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The board for the non-profit writing organization over which I preside had a meeting recently with a local legend, a board organization consultant. He was used to delivering the information he was giving us in several-hour workshops and he talked as fast as he could in the 90 minutes we had, while we scribbled furiously.
So I was writing still, sideways up the edge of my notebook page, when it occurred to me how universal to every sort of business was the advice he was giving. The people we need, he said, are those who have:
A passion for the organization
Maybe this is ordinary, everyday stuff. Yes, when you are hiring a barista or a salesperson, a new CEO or a President of the Board, a consultant or a rental property manager, you want someone with “deep commitment and passion.”
But that’s not how we often operate when picking people for our organization, or to represent us. That’s not how we often operate when looking for our own jobs (for pay or for their social good).
We operate like good high school students trying to look well-rounded on the college applications. We want to look impressive; we forget to focus on emotion, feeling (sometimes) it has no place in business decisions. But we’re often very wrong.
Slots and tricks
The consultant described two kinds of boards that did not, in his opinion, do the best work. One was a “slot board”; you have a slot for a lawyer, a slot for an accountant, a slot for a marketing person, a slot for someone who writes grants.
It’s often the case that those you get on the board often have only the most passing interest in your organization; when he said this, I immediately thought of a farmer’s market in town on whose board an acquaintance of mine served.
I was not just a fan of the farmer’s market; I shopped there weekly, I tweeted photos of my market bag and my favorite vendors, I wrote blog posts about the delicious foods I found there. They had a marketing slot open. My background was a mix, some marketing, but lots of other stuff too; they found a true blue, dyed-in-the-wool marketer instead.
The other sort is a board in which the members, said the consultant, try to trick some big name person into getting onto the board, with the idea that his presence will wow all potential grant funders, and Easy Street will open wide. I immediately thought of my on-again, off-again search for an agent for my book.
I have often heard of a great agent who gets her clients six-figure deals with publishing houses and actresses buying up rights, and thought, “if I could only convince that person I was marketable too!” I would be famous.
My epiphany, that I only really could use an agent who actually loved my writing and my book project, was deeply passionate about my writing and my project, was a big relief. No more sending off queries to people who looked good on paper; instead, send queries to people who seem as if they’d really like me.
The only capital we have is human capital
The consultant meant this statement about non-profit boards, but I don’t think it’s limited to 501(c)3 organizations. In small business, this lesson about passion should be a central tenet to all human decisions, whether our own passions (should we invest our life savings in a new business, or launch a product in an existing one?) or those of others (should I hire this COO with a Harvard MBA and a career bouncing from startup to startup, or this one with a state college business major and a deep love for my product?).
I can look back at any number of decisions made by people for whom I worked and see why they did, or did not, work.
At the direct marketing company I worked in 2002, the consultant with the high pricetag and the experience working with the biggest organizations was a bad choice, but the woman we hired because she had been the receptionist in my boss’ last job willingly stayed late every night and came in on the weekends.
At AOL, the guy who was a total stock market geek ran the finance site way better than the journalist with a little finance experience and a lot of Ivy League degrees who was hired to replace him.
In November, I had asked one of my old bosses for a recommendation for an ad sales rep for the magazine I run — the magazine to which I am deeply and passionately committed.
“Hire your biggest fan, ” he said.
It seemed like typical platitudes (he’s kind of a platitude-y guy) but I thought it over a while, and thought, he’s so right. We’re in this world in which quantitative results are positioned in our social media profiles and who you know is more important than what you know.
We live in this world in which I have been offered several jobs for no other reason than the school that granted me my Ivy League degree. My résumé is full of numbers — I’d tell you to do this, too, if I was writing your résumé — but, ultimately, everyone I selected when I was a résumé screener told a good story.
We published one piece in our magazine (it was a good piece, but still!) just because the author wrote a really enthusiastic note to us asking for a deadline extension, and saying how much she loved us!
Love is more important than pedigree
What this all comes down to is that it’s more important to find people to hire for your organization who love your organization and the way you do business and who you are than people whose résumés will impress your investors, or your competitors, or your friends, or your spouse, or your customers.
I feel that I should also point this out: just because you are hiring people who love you, don’t hire people for whom you simply feel lust, or who love you but are obvious screw-ups, or are your best customers but you’re pretty sure they’re dishonest. Continue to have standards.