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Find Your Fighter Jet Pilot: Define World-Class Before Hiring

My top tip to hiring managers: Don’t hire without exploring what world-class looks like for the role.

If you were looking for a fighter jet pilot, you wouldn't pick someone who merely seemed ‘good under pressure’. Or find an AirBus 747 pilot. You would go find a world-class fighter jet pilot, and get help to tell good fighter pilots from great ones.

The same principle apply in building startups.

Defining ‘world class’ for a role is the only way to set a high talent bar.

Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find it. It's also only way to articulate role performance expectations post-hire.

“But what about culture fit?”

I’ll bracket out questions of culture, motivation, attitude here. They matter a ton, but can hire someone who is both great at the role and a culture fit. Other people have written about how to pick out culture fits.

Yet leaders often don’t spend time defining world-class before hiring. For two reasons:

First, leaders face more acute problems than not knowing what world-class looks like. No big alarm goes off. Pretty good people still apply for your jobs. By contrast, salespeople face rejections every day they don’t who your target customers are. That’s acutely painful.

Second, it’s scary to admit you are not (yet) world-class yourself. “What happens if I tell my boss that we need to raise the bar way beyond where we are now? What happens if I hire someone better than me?” Leaders must provide safety to explore these questions.

My biggest mistakes as an operator rooted in not exploring 'world-class' before hiring.

For example, early on at Aula, we let go of 30 % of staff. Including most of our customer success team. We didn't know much about customer success. We had hired smart people with expertise in education, but we didn't look for expertise in customer success. If we had shown our hiring plans and the expectations we set for the team to a world-class customer success leader they would have had a heart attack. We realised too late and let go of most of the whole team. So painful.

The best way to explore what world-class means for you for a particular role is to pick the brains of people who have solved the challenges you're facing before really, really well.

Here’s a recipe