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Hire “Jacks” (and “Jills”)

Sometimes you need to hire a specialist already trained in a single narrow task.  But for most of us, we’d do far better hiring someone who has proven from past experience to be a “jack of all trades” able to fill many positions, do many tasks, learn and perform in many situations.

You’d be going against the grain of advice by many who state that trained, experienced new hires will benefit the organization, raise the level of enterprise expertise, and fit in and contribute immediately.

On the other hand, many breakthroughs in business and science have come from the intellectually curious, the critical thinker who can ask questions that may be unexpected but lead to new solutions.  And many business leaders have expressed their opinions that JackOfAllTradestheir best hires have been the ones that are most-able to expand the enterprise’s ways of thinking and performing – using creativity rather than rote memory and specific academic education as the driver of innovation.

[Email readers, continue here…]  This leads to a discussion of new hire cost and of sources for new employees.  In the academic world, three new hires on the tenure track can be made for each two retiring with tenure.  That same ratio is close to reality in business.  In each case, the enterprise is able to reassess its needs in relation to its strategic goals, as the natural order is refreshed over time as people leave a business for any reason.

As to sources of new, young employees:  there are two very different types of educations.  Research universities often send their students through a rigorous program of education tilted toward specific specialties, with domain knowledge emphasized over critical thinking and creativity.  Liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, usually allow specializing in broad career tracks while emphasizing the elements of critical thinking, creativity and leadership skills.

For your needs, which young graduate would you select?  The title of this insight tips my hand, as I lean toward hiring those with those extra traits, and training them in the specific skills of their discipline.  The benefit:  a boost in corporate creativity and new blood at the bottom perhaps capable of future executive leadership.

  • Philip Bromiley

    I would object to Dave’s characterization of the graduates of research universities as lacking critical thinking and creativity. A large university produces a very wide variety of students. Some are narrowly trained – becoming proficient in many areas requires such focus. Others are less narrowly trained. The liberal arts graduates from a research university probably strongly resemble the liberal arts graduates from a top liberal arts college. The ability to coast through programs also differs – part of the success of engineers may come from engineers becoming accustomed to working harder in school than graduates of some other programs.

    Many, perhaps a majority, of the innovative businesses in the US have been driven by graduates of research universities. The big difference among schools is that the better schools start with fundamentally smarter, harder working individuals than less selective schools.

  • Lucien Ruby


    The worst hiring mistakes I made throughout my career came when I went for people with specific background/skills that I believed were needed in the venture at that time. The problems came when the perceived skills needed were not exactly what the venture actually needed—and it always happened that way—and the folks with more specific expertise often lacked the peripheral vision to identify and deal with the real problems.

    Once again, I agree with you. All the best.


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