Every start-up as it chugs along gets to a point of success where they need to hire for a position they haven’t hired before. And hiring for new positions is a big pain. It’s outside your experience, it seems very fuzzy, opaque and difficult to determine what’s required, and the pressure from your colleagues, your Board and yourself is to get this hire done. Now.
So there are two paths that start-ups go through, and they usually go through both:
1. A detailed process of figuring out what makes somebody in this position successful, what duties they’ll have to perform, and determining who has a demonstrated track record of enjoying and succeeding at just this type of work.
2. Or hiring a friend, who they know really well, is a great person, has been very successful at something else, and will take the job.
Yep, start-ups tend to go through both. Unfortunately, they go through them in reverse order and do #2 first and #1 second. (I should know, I’ve done it.)
Because it’s particularly maddening when you’re a group of engineers trying to hire a PR person, or a bunch of direct marketers hiring somebody to cover brand, or a group of sales guys looking for a product person, the tension to just hire good ol’ Charlie and get it done can be enormous. It’s frustrating to try and pierce through the curtain and figure out what goes on back there in an area you are so unfamiliar with.
I think the White House got itself into just this type of personnel goof this week. Every White House is a start-up, and I think the people issues they run into are relevant to fast-growing companies (how would you like to try and hire several thousand people to run an $11 trillion business in the space of two months? Over the holidays no less?)
Desiree Rogers, a fashionable, well-educated, successful businesswoman who loves the limelight, was named White House social secretary and is in hot water for the security lapse at the White House this New York Times article points out.
And it has led to embarrassing PR like this SNL skit from last night:
Ouch. And the fact that it was Obama’s first state dinner makes it double ouch.
So what can be learned from a recruiting point of view?
First, let’s presume, as her resume seems to indicate, that Desiree Rogers is a highly accomplished professional.
Second, based on the article, she was in the wrong job. Ms. Rogers is a personality unto herself, enjoys being in the center of attention, and is an inventive, creative person (rather interesting to find in a utility executive, by the way):
She posed for Vogue, turned up at the Thakoon runway show in New York and was quickly named the city’s best-dressed woman by readers of The Huffington Post…
The public conversation quickly turned to Ms. Rogers herself and whether she broke some unwritten code of social secretary dos and don’ts. She shouldn’t have attended the dinner as an invited guest. (Social secretaries rarely do.) She shouldn’t have paraded in front of photographers in an avant-garde Comme des Garcons gown. She should have been something Desiree Rogers is utterly unaccustomed to being: invisible.
The job of White House secretary is an operational job — making sure the lists are collected, the guests are inspected, and mistakes are corrected. It is not a job where you show up in bleeding-edge fashion yourself.
So the White House needs somebody in that role that is really watching all of the nuts and bolts details, is happy being in the background, and will make sure “the trains run on time.”
In retrospect, the Obamas should have hired somebody with a background as an ‘invisible’ social secretary, accustomed to making sure his or her boss’ were in the limelight and that they wouldn’t be embarrassed.
And in the case where they were looking to stretch the functioning of the role to cover both this branding and promotion role (at which Ms. Rogers seems to excel) and the “wedding planner” role (where there can only be one bride), they should have separated the jobs and hired two people.
The lesson for start-ups is: nothing beats a good job specification and an open conversation among you and your colleagues about what it takes to succeed in a job and whether a particular candidate has those qualities.