5 Key Hiring Lessons From Senate Confirmation Battles

3 min read · 10 years ago


With the Senate set to grill Obama's choice for secretary of defense, lessons from Washington–yes, Washington!–on how to secure the best people.

After living and writing in Washington for a decade–and also as a result of being a self-confessed political geek–whenever I'm involved in hiring decisions I often engage in a strange daydream.

At some point, I wind up closing my eyes, imagining that the hiring process is a Senate confirmation hearing.

There's no question I've been stuck inside the Beltway for too long. But I'd also like to think the mental exercise stems from some smart analysis I've heard that applies to both startups and government:

1. Great ideas are important, but execution is more important.

2. The biggest factor in execution is to recruit the right people to your venture.

Based on these truisms, as President Obama sets out to get his two most important cabinet posts filled–Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense–here are five lessons for picking great personnel. They apply whether you're finding people to run a multibillion dollar federal budget or a small division within your company.

1. Pick Your First Choice, But Also Pick Your Battles

This is really the crux of choosing cabinet secretaries, since all nominees must be confirmed by the Senate. Obama has already set aside his first choice for secretary of state, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, due to Republican opposition, before turning to Kerry. But, he's stuck with Hagel so far, in the face of significant opposition in the Senate.

Obama apparently understands that on personnel, you have to pick your battles–but you have to fight and win a few, too.

Lesson: People are the most important part of an organization, but no individual is more critical than the organization itself.

2. Appeal to Higher Ideals

There's an old saying in Washington: "When the president asks you to serve…" It's often left hanging like that, as if it's so obvious that if asked, any honorable American would automatically put aside other considerations, move to Washington, and lend a hand out of a sense of patriotism.

A similar rule applies to entrepreneurship. When you think of the ventures you've been involved in, you likely brought your "A" game more naturally if you were committed to the organization's goals. So recruit true believers.

Lesson: Purpose beats just about everything else. Compensation is important, but you need a compelling vision to keep the best people committed.

3. Fill Gaps and Shore Up Support

Take a look at perhaps Obama's most important cabinet selection during his first term: Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state.

It almost seems like ancient history now, but Obama and Clinton had endured a bitter primary fight. It was anything but certain that she'd be happy reporting to him, even while serving in what is generally considered the most important cabinet slot. Picking Clinton mended fences, and by all accounts she became a key, trusted member of his team.

Lesson: Find people whose decision to join your venture will send a positive message to the rest of the organization.

4. Fit Matters

Often, it's easier to find people with the right credentials than it is to find people who "fit" your organization. It's probably too early to reflect on how well Obama's choices "fit" his presidency. But we don't have to go back too far in history to find examples of a fit going very badly.

Take, for example, President Clinton's choice of Janet Reno to be attorney general. Reno was Clinton's third choice after his first two picks dropped out. He and Reno had never worked together before. In the end, by all accounts they had only the most formal relationship, and Reno wound up neck-deep in the legal process that led ultimately to Clinton's impeachment.

So, it's important to think long and hard about how well a potential recruit will fit with your organization and culture. On the other hand, where it's clear that you've made a mistake and the fit just isn't there after all, it's important to make necessary changes quickly.

Lesson: When it comes to "fit," hire slow and fire fast!

5. Be Worthy of Your People

It's far too nice and sunny outside for what I'm about to write, but here goes: In the long run, we're all dead! Perhaps a better way to put this is that our accomplishments can last a lot longer than we do.

That's true for government. Even cabinet secretaries who help to accomplish great things work in relative anonymity. (One of my favorite examples: Henry Stimson, secretary of war during World War II.)

We only get so much time on this earth. So as entrepreneurs, it's important to lead organizations that are worth our people's time.

Lesson 5: As a leader, your most important job is to ensure that your organization–and your people–will leave behind a compelling, positive legacy.

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