February 28, 2015

I Focus on Potential

The Golf Channel has just produced a wonderful documentary segment on the real Coach Catana Starks (profiled in our film full-length feature film From the Rough, in which Academy Award nominee and primetime TV star Taraji P. Henson plays Coach Starks) in its Morning Drive program.


That clip captures one of the key themes of the film: To produce a high performance organization or team, we should select all team members based on their future  potential, not their credentials.

Tennessee State University chose Catana Starks because of her potential to be a great men’s golf coach, although as the first African American female to coach a men’s college athletic team, she clearly had no past experience coaching a men’s college golf team.  When I became Pitney Bowes’ CEO, I had nowhere near the most relevant credentials or general management accomplishments from available candidates, but George Harvey and the Board of Directors made the decision to elect me based on my potential, not my past experience.

This was not the first time Pitney Bowes had assigned me to a position without me having directly relevant experience.  I became the head of HR in 1990, without prior HR experience.  I became the President of Pitney Bowes Financial Services in 1993 without financial services general management experience.  I took over our international and production mail businesses in 1994,  without prior experience running a product business.

As The Golf Channel documentary shows, Coach Starks looked in less obvious places for talent and made her athletes perform far better because of her faith in them.  I often made unconventional hires because I thought our organization would benefit from bringing in people with different life and business experiences.  In 1995, I hired Matt Kissner to run Pitney Bowes Credit Corporation, even though he had no leasing experience, because I wanted someone with a consumer finance marketing background to take a fresh look at our leasing business.  He succeeded spectacularly, although a number of very capable leasing executives, who were disappointed at not getting promoted, left the company.

Many other CEOs have commented publicly about how they had thinner traditional credentials than those with whom they competed for the top position.  Some have even sent their recruiting department copies of their own resumes prior to being hired, but with a fake name, and have received a standard rejection letter indicating that they were unqualified for the job they secured decades before.

Why does this happen?

  • Recruiters mistakenly believe that succeeding in past educational and work assignments routinely predict success in future ones.  Many people who have failed in prior jobs either have gained valuable learning or have qualities that make them better suited for the job for which they are applying.

A common example of this is someone who succeeded spectacularly at a large company because he or she had a great support system and a large staff.  That individual may be incapable of functioning in a smaller organization in which he or she has to perform more tasks directly.

Conversely, an individual who fails at a large organization because he or she is too entrepreneurial and insufficiently attentive to getting prior approvals before taking actions may be perfect for a smaller organization in which bold action is valued and there is no time to seek the boss’ approval.

  • Recruiters tend to undervalue success in thankless, low prestige, but complex jobs and overvalue leadership in a high profile, but less complex situation.  My predecessor at Pitney Bowes, George Harvey, told me that he succeeded at an assignment in cleaning up a mess in the company’s collections department, a far more complex developmental opportunity than the treasury job he wanted and later secured.  He had to demonstrate adaptability in the collections management job that served him well in future assignments.  Few recruiters would have valued his tenure in that job comparably to the development skills it gave him.

One of the most important qualities for which I look in hiring someone is the passion to make the organization successful.  There is no way to discern passion from a resume.  The only way someone can determine if the candidate has the passion to do whatever it takes to succeed is to spend the time to interview him or her.  These Monster.com recruiting processes do not adequately indicate a candidate’s passion.

  • Many credentials on resumes are inflated.  I recall recruiting for a general management position when I ran HR at Pitney Bowes, and interviewing multiple candidates who appeared to have “general management” experience in their past.  When I dug into their actual job responsibilities, I found out that they were glorified sales and service managers who had negotiated for a “general manager” title.

In From the Rough, when Taraji P. Henson playing Coach Starks gets angry because the character played by Tom Felton has told her that he thinks she is unqualified to coach the team because she had been coaching the swim team, I can relate to that anger.  Too many people are driven to hire only those individuals with job-specific experience.

Organizations that allow or force this kind of hiring mentality miss some great talent and they do a lot of damage to people who are highly qualified for jobs.  Government is the worst offender in requiring a number of licenses, certifications and degrees for jobs that do not require them.  However, private sector recruiters have fallen into the lazy habit of relying on sites like Monster.com to review resumes and applications and quickly eliminating people from consideration who have not checked all the proverbial boxes.

The real Dr. and Coach Catana Starks has been a remarkably resourceful individual.  She labored in obscurity until I decided to make a film based on her coaching life.  She consistently worked with scarce resources, with the disadvantage of having to gain credibility for a start-up team, and with the added disadvantage of being a woman and an African American in a sport that has not been welcoming to either women or minorities over most of its history.  AsFrom the Rough and The Golf Channel documentary segment also shows, she was a short, relatively soft-spoken woman who succeeded with a more collaborative and subtle coaching style.

One of the most profound statements about people development I have heard anywhere came from Olympic gold medal figure skater Peggy Fleming years ago in an ESPN interview.  The essence of her comment was that every human being has the potential to perform at a “gold medal” level in something.  She humbly said that she was lucky enough to find her “gold medal” activity at age 3 and to work single-mindedly from that point forward.

We owe it to every person we lead to help them find that unique job for which they can deliver a “gold medal” performance, whether it is in our organization or not.