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Business & Work ● January 2016

Hiring into boundaries

Hiring well, particularly in a small business, is hard for many reasons. It’s hard because a small company (like ours) rarely has rigidly defined roles. It’s hard because the role you think you need today will morph into unpredictable shapes over time. It’s hard because so much of it boils down to unquantifiable things like cultural fit and how a new hire gets along with other personalities on your team.

Even companies that have gone through the hiring process thousands of times struggle to guarantee a good hire. Take Google as an example—a company well-known for using brainteaser questions as a metric for hiring engineers. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, admits:

“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

The truth is, most of the positions we have at our company can’t be completely described in just a few paragraphs. There are nuances to each of them. Roles alter and then blend into each other as our company grows.

So how do you find the right person for those somewhat-vague engineering, design, business, or project management positions that most of us small tech companies are looking for?

When I take a look back at our own hiring record, a few things stand out. Our most successful hires can articulate, teach, and write well. They also can manage their own time well. All of this is to say that those we hire are typically great at communicating and don’t need to be micro-managed. None of this should sound surprising.

But, hiring well isn’t just about the person. An even greater indicator for success is how clearly we’ve defined the boundaries around the often nebulous roles we need to fill. Rather than defining each and every specific task-at-hand, it’s often more helpful to think of a position as a scope of responsibilities—where they begin and where they end. When you do this, it’s much easier to find people who are comfortable filling in the blanks within those constraints.

Looking back at the hires we’ve made at We Are Mammoth, we’ve been most successful when the boundaries of the positions are the most well-defined. We’ve hired great front-end and back-end developers, in part, because we know where the boundaries lie in that work. Development has been the core of our business since day one. We know we want pragmatic programmers who communicate directly and honestly with clients. We know we don’t need our developers to make business decisions or juggle financial budgets. This leaves a still-large, but clear-cut boundary around a developer’s responsibilities.

Mark Nichols, the editorial director at Flow, argues that the vast majority of people need that structure around their work:

First off, everyone needs structure. Just acknowledge that. It’s a basic requirement of any good, comfortable work; very few of us are such consummate artists that we can draw genius from the most bare of requirements. Structure is what lets us focus on our work, rather than navigating the best way to accomplish even the easiest tasks. The path from beginning to end needs to be well-tread and obvious. Your team should not battle a non-existent system.

While boundaries seem stifling, in fact, they empower people to self-manage because they know what they should own and what they should lean on others to provide. Without boundaries, employees either stretch too far and can’t focus on their most important priorities, or they work at too narrow of a scope and neglect the larger problems at-hand. In a sense, they have to define their own perceived boundaries since no one else will.

Naturally, that’s where confusion, tension, and misunderstandings arise. Nichols adds, “Being part of a workplace with too few boundaries [inhibits] workers; the power to change everything for everyone [is] totally undesirable.”

Not surprisingly, the hires we’ve had the most difficulty with tend to be in positions new to the business. Our first design director, systems engineer, and project manager didn’t work out because they weren’t fit for a job for which, frankly, we hadn’t fully figured out the boundaries yet. Our hiring misstep was in the assumption that we could easily assimilate a talented person to a still evolving position.

For us, there will always be a new role still in its infancy that needs a torch bearer to assume immediately. But, these roles don’t just manifest arbitrarily; they all grow out of some deficiency that makes itself more obvious over time. At the very least, we can establish some initial guesses as to where these boundaries—in the craft of the job itself, in mentoring others, in making business decisions—should lie.

If you’ve found the right hire—the one who can self-manage and communicate—and the boundaries of the role, the constraints truly will set you free.

Originally published Jan 11, 2016 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “The personal lessons I've learned in business”.