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And an important truth about leadership


You have to hand it to Bill and Melinda Gates. As billionaires, sitting down for an hour-long, unfiltered Q&A session with an auditorium full of debt-burdened college students took some guts.
But sit down they did, and answered even the toughest questions with honesty and authenticity.

One of the questions Bill faced in the session, held in February at CUNY’s Hunter College was about his biggest weakness when it comes to running a business. His Achilles heel? “Dealing with the hiring issues and the management issues… how we were going to build up the team.”

To hear that from the founder-CEO of a company that now employs over 100,000 people is staggering. It also reveals an important truth about leadership.

Building the right team is just as important as having the right vision

Having a great vision is the first step. But you can’t excel at every skill needed to bring your vision to life, even if your day wasn’t constrained to a mere 24 hours. You need a good team around you.

Plus, if you hire the right people, the breadth of experiences and creativity they bring to the table will help you hone your vision – then break it down into strategies and tactics to pursue.

Different ways of approaching problems, and different backgrounds that inform how people think about the solutions, will lead to a better product or service. If your team has a balanced representation of genders, ethnicities, and similar attributes, you’ve got a fighting chance at being surrounded by diverse ways of thinking.

But let’s say that, like Gates, you’re crap at recruiting, interviewing, and people management in general. In that case, hiring someone to lead the rest of the hiring should be your first move – you’ll already be ahead of the game compared to where Gates started.

What if you can’t hire someone to do the hiring?

Entrepreneurs and leaders of start-ups have to wear a lot of different hats (including recruiter and interviewer) in the early days for the simple reason that there’s only so much cash flow and capital to work with. If you’re not yet in a position to hire someone to help with the hiring, focus on hiring for values fit and cognitive diversity.

Hiring for “culture fit” is a long-standing tradition in tech, and let’s be honest: it’s had mixed results. Sure, tech start-ups are able to move quickly in part because their teams gel quickly and squabble less. On the other hand, it’s given rise to an entrenched “bro culture” (read: white, straight bros) and an embarrassingly homogeneous workforce.

Instead, look for candidates whose values and sense of purpose align with your own. You’re not hiring someone to have post-work beers with. You’re hiring someone to help manifest your vision.

And speaking of squabbling, a dose of creative friction and respectful dissent is actually a good thing. Because great minds don’t think alike.

Your job isn’t to prevent dissent. Your job is to keep the team healthy enough to be able to agree to disagree sometimes and commit to decisions they would have made differently.

The value in recognizing your weak spots

The lesson here is three-fold:

  1. It’s ok not to be awesome at everything.
  2. Hire people who aren’t just like you to create a balanced team.
  3. Make them awesome. Give them the freedom to explore, disagree, and collaborate. Embrace the messiness of teamwork – it’s an investment, not a tax.
    Later in the forum, Gates went on to note that “If it’s not exciting to you, you’re not going to be [all that] good at it.”

Not only does understanding your weaknesses help you prioritize where to bring in help, that level of self-awareness is a key component of emotional intelligence. If you have the strength to make others aware of your weaknesses, so much the better. Admitting you’re not perfect goes a long way in building trust with the people around you – regardless of whether you hired them personally or not.

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