Want Innovation? Hire Outliers.

I sometimes coach professionals who are ‘in transition’ – i.e., looking for a job. Often they feel burned out and say they want a major change, only to turn around and take a new job doing exactly what they did before, dreading it but feeling they have little choice. Salary requirements, experience and their professional networks lead them right back to what they’re trying to escape. This happens at an alarming rate in today’s corporations, and it’s unfortunate. Reluctant employees take jobs that others actually want and desperately need. Teams and coworkers pay the price, too. Who wants to work with someone who doesn’t like their job?

Unfortunately, in recruiting, it’s all about the resume. If a candidate has experience in a specific role and specific field, their resume will trump others who don’t. Identifying transferable skills is mostly ignored as a recruiting and hiring strategy.

This shortcoming extends to the interview process, too, making it hard to really assess candidates. The higher level the candidate, the more assumptions we make as recruiters: look what they know, look where they’ve been…what an asset they will be to our organization! Interviews in these situations become more about name-dropping and trying to impress each other, with no attempt to understand the candidate’s personal drivers or areas of burnout or struggle.

You can see the vicious cycle this creates. Smart, ambitious, committed people who want a change aren’t given the opportunity, and get “typecast” in the same roles over and over, whether they want them or not.

It’s time we hire differently, and think differently about hiring!

One of the most successful leaders I’ve ever worked with hired “outliers”: smart, ambitious people who didn’t have a lick of experience in the industry for which she was hiring. How did she do it? It’s actually pretty simple. She looked at the person first – what drove him or her and what he or she, personally, could add to the organization. “Smart people can learn,” she said. As a result, she had one of the most innovative and successful departments in her company’s history. Did some of these hires not work out? Sure. But not any more often than the “perfectly qualified” candidates she recruited.

The next time you find yourself needing to fill a position, stop and think about the kind of person you need, not the kind of resume. Look for character traits, innovative thinking and genuine interest in your company and what it does. Interview a wide range of candidates, including some “outliers.” If you’re willing to think outside the box, chances are, you’ll hire someone who will, too – to the benefit of your organization.


Jane Walton