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Is it more important to hire the best people – or get the most from them?

November 30, 2010

As up and coming small business leaders, we know that hiring the right people, and helping them achieve to their highest potential, are two of our most important responsibilities.  But which one is MORE important?

Many large organizations spend a lot of time and energy teaching their managers how to get the most from their direct employees - while devoting surprisingly little attention to the recruitment of “A Players.”  

Why is that?  Perhaps it stems from the difficulty of dealing with underperformers in large organizations – no matter how bad someone is at their job, it can be very difficult to fire them “only” for general incompetency.  So a manager takes stock of his or her team and figures they’ve “got what they got” in terms of personnel – so the focus turns to coaxing the most out of the existing lineup.

We small business types, though, would be toast if we operated this way.  Because we know that the real key to our success is hiring the very best people.  It’s not our job or responsibility to spin cycles trying to improve someone who can’t otherwise “get it done” on their own.  

There’s no time for that.  Besides, it’s too risky – a bad hire can be demoralizing to the entire team.  It drags everyone down when you have a less competent person onboard.
What we need to do is hire the very best people we can find, and then enable our hired superstars to perform at the highest level they can achieve. This basically means providing some support and guidance when needed – but really, staying the heck out of their way so that they can tackle projects and build great things, without feeling trapped by any managerial barriers.

To illustrate the vast difference between greatness and mediocrity, let’s create an example - at a big company, let’s take an average individual contributor, and say they have a baseline productivity of 1. Now a good manager may very well be able to “coach them up” to a higher level of productivity – maybe to 1.25, maybe up to 1.5 (25 or 50 percent more productive).


It is unlikely, though, they will ever equal the productivity of a higher performer, a great talent, who might perform at a level 2, or 3, or higher – that is, they are 2 or 3 times as productive as an average employee in the same role.

But here’s the important factor in small vs. large organizations – at a large company, the top performer is likely inhibited by the framework in which they must operate.  They must navigate through significant red tape.  They have a schedule packed with mindless meetings all day.  And most importantly, their role is limited by their job title – hence there is ultimately a ceiling on their potential contributions.

At a small company, the role limitations are significantly less (or even better, they may be virtually non-existent!) So our superstar performer is able to contribute near their highest level of potential output – not simply up to an artificial ceiling that has been imposed on them.

So a great person in a smaller organization may be 10 times, or even 20 times or beyond more productive than an average person would be in the same role. This could be the key product person – or marketing person – or even the CEO. The bottom line is that if we removed this person, we almost couldn’t imagine our company without them (we probably wouldn’t want to imagine it!)  Therefore, replacing him or her with 10, or 20, or even more people, is not a trade that we’d make.

Getting the best out of your people? Sure, it’s important – but when we do the math, we can see it’s not nearly as important as getting the very best people in the first place.

Brett Owens is chief executive and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time. Brett can be reached at 916-254-0260 and

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