The Cult of the Best

If there is one phrase that almost every recruiter, hiring manager, and executive uses, “We only hire the best people” would be it.

While there are a few variations on this, it expresses the universal desire we have to be part of a successful organization. And we believe that it is only by hiring the best people can we do that. In the United States, particularly, we have equated best with factors such as which schools someone attended, what prior organizations they were employed by, and how verbally articulate they are in the interview.

I do not know if this is because we want to validate our own background or because we genuinely believe that these factors make the biggest and most important difference in assessing performance.

If you look back over the histories of organizations from Enron to Silicon Graphics or from Microsoft to Google, you find CEOs and recruiters stating how brilliant their employees are and how hard it is to get hired at their company.

We have created a cult around people who have attended certain schools or worked at certain organizations. Implied in those statements is the assumption that because of these smart and highly educated elites, we will be more successful than other organizations.

What they have not done is to see whether their beliefs are supported with evidence and business results. When that analysis is made, it is very hard to support the cost, effort, and time spent in getting people on board.

Jeffrey Pfeiffer, the co-author along with Bob Sutton of Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results With Ordinary People, and a professor at Stanford, records that ordinary people often work out better.

He cites the example of Michael Jordan, world-famous basketball player, who was cut from his high-school basketball team. And he points out numerous other high performers who have all sorts of issues when it comes to both performance and teamwork.

We all tend to believe that it is only the people that make a difference in an organization. We dismiss the value of process and systems in making an organization run smoothly and effectively.

As Bob Sutton says, “It is reflected in many misguided ideologies and management practices, which focus excessive energy on hiring stars and weeding out mediocre and poor performers, and insufficient energy on building a great system that enables most competent people to succeed.”

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The best people often emerge from within your organization, or are made by it, because of the systems and processes you have in place. I believe that you may not want to create an organization full of competing “A” players.

One characteristic of these players is that they do not always perform well, compromise well, or blend in with others. It is almost impossible to find superb, acknowledged top performers outside your firm and then insert them successfully into it as part of a team.

However, when organizations combine rigorous development activities and provide continuous new job opportunities to their employees, they produce a large number of internal top performers.

IBM and General Electric are companies that I immediately think about when I look for organizations that have what appears to be more than their share of competent employees, and those who help the organization perform well and who are sought after by everyone.

These are firms that have a philosophy of hiring good people, but not necessarily the very best, often early in their careers. They have then spent millions on development programs, have established internal rotations, and encourage employees to move frequently internally to gain knowledge and exposure.

On the other hand, companies that have spent huge amounts of money and time on seeking out what they consider to be the best, do not necessarily have creative or above-average workforces. There are many analogies in the sports world. Many highly paid and valued players end up performing poorly and many top players were considered poor choices or weak as rookies. They excelled, however, when challenged and when they were part of a well-functioning machine. Great players tend to emerge over time, rather than appear fully formed at the interview.

Here are three ways to improve your hiring and development systems:

  1. Accept that no one really knows who the best performers will be. The problem in looking for the best is that you are always using criteria that are suspect. The fatal flaw inherent in all competency systems is change. What has been successful or what is successful in a particular place may not be in another. What was a winning competency set here may be a losing one in a different time or environment. Take General Electric’s CEOs as examples. Jack Welch’s predecessor, Reginald Jones, was a detail-oriented, systems guy. He required elaborate strategic plans from each of his business units. He focused on developing a smooth-running machine. Jack Welch, however, had a very different skill set. He was a “big picture” guy who focused on vision and then on developing managers who could execute that vision with little need for Jack’s daily handholding. He encouraged and empowered. Each of these skill sets was equally right for the time and place it existed, but neither would have been as successful at another time. Even our current performance management systems tend to restrict creativity and reward only those who do yesterday’s work well. We need to build reward systems that focus on team and work groups, not individuals, so we encourage everyone to participate and grow. When this happens, unlikely people often emerge as the best.
  2. Provide development opportunities broadly for everyone and reward and promote those who take advantage of the opportunities. If we believe that talent often emerges where we least expect it, we cannot afford to limit development opportunities only to certain levels or types of employees. Firms that take an open view of development and let people find their own levels of competence and interest, often produce “A” players from those others consider only “B” players.
  3. Have recruiters monitoring and sourcing internally aggressively. Most of the very best talent comes from within and from below. We are all enamored with the outside “guru” and frequently pass on the person right in front of us who is equipped with the skills, the cultural understanding, and the motivation to exceed. Recruiters need to develop internal networks and encourage managers on the need to give people opportunities, even when the exact skills are not a match.
  4. Look at selecting people for broad-based competencies. We should be looking to hire people with motivation to learn, with team experience and success, with cultural compatibility, and with a basic technical skill set that can be developed by experiential opportunities and good mentoring. We need to move away from rigorous narrow competency definitions and reliance on experience as an indicator of performance. “A” players are hard to define, impossible to recruit consistently, and need to be “dug” from within the firm or built through experimentation and education. While these tactics are time consuming, they are also successful.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


2 Comments on “The Cult of the Best

  1. Kudos, Kevin. As you so eloquently pointed out, the mindset in our country seems to be ‘only hire the best’. Nice words on paper and in PR releases, but the fact of the matter is all successful companies are able to blend employees for the good of the whole.

    ‘Only hire the best’ smacks of the trite, worn out, overused, and abused phrase ‘our people are our greatest asset’. Sure they are, until the bottom line doesn’t show the results that Wall Street expected or some misguided CEO sold the company ‘down the river’.

  2. Perfomance is only a piece of success. The rest is the fall-back iq and resiliency we have in overcoming our failures. Especially the tendencies we have to revert back to adolescence when it didn’t matter how big our mistake was until someone found out who we truly are.

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