to make mistakes, a desire to overcome institutional fear, and make things happen.
IQP: What is the best way to determine if you have a change-maker or a task-doer on your hands?
SG: One of the stories I’ve heard about how they hire at IDEO that I like very much, is they ask marketing people to come in with a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation of their portfolio and then give a 10 minute presentation and defend it to the group. What I like about that is that’s what you do all day when you work at a place like IDEO – you make presentations and defend them.
The goal to me of most interviews should not be to figure out if this is someone you want to have dinner with - it should be to figure out if this person does the job in a way you need the job done. The best way to do that is to actually create situations where they’re doing the work.
Sometimes you actually have the luxury of working with someone on a freelance basis or project basis, but if you can’t do that then my preference is to put people in situations where they are dealing with uncertainty and dealing with status quo and see how they’re able, in real life, to make change as opposed to just pontificate about it. All of the bad hires I’ve ever made, and I’ve hired a lot of people, were people who were great at pontificating, but weren’t great at actually initiating and executing.
IQP: Are successful companies of the future going to be made up of just change-makers or a combination of both change-makers and task-doers?
SG: Well it would be fairly impossible to be just change makers, but the real question is you get to pick what kind of person you’re going to be and which one you want to be. Do you want to be the replaceable cog working at the lowest possible price? Because sure, we do need people to man the cash register at Wal-Mart but no, you don’t have to do that job.
So I think what we’re seeing already is companies, be it research institutions or marketing organizations or customer service organizations, that create pockets or circles built around somebody who makes change and takes responsibility. That person is then supported by a number of people who are doing a job that you or I would not necessarily want to have.
IQP: You’ve advocated the notion of the five minute interview - are you truly advocating that or just trying to get people to think?
SG: Well I’m known to be incendiary sometimes and to throw out ideas to get people’s attention, but I’ve never written about stuff I wasn’t willing to do myself. The hundreds of people I hired, I needed to pay lip service to whether there was chemistry or not. I wasn’t willing to hire people that I didn’t like, but I knew, and research backs me up, that you can tell if you like someone in five minutes or not.
So yes, a five minute interview as a screening device makes perfect sense to me and I’ve done it many times. I recommend it highly because what it does is it forces the organization to not be lulled into believing that they actually did a thorough interview - that all they were doing was interviewing for chemistry. So go ahead, get it over with, and now do the real work once you’ve figured out if you can live with somebody, of digging deep enough to decide if you want to hire that person. But if you’re not willing to do the five minute screen, what you end up doing is wasting huge amounts of time and effort, hours per person, on a chemistry check you could have easily been done in five minutes.
IQP: When you’re assessing whether you like someone in those first five minutes, do you have tangible ways you assess or does it come down to gut feel?
SG: A lot of people have different biases about what their work style is. My work style is I like to work with people who disagree with me early, often and intelligently, and do it in a way that makes room for either outcome to be acceptable. So if I’m talking to somebody and they agree with every single thing I say, they’re boring to me. If I’m talking to somebody who disagrees with everything I say and isn’t willing to hear the other side, then I can’t work with that person. But if I can go back and forth with somebody around something that interests both of us and it makes me want to keep talking to them, that’s exactly what I’m looking for.
I might bring up a topic like a book they’re interested in or an idea that’s in the news at that moment and have a discussion around it. And if that discussion is an interesting one, then it’s likely I’m going to be interested in talking to that person some more.
IQP: What about the other fifty-five minutes? Is that where you’re digging into skill and experience?
SG: At that point I don’t interview them anymore – I work with them. Instead it’s “well here’s this project we’re working on – what should we do?” I’ll ask them to sit with me and say lets do this right here. Let’s figure out how to sell this thing to a certain company or let’s figure out why this cover is better than that cover, or look at some stock photo sites and tell me which images you’d use instead.
I don’t think of those things as interviews in the sense of “Tell me about three times in your past when you had a situation where blah blah blah”. Being good at being interviewed is not a particularly useful skill. I mean why would you want to hire someone who’s good at interviewing? How often are they going to need that skill?
Simple example – if you’re looking for a publicist for your company, you could interview five hundred different ways to discover that this person is reasonably talented at going down a list and calling people on the phone, spamming journalists, and trying to get them to write about you. But there are a million people who can do that so just hire the cheapest one. Why would you pay extra? On the other hand if you’re looking to make a difference in the community of media people and have your stuff get noticed, then I’d sit next to them and say here’s the press release we sent out last week – tell us what we did wrong and how we could have done it better. That’s much more interesting to me than discovering that they can answer my questions.
IQP: What other key messages in your book are there that you’d like to talk about?
SG: Well the thing that’s frightening about my book is I’m demanding that people ask different questions, as opposed to giving them a slightly different answer than they’re used to. The questions that we need to ask ourselves in a world where factories are irrelevant, in a world where everyone has a blog or Twitter account, in a world where I can get something done in India or China for a tenth of what I can get it done in Toronto, is “Why Do You Matter?” and what is it that’s holding you back from being that person that people can’t live without?
If you ask those questions, then I think you’re going to get a better job. And if you’re a recruiter then I think you need to be able to answer those questions for your clients. And if you’re a Hiring partner at a firm, I think the most important thing you need to say to yourself is “Am I hiring someone to fill a job description, and if so, why am I paying extra?” And if I’m not hiring to fill a job description, what’s the very best person I can get? Who is that person and what will it take to get them here?
IQP: Your question “Why Do You Matter?” is obviously primarily aimed at candidates and individuals, but does it apply to companies as well?
SG: You betcha. Once you’re a linchpin, once you’re someone people can’t live without, you have all the power. And the question on the other side needs to be why should I be your employee? Why should I let you be my client? When you look at firms that are really successful, one of the things they do is they’re extremely picky about who they take on as clients, because your clients define who you are.
IQP: Any last words for people on this topic?
SG: Think hard about what is going to be necessary to succeed for the next ten years. This new economy is either the opportunity of a lifetime or it’s a nightmare - and the real question is which one are you going to pick?
As Sr. VP, Operations, Jamie Danziger plays a key role in the on-going growth and success of IQ PARTNERS.
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