Why You're Hiring Process Sets People Up For Failure

There is a disturbing trend in the business world where startup and small business owners are hiring great talent, but setting them up for failure. 

Before we set up the problem, let's discuss the two types of employees in the world and why understanding what you need matters. 


Firefighters are essential members of your team. They're the people on your team with an ambiguous job description, but unambiguous worth to your company. 

When something is going haywire to, these are the people you go to. These are your first responders. The sustainers. Life is unpredictable. These people are flexible, adaptive, and, most importantly, proactively responsive to a situation.

In short, these are those people who keep your company alive today. 


These people are the ones who look lost in thought. Think of Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" Statue. They seem to be lost pondering. They're asking questions that, honestly, sometimes don't seem important to most of us, but may have long-term consequences. 

Frankly, you're going to sometimes be tempted to frustrated with these people. You may look at their day to day value, or even their month to month value, and wonder why you even employ them? Sometimes, you may actually have a legitimate question, but if you've really hired someone great then you'll have to have trust the process. 

In short, these are the people who are going to keep your business alive in two years. 

What's The Problem?

First, let me acknowledge that what I'm proposing isn't always a simple solution. There is a very necessary need for a dose of reality to acknowledge that we have employee salaries to consider here. This will be your largest problem to tackle to make what I'm going to say happen. I'm not going to tell you how to solve that partly because; one, that is not the point of this article. And two, it's going to look different for different business models to solve this problem.

But here's the biggest problem. Businesses need fires put out daily, and businesses need to be visionary and adaptive. 

Here's the crunch, though: Businesses are hiring people to be both types and it is throttling your business' ability to be effective. 

Just to use the metaphor of firefighting and visions, let's look at it this way. 

Firefighters should be good at their job. I mean, really good. They need to be hunting for fires. At the very least, they need to be good enough that when a fire appears, like a group of firemen, they know how to get the proper gear on and go to town so that damage is mitigate and they need to do it quickly

Ideally, these firefighters are good at looking in all your trash cans to make sure no hot matches got left in with the wadded up paper you threw away. Hopefully they're out like forest rangers making sure no smoldering fires to be put out because of reckless campers. 

Because you can bet on this. If someone doesn't find fires and put them out early and efficiently, you have a blaze on your hand and at that point, you may be at the mercy of the wind and by the time you contain the blaze you may find that you hardly have any business left to save.

At the same time, visionaries need to sit, ponder, and talk. They need to know competitors like the back of their hand. They need to know industry regulations. They need to be looking down those tiny cracks in the wall and wondering if that structural damage to a wall is a serious issue or if it will just provide a vintage kind of aesthetic to the company. 

Hint: cracks are always bad. 

These people have big problems to talk about. They need to be able to even define the problems that nobody else is even yet talking about. Sometimes they're the ones who painfully tell us to tear down a wall because it's not very good for support and it's eventually going to give way and the roof is going to crash down so best to do it ourselves and make something that supports the entire building for good. 

Madness Ensues

We are driving ourselves, our employees, and just everyone insane with what we're currently doing. We're asking people to live with a foot in one world and a mind divided and uncertain which one is more important to attend to every single day they step foot in the office. 

We're asking firefighters to go to city council meetings and when the alarms go off, they've got to stop and see if they can excuse themselves, drive back to their station and get details on what kind of fire they're fighting, where the fire is at, and what kind of collateral is going to be affected by the fire. These are all details they should have had instantaneously, but because they were stuck at the council meeting, they need to learn them late. 

Now, they're getting on the right gear and going to fight the fire, but it's already consumed a whole city block and what should have been a simple job requires days, if not weeks, to really get back in order. 

You've just made your firefighter really, really bad at fighting fires because you asked them to be a councilman at the same time. Instead of letting them be prepared for their job and proactive to arrive on time to the fire, you've slowed them down. Essentially, what you are doing as a boss is hoping and praying that fires aren't so bad that they'll be able to handle it. 

You're rolling the dice that your business won't burn down. And we wonder why 90% of businesses fail in the first year after they start? 

But at the same time, if you ask a visionary to show up and fight firefighters, you're robbing them of their vision. They're getting sweaty, grimy, and tired putting and stamping out fires. This is exhausting work. It's exhausting physically and emotionally.

