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December 20, 2015

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Hire Adults

by mikediliberto

Ask almost any company founder or senior executive today about their greatest challenge and the odds are good that they will tell you that managing people is the task that occupies the most of their time, be it at the office or thinking about it over sleepless nights.
We’ve recently started repeating a new mantra in our meetings that will hopefully become cemented into our organizational culture and that is this:

In order to succeed, we need hire and develop adults.


We are far from the first organization to make this simple yet startlingly obvious observation, yet it is this simplicity that makes it so powerful. Frequently in meetings we will find ourselves delving deep into the minutiae of our company operations, and someone will bring us back to center by invoking this mantra.

“If we hire adults, we have to trust that they will make mature, informed decisions”

It is surprisingly liberating.

We’ve found that when it comes to making policies and rules within our organization, the charter to hire adults again informs these efforts.

Recently I’ve likened this to what I call our pants policy. We, like most organizations, do not have a policy that requires employees to wear pants. Despite this shocking oversight on our part, most employees show up to the office wearing appropriate clothing. These are the most basic examples of adult decision making that we trust our empoyees to make. Empoyees can also be assured that if they show up without pants on, someone (or perhaps, several people) within the organization will pull them aside to have a discussion about why that employee believes that it is appropriate to come to work in some state of undress.

That same unspoken contract that we have with employees about their clothing choices can be exended to almost all other areas of the company. This frees up an amazing amount of time.

For example, we, like many companies, fell into the trap of putting into place reactionary expense reporting policies. You can spend this much for lunch, this much for dinner but only if you travel more than this distance from home, et cetera. Pretty soon you need a dedicated staff member just to enforce these policies.

Here’s a better way:

Our expense reporting should be based on the belief that we have hired adults. This reduces pages of policies and regulations to one single sentence:

“We trust you, as adults, to make sound, defendable decisions about how and where you spend the firm’s money.”

What is unsaid of course is that, if you decide that expensing a personal vacation or a round of drinks for a bunch of strangers in a bar is appropriate, this will be treated just like a decision to come to the office without pants on; expect one of us to pull you aside and discuss whether you have made an adult decision based on appropriate decision criteria.

If we succumbed to the knee-jerk reactions that are far more common and easy, we might suddenly decide that we need stronger expense policies to prevent someone from submitting inappropriate expenses in the future. Before you know it, your rules get in your own way.

We would not make a pants policy if an employee showed up in their underpants; similarly we would be ill advised to put more expense policies in place as a reaction to a single employee that made a bad decision. Either coach that employee to make better decisions or move them out of the organization; it is a constant effort to keep ourselves from falling into the trap of putting rules in place that allow non-adults to survive.

Rules create organizational clutter, which like real clutter in your house, creates the need to “work around” our spaces rather than working within them. If you can liberate the organzation from clutter, your best employees will be free to do their best.

Some might accuse this mantra of being overly optimistic, and in some ways it’s true. Giving loose guidelines demands a different type of employee. It’s not smarts or experience, but rather maturity that informs adult decision making. If we hire fully formed adult human beings, we can teach them just about anything else. Hiring for attitude verses aptitude is one of the most important ways we ensure ourselves that we have hired the right employee for our organization.

One of the things that I am most proud of in my twenty year career in this industry is the opportunities that I have had to mentor and develop members of my team. Above all else, this mentorship has reinforced my belief that you can always train skills but you can rarely train attitude. I would far rather hire a mature adult or a global citizen with no experience than an experienced but immature employee that cannot make adult decisions.

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