Let’s fix it: Hire the person, not the credential

What do Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell and, yes, Oprah — and innumerable other great entrepreneurs have in common?

They couldn’t get hired by their own companies today — as a product manager, let along as a CEO — because they don’t have an MBA or other advanced degree. In fact, since they don’t have any degrees at all, either HR or an automated screening program (the ghost in the machine that loves your keywords but doesn’t know who you are as a person, the application that can’t discern a brilliantly-crafted cover letter from a platitude-laden one) would send them straight to the reject pile. Even people with advanced degrees like Jack Welch (Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering) certainly wouldn’t be deemed qualified for the CEO position at one of the largest companies in the world.

HR “Professionals” who, most of the time, aren’t engineering, finance, marketing, sales, supply chain or other experts, are tasked with magically discerning who gets through to the hiring manager (which is why many hiring managers prefer to start with the Discard pile! — if they have access to it). They look for magical degrees, as though parchment indicates accomplishment and ability, as though the massive grade inflation at many schools and the Ivy League in particular, has no significance. The Educational Establishment does everything they can to further this myth. They pass over the insanely brilliant cover letter for the one filled with platitudes — or they ignore the cover letter altogether — and then we wonder why so many people are unable to write or even express a coherent thought. We’ve all met the impressively credentialed individual who was an empty suit. Who presided over the economic meltdown in the United States? All impressively credentialed individuals.

Even worse than the black hole that is HR are the automated scanning programs that search for a certain number of keywords, that are programmed by humans to screen out anyone lacking a certain credential or who fails to meet a particular, often arbitrary, criterion.

These dual practices, by the humans in HR and by the automated applications, take the best and the brightest, the most original, creative and iconoclastic — the ones who could change the world — out of the picture.

It’s time to #FixIt.

  • Instead of focusing on credentials, focus on abilities and accomplishments.
  • Instead of seeking a parrot of the job posting, look for original ideas.
  • Instead of throwing out cover letters or spending 5 seconds on them, look for those that evidence the spark of a mind that “thinks different” (and differently!).
  • Instead of relying on HR to triage, take responsibility for your own hires — and if you don’t originally have the time — then include in HR experts in the appropriate fields for which you’re hiring as well as someone who recognizes brilliant writing and communication when he or she reads it.
  • Instead of expecting automated screening applications to do the job for you, change the way you write job descriptions. Stop demanding credentials and start demanding proof that a candidate can succeed in the job.
  • Instead of adopting more and more structured interviews, which get a lot of great press, but which turn every candidate from an individual into the subject of a Turing Test, talk to those you interview as individuals. Yes, it makes your job more difficult, but perhaps you’ll actually learn something important about the candidate.
  • Instead of guessing whether an individual can do the job, give that person an opportunity to prove it — or disprove it — with a test assignment. Consider taking that a step further and instead of asking for a CV at all, consider asking for the answer to a question directly relevant to the job at hand.

There’s a lot of talk about the best and brightest. Many current practices, notably absent from founding teams, bury the best and the brightest and favor the conformists: those who don’t think different, but who think indifferently.

Peter Thiel gets it. He has been excoriated for his Thiel Fellowship, where promising entrepreneurs are given $100K to drop out of college in order to create something incredible. Why? Because Thiel is punching the credentialed establishment in the gut.

Instead of excoriating Thiel, we should be making statues.