When I was getting started with my own business I maxim that I heard often was, “Hire slow, fire fast.” At first I heard it as, “Be slow to add costs to your business, but if things turn south, be quick to cut costs.”
But as I’ve spent more time hiring and leading teams I’ve come to have a different perspective on it! But before we start talking about hiring. We have to talk about your job as a hiring manager.
Protect the team
As the founder. Your number one job is to protect the culture and community that you’ve built in your company.
The primary way your business will succeed. Or fail. Is not based on your own efforts. It’s your team that’s going to make that happen.
The highest-performing teams have trust. They believe that the team has their back. And everyone is pulling their own weight. We trust teams with clear rules and performance standards. And where our contributions matter.
So when someone gets fired, it tears at the fabric of that trust. Your team thinks, “You didn’t protect us. You didn’t have our back.”
So we want to be careful about who we add to the team because too much turnover wears out that trust.
So going slowly in the hiring process protects that trust.
Urgency invites problems
However, we’re often hiring it’s because we’ve lost a team member or demand has grown to the point where we’re overworked. Either way, it creates more work for the team! That additional workload adds urgency to the process. We need help now.
When I feel urgency in the hiring process. Then I tend to make some consistent mistakes. When I’m urgent, I make assumptions and take things for granted. I’ll say things like, “Oh, she’s got 10 years of experience. She definitely knows what to do.” Or I make assumptions like, “She graduated from an Ivy. I’m sure she’s smart!”
Worse yet. I might be listening in an interview and think, “Yeah, his answers weren’t great, but maybe he was just nervous.” I started making excuses to ignore the yellow flags that are in my head because I want to hire now.
When I’m urgent. I also tend to skip steps.
“I trusted him. I don’t need to check his references or do a background check. I really need to get them on that new project. Let’s just get them an offer letter.” Or despite the fact that I’ve taken the time to build an extensive interview guide so I can do a good job screening, I skip half the questions because I was so confident in this person.
The worst one is that when I’m urgent, it tends to make me lower my standards. “You know, I wasn’t sure about some of those answers. I’m a little worried about how he talked about his last boss. But everything else looked good!”
Or I’ll say, “He hasn’t done exactly what we need, but I think he can do the work.”
Do you hear how all of those things that urgency is leading me toward invite me to compromise my process? And when I compromise my process it’s more likely that I’m not going to hire the right person.
The cost of a bad hire
And when I hire the wrong person. My team starts to lose confidence in me. They don’t feel respected. They don’t feel like I’m protecting them and have their back.
When I hired the wrong person, my time gets eaten up in training and coaching them because they don’t have the skills or the characteristics that I need right off the bat. When I hired the wrong person my clients are disappointed and my team members might be resentful because they’re bailing that person out.
And if I hire the wrong person, I’m going to have to go through all the effort of firing them. And then doing this whole hiring thing over again.
So the idea of hiring slowly is to take the time we need to do a quality hiring process so that we’re more likely to end up with a high-quality person in that position.
Because adding high-quality people to our team continues the snowball effect, and makes the team better and better. And as the team gets better and better, I have more confidence to bring in better higher-quality work so we can make more money.
Hiring slowly creates a virtuous circle of improvement in your company.
Okay. We’ve talked about how important it is to get hiring right and how rushing creates uncertainty in the hiring process. But then, if I turn around and fire fast, don’t I end up just doing a lot more hiring?
What about firing fast?
Anytime we fire someone. We’re effectively admitting a mistake, a failure even.
Failures and mistakes are part of being human, and they’re a big part of being a leader. So when I recognize a mistake, I want to acknowledge it right away. The sooner I admit it, the sooner I can learn from it. And the longer I try to hide it or manage it the more damage gets done.
This is doubly true in personnel situations.
In my experience, once you know that there’s a performance issue. Your team has known it for a while. They’ve been making up for the problem or covering it up because that’s what teams do they have each other’s back. And so, by the time you become aware of it, it’s already starting to bother the team.
Now, I’m not saying you should fire folks when you first see a mistake or sense of a drop in performance, but you do have to address it immediately. Check out 5 Questions to help struggling team members for more about how to do that.
Before you start a performance conversation there is one critical question to ask, “Am I willing to fire this person?”
If you have a problem with a team member’s performance, and you bring it up with them, they have the opportunity to make changes to improve or to not make changes. If they don’t improve you will have a number of steps to coach, train, and encourage excellent performance. But if you can’t achieve that performance change, they need to find someplace else to work!
Suppose a team member doesn’t agree that there’s a problem or isn’t willing to do what it takes to correct the problem. And I don’t fire them. Then I’m forcing my team to pick up the slack.
If I’m trying to have a performance conversation and I’m not willing to terminate. That I’m telling my team that performance doesn’t matter, and I’m dropping the ball on that social contract that we have with them.
Sometimes you have to let them go
So the idea of firing fast is that I’m willing to have the performance management conversations as soon as they come up. I’m willing to work with people, train, coach, and develop them. But once I see that training, coaching, and development aren’t producing results. Once the person themselves isn’t taking responsibility for improving their performance, I have to be willing to terminate them.
Now sure, this is going to create a huge disruption. You’re going to have to transition a bunch of work. You’re going to have to start a hiring process. All of those things are true.
And all I can say about that is that it does get easier over time. When your team grows bigger, each additional person isn’t such a huge change to the team’s performance, capacity, and culture. When I have four people, and I add a fifth, it’s a 25% change; when you have 20, and I add a 21st, it’s a 5% change.
The smaller your team is, the harder it is, but the bigger impact it makes when you get it right.
Also over time, you’ll get more experience in hiring. I know that when I started doing a lot of hiring, my confidence that I could hire someone good grew, making me more willing to have those performance management conversations that I needed to have. Because I knew that I wouldn’t give in to the urgency and instead would take the time to make a good hire.
I eventually got to the point where I was confident that the person that I was bringing in would be better than the person I was leaving.
I’m not sure there’s anything you can do that’s going to improve your business’s performance more than building a solid team. And this maximum, the idea of hiring slow and firing fast is one key way to do that.
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