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The secret ingredients billionaires use when selecting top talent–and how you can profit from it

/ 04:10 AM June 06, 2022
Illustration  by Rachel Revilla

Illustration
by Rachel Revilla

Let’s face it: a company is nothing other than a group of people. And if you have the wrong people, all else is lost. The primary asset of your business is your human capital. Period.

One of our Asian clients recently described what it was like to work with us. He said: “It is like being in the kitchen with world-class chefs and watching them work.“

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To use the same analogy, you could be the greatest chef in the world, but if you have bad ingredients, the food will be average. That means: you may be the next Branson, Gates, or Elon Musk— but if you do not have the skill to select the right people to work with, you will fail miserably. And you and your business will never get even close to your full potential.

Make it fun

Most businesses have no clue how to choose the right people. But the top business leaders and famous entrepreneurs always do. They have a few selection criteria that allow them to make their final decision. As a result, they develop almost a sixth sense for top talent.

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Take Richard Branson for example, the British self-made billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group. I have known Richard for over a decade, and a few years ago, I asked him how he selects the best people to run his businesses. He emailed me back saying that it is important to look for people who genuinely care about others, are great people motivators, and look for the best in people. He also mentioned that the person at the top should be a “ball of fun,” as he called it.

That “fun” element stuck with me. While it is contrary to how most businesses select top talent, I have seen that this ”fun factor” is fundamental in many of the famous business leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs, and self-made billionaire entrepreneurs I have had the fortune of working with or advising.

The “no a—holes” policy

Another example is the former chair and CEO of Puma. We were at Banz Castle, a former Benedictine monastery in Germany, enjoying a cold beer after I had just given a talk for Puma. He told me how important it was for him that the people he hired for top positions were fun to work with.

Of course, the people who ultimately made it into a final interview with him had already been vetted by his team. But the key element was the fun factor. “Why is that important for you?” I asked him. He replied: “If I have to spend so much time with them, it better be fun!”

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, could not care less about fancy degrees when hiring top people. Instead, he looks at past work history and if they can talk intelligently about challenges they have overcome. Overall, however, he looks for a “positive attitude” and those who are “easy to work with,” and whether people are gonna like working with them. For him, it’s very important to like the people you work with, otherwise, your life and your job are gonna be quite “miserable.” Again, the fun factor.

Elon Musk even took it a step further and established a “no a—holes policy’ at SpaceX. And he fires people if they are, after giving them a fair bit of warning.

Hire 10s

Another self-made billionaire in my personal network I highly respect is Stephen Schwarzman, the American billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and chair and CEO of The Blackstone Group. He only hires 10 out of 10s, meaning people he believes are of the highest caliber in their field. Why not do with 9s or 8s?

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He puts it best in his book “What it takes.” “Eights just do the stuff you tell them. Nines are great at executing and developing good strategies. You can build a winning firm with 9s. But people who are 10s sense problems, design solutions and take the business in new directions without being told to do so. Tens always make it rain.”

What my team and I have seen in our many years of supporting businesses the world over in strategy, management consulting and executive coaching, is clear: most companies keep mediocre performers too often and too long. We live in a time and age where mediocrity is tolerated and average performance accepted.

What does that do to a business? It sends a clear message to star performers, top talent and high potentials that this is not the place where they should work. As a result, it leads to a high turnover of top talent, and it decreases the overall performance of the entire workforce.

Remember: as a business, you are only as good as your people. If the good ones start to leave, you have a problem!

The culture has to fit like a glove

Branson has also been known to have a keen eye for talent and to hire people who have the “Virgin spirit,” as he calls it, in all walks of life. That brings us to the most important element in hiring: they have to fit your culture—in the same way that you don’t want Einstein on your basketball team but instead want LeBron James, you don’t want brilliant people in your business who are not a good culture fit.

A German billionaire family that owns one of the largest German conglomerates, a global market leader in its industry, approached me a few years ago with a special request. They asked me if I could have a look at a new CEO they had hired a year before to run one of their businesses. I accepted. The more I interacted with him, however, the more it became clear to me that he had no understanding of how culture fit works and how to apply it.

Let me give you an example. He had just hired three top people from Silicon Valley: one from Twitter, one from Facebook, and one from Google. He offered them a ton of money to relocate to the small German town where the family business had its headquarters.

Not stupid—just different

When he presented them to his board, the other board members called them “stupid.” And after a few months, the talented new Silicon Valley hires were gone. And some hefty severance payments along with them.

Were those Silicon Valley hires stupid? Of course not, far from it. You don’t get to the top in Silicon Valley by being average. So what happened? The CEO did not understand that the Silicon Valley culture does not exactly rhyme with the culture of rural Germany.

What could he have done differently? He could have prepared both parties properly, designed a cultural onboarding schedule that would have prepared his board and the new hires for the culture clash, and taken them both through several stages of adaptation. Needless to say, the CEO did not survive. After a few months, he was gone as well.

This reminds me of another episode where a top-level executive of a German company was assigned the position of new country CEO for Brazil. When he arrived in Sao Paolo, he was giving people orders with the same German attitude of strict deadlines, very little socializing and zero tolerance for tardiness. If you have ever been to Brazil, you will know that this does not work. After a few months, he was gone.

Action Steps

  • Make it fun! Ask yourself: Will this person be fun to work with?
  • Establish a “no a—holes” policy.
  • 1Only hire 10s.
  • Make sure your culture fits new hires like a glove. INQ

Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: www.TomOliverGroup.com or email

[email protected]

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