March 10, 2014

Passion Trumps Talent, but Culture Is King

2013 was a big hiring year for Team Rubicon (Team Rubicon (TR) utilizes military veterans to rapidly respond to natural disasters), as it saw us quadruple in size over the course of about nine months (of course this means that we went from a small outfit to a slightly less-small outfit). Over the last three quarters of 2013 we went from six full time staff to twenty-five, while adding dozens of contract and part-time employees along the way. Hiring that many people while that small in size—without an HR department and while continuing to respond to massive disasters like the Moore, OK tornado or the Philippine typhoon—can be an enormous challenge. It’s an even bigger challenge when your organization holds itself to an incredibly high standard in an effort to build a high-impact team.

William, my cofounder, and I learned some invaluable lessons while we worked to add team members to Team Rubicon. The first lesson centered on passion. Much of what Team Rubicon does is highly technical. Rapidly responding to major emerging crises requires a deep understanding of emergency management, often a broad knowledge of logistical and operational principles, and occasionally a high aptitude for specific functions, such as technical-rope rescue or confined space rescue. Because of Team Rubicon’s rapid growth and public recognition, many of our job postings in our Field Operations department garnered a deluge of over-qualified resumes that were pages long (side note: never submit a resume to TR over one page in length, I don’t care if you’re the former FEMA Administrator). Likewise, when we first posted a director-level position to build our military veterans programming department, we were inundated with applicants that had backgrounds in high-level program management, Ivy League MBAs and loads of P&L responsibility. But they all lacked…something.

That something was passion. These were undoubtedly great individuals, and most of them were likely passionate about something; but all of their cover letters failed to convey a passion for us, for Team Rubicon, for the veterans they were going to serve.

At a loss, and still in urgent need of a Director of Program Operations, we shifted our focus. Knowing that we were surrounded by Team Rubicon members that were oozing passion, we began to search internally. We ended up filling that Director of Program Operations position with a young Army veteran named Matt Runyon. Now, Matt is no slouch in the talent department, but he was admittedly not the most qualified candidate we looked at. What Matt had, however, was an undeniable passion for veterans, and a history volunteering for our organization. Matt stepped away from a leadership development program at a Fortune 100 company to join our team; taking on far more responsibility than he had at his prior job. Some outside Team Rubicon would look at the enormous undertaking Matt is tasked with and assume we took a chance on him, but we see it as quite the opposite. We knew what we were getting in Matt—a teammate filled with unbridled passion for his work, someone we know will show up on Monday ready to take on whatever challenge is presented him. Matt proves that passion and talent aren’t mutually exclusive choices, but, the lesson is this—passion trumps talent, all day, every day.

This was only the first of the hiring lessons we learned. We also learned last year that you can have individuals with unparalleled talent and brimming with passion, yet they still may not be right for the organization. The difference is in culture. It’s like a key that fits but won’t turn—you can keep trying and trying, jiggling it this way and that, but in the end you likely have the wrong key. Passion trumps talent, but culture is king.

One of our key hires in 2013 was a Digital Engagement Associate—a social media ninja, Facebook fanatic, a real tweet slinger. Team Rubicon had built so much of its brand equity on the backs of witty and transparent dialogue over social media, but the task had become too much for our single Communications Coordinator and two founders to take on. We needed someone dedicated to this single responsibility. We posted the job and went through rounds and rounds of “final” interviews; each round of “final” interviews produced a couple of candidates that were talented and passionate, but still not right. They all lacked that dash of spice we were looking for—the ability to join our quirky and unique culture. Unwilling to compromise on the ‘voice’ of Team Rubicon, we kept re-opening the position. Finally, after the third set of final candidates was determined I threw my hands up and stated, “We can’t keep doing this, it’s been too many months and we’re wasting too much time. Let’s hire one—they’re all good, they’re all passionate. ”

Mike, our Communications Coordinator, looked at me incredulously. Mike had been managing TR’s social media for over a year, it was his baby. “You’re kidding? I’m not handing this over to just anybody.” Mike and William convinced me to reopen the position. Two days later we received an email from one of our long-time volunteers, who was recommending that we interview a high school friend of hers, Bobbi, who was looking to make a career change. Bobbi’s resume was excellent, she’d been doing similar work for the Red Cross, and it helped that she was a fellow Wisconsin Badger. The cover letter she submitted conveyed the passion we were looking for, so we set up a phone interview.

Five minutes into the phone interview William, who was sitting next to me, scribbled a note on a piece of paper and slid it over to me. “I want her,” it read. We offered Bobbi the job that night. Culture, it turns out, is king.

It usually helps to carefully craft a few questions that will help guide your hiring decisions. These can be questions you ask a candidate, or ask the interviewers following the interview. At TR we have a few in our pocket that we find to be very revealing. As an example, during every interview we ask applicants to tell us a joke, any joke, good, bad or dirty. If they can’t tell us a joke we ask them to give us their best Dumb and Dumber movie quote. We then immediately shift gears and ask them to pick which of the following three words is most important to them and why: courage, integrity or loyalty. Often we’ll follow that up with a second set of words: determination, judgment or initiative. There is no right or wrong answer, but the reasoning can be very revealing.

Then, after the interview, William and I always ask ourselves two hypothetical questions. First, assuming their livelihoods allowed them, would that person have followed us to Haiti three days after the earthquake? Then we follow it up with, if that person had asked us to follow them to Haiti, would we have had enough confidence in their leadership to pick up and go? The answers to these questions are usually the final go / no-go criteria we use for offering someone a position.

If you’re in a period of growth at your company, in a never ending cycle of recruitment, or realize that you’re having trouble with retention, then pay close attention to these lessons. Building a High-Impact Team requires having the right players on that team. Think about where you are currently placing the most value during the process—is it on the over-inflated proclamations of responsibility found on an applicant’s resume? Or are you searching for that little nugget buried in the cover letter that conveys why a candidate would be willing to move heaven and earth to make your team succeed? Think about your culture. Figure out what makes your team tick and then seek those that can add to it.

Here are a few things to think about when trying to build a team along the “Passion trumps talent, but culture is king” mantra:

Read cover letters before resumes. A scarce resume will likely get tossed into the trash bin without a look at the cover letter. Reverse the order in case there’s something to the candidate that will put that resume in a new light.
When possible, hire and promote from within. If they’re already in your organization, chances are they’ve already passed the culture test. If you give people a chance—even if the position is a stretch for their current capabilities—you’ll ignite an even fiercer passion and loyalty in them.
Consider 360 interviews. HR departments are in love with 360 performance reviews, where an employee is rated by their bosses, peers and subordinates—why shouldn’t we do the same during the onboarding process? When we hired our first COO, Ken Harbaugh, we had Ken fly out to Los Angeles to spend a few days with our team. Of course we told Ken it was to make sure it was the fit that he wanted; just as important, William and I told our staff of our considerations about Ken and told them to subtly interview him throughout the two days. As soon as Ken left we solicited their feedback, asking them if they’d like to work for Ken. It goes without saying that we hired Ken and never looked back.
Sometimes people slip through the cracks. If you find yourself with a culture problem, address it immediately. Nothing will sour an office or organization faster than a poor cultural fit. It doesn’t mean that he or she is a bad person, nor lacking in talent or passion, but they simply aren’t a good fit for the team. Wish them the best, thank them for their service, and help them find a good fit.