When you ask your visionary what is going on, they'll look up and you've just put a dagger in their back. They'll slump their shoulders and realize they can't see a single thing. You know why? Because they're in the middle of the fog and haze of a fire! 

Do you think that Plato got the clarity for his philosophy in an afternoon? Do you think that the Founding Fathers drafted a Constitution -- a document so good that those oppressed in America have been able to use it to their own advantage -- in the course of a few hours on a Google Doc? 

No, we know quality takes time. We know foundations take time. This means it requires patience, focus, and single-mindedness towards something important. 

Just Imagine With Me...

Have you ever heard any of the lines? I'm not going to get exhaustive, so look at the principle and think critically about if you've heard anything like these. 

"How is [Insert competitor] doing so well at this?" "I don't know. I've been trying to help the maintenance man fix our heater today." 

"What's our plan for this long-term?" "I don't know, we've been trying to get the MVP off the ground so that we can get it launched. We haven't thought about the final product much." 

"How did [Insert bad thing] happen?" "I don't know. It's been working fine for 6 months, and then all of the sudden it stopped working today!"

"How are our Facebook ads working?" "I don't know that answer. I haven't been able to look at them? I'll send you a report this afternoon." 

Do you see the common trend? I don't know. If you're hearing anything similar to this, you need to figure out if you have a terrible employee. But generally, I don't find that people are really that bad at work. Everyone wants job security. Everyone gets a sort of pride when they're working to try and be noticed as excellent. Most people don't want to fail or look weak in their work. 

So if you're hearing anything like these exchanges at your office, and you don't think you've hired totally worthless employees, then you have a issue with what you're asking people to do. 

You're slowly driving people mad. The problem with your employees isn't all on them. It's, honestly, mostly on your, your company's structure, and the ambiguity of their identity in the company. 

What Should We Do?

Some people may want to sit down with their employees and go, "Okay, here's your 4 responsbilities. You only worry about them." 

That may actually be a bit farther than what I'm thinking. But here's a simple way you can really, really help your employees so those quarterly evaluations you have with them aren't painful and leave everyone frustrated every time: 

Define what each person primarily does in the company. Just tell them if they're a firefighter or a visionary. Are they going to, primarily, keep the business afloat today? Or is it their job to make sure that two years from now when everything you're doing today seems less effective you're armed and ready to pivot quickly and smoothly to the next opportunity, the next market, the next product offering you need? 

Empower people in your company to be able to say, "No" to doing certain things. I guarantee you that most of your employees are hearing requests and going, "That has nothing to do with me. At least, it doesn't seem to. I got hired for something really different, didn't I?"

But I also guarantee you that, especially in smaller organizations, most employees don't feel comfortable saying "No" to responding to a situation. If they do, they'll feel that it makes them look selfish, lazy, or incompetent. Nobody wants their boss to think that way about them. We all have too much pride -- for better or for worse -- to really want superiors to think poorly of us.

But if you really want effective employees, you need visionaries who can walk by, notice a trash fire, and say, "Hey team, we've got a fire over there." and then walk away from it to think about that 6-month project they're working on. 

You need employees who couldn't identify your competitors logo, tell you a thing about your company's SWOT analysis, or anything else like that. But you know that when your CRM breaks down, a client calls in a panic, or anything else goes awry you've got the right team assembled. 

Oh, and if you see that firefighter occasionally having a day where they've got their feet kicked up, they're checking Facebook, and they're whistling, then let them have it. Firefighters have the most day to day, draining experience in your company. If they feel pressure to fight fires all the time even when there's not fires, they'll get burned out. Or worse, they'll get burned alive when a real fire comes.

I hope that, if nothing else, this helps provoke people to think about that person who doesn't have a very defined job role. Is that because you don't know what they should be doing? Or is it because you're afraid to define the role so that they can have clarity to take care of the things most critical to the business based on their role within the business.

Do your employees a favor. Give them at least enough clarity to realize if they should be caught up in the emotional, frantic, scamper of the day to day. Or give them the room and space to breathe, sit under a tree, and think long and hard about what might be a problem to take care of. 

You'll be doing yourself a favor if you do. And businesses and employees will operate much more effectively. 

Jacob Moore