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Good Hiring is Everything

Jim Kim once told me that he need not make any changes to Jim Wright’s senior administrative team: “If you give people the right direction and the proper budgets, they will do good work.” He could not have been more wrong.

Contrast that position with Jack Welch’s General Electric (now run by Jeff Immelt ‘78). Welch and his top managers spent 25% of their time on hiring, including lengthy interviews with people straight out of Harvard Business School. I have a friend, a Baker Scholar from HBS, who spent three hours with Welch before finishing his business degree; he turned down an offer from GE.

Phil Hanlon might keep these facts in mind as he puts together a management team at the College (virtually all of the top jobs are up for grabs these days).

First of all, hiring is a President’s core responsibility. If Phil staffs his administration with high performers, they will bring him first-class ideas, hire top-quality people to work under them, and they will save the College a ton of money in the process. That’s what good people do. Give them room to innovate and be efficient, and they will accomplish great things. Top-quality Presidents do not direct their subordinates around like marionettes — nobody is that smart, not even Jim Kim — rather, Presidents give their managers the freedom to be creative, they help clear roadbloacks to innovation, and then they perform triage on new projects from the higher perspective that only a leader has.

The upshot of that responsibility is that President Hanlon should be as involved in hiring as Jack Welch was at GE. For example, Phil, at the least, should have spent a couple of hours with the Tucker Foundation search committee to review in detail their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the committee’s finalists. By now, it should be obvious to everyone that reading a summary document was not enough. And then, before signing off on Bishop Tengatenga, Phil should have spent an hour or more alone with the man.

Sure a leader’s time is limited, but hiring is truly hard to do, and the cost of a bad hire is immense — far greater than the value of a few hours of a President’s day — and the upside of a good hire is equally large. As but one of an endless series of examples, Jim Wright picked Josie Harper to run the Athletics Department, where she dug a hole for Dartmouth athletics out of which we are only now climbing. Why the progress today? To his credit, Jim Kim — in perhaps his only first-rate decision — hired Harry Sheehy to turn the department around. A great move. Regrettably, Kim did not show the same wisdom with people like Steve Kadish, Linda Snyder, Carol Folt and Charlotte Johnson, and his administration was a failure as a result (among other reasons).

Phil should take the time to be different.

Addendum: Steve Jobs viewed brilliant hiring as an essential element of good management. He described its importance in an interview in 1998:

The key observation is that, in most things in life, the dynamic range between average quality and the best quality is, at most, two-to-one. For example, if you were in New York and compared the best taxi to an average taxi, you might get there 20 percent faster. In terms of computers, the best PC is perhaps 30 percent better than the average PC. There is not that much difference in magnitude. Rarely you find a difference of two-to-one. Pick anything.

But, in the field that I was interested in — originally, hardware design — I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream. That’s what we’ve done. You can then build a team that pursues the A+ players. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

He was also often quoted as offering more succinct advice:

A players hire A players; B players hire C players, and so on…

As we’ve seen in the past 15 years, the difference between a fine administrator (or President) and a weak one is enormous, too. Just look at how the College’s endowment has performed: in the 1990’s the College had the fastest growing endowment in the Ivies; since then the endowment has grown more slowly than all of the other schools in the Ancient Eight. That result is not due to poor investment returns; rather, spending by three weak administrations has been out of control.

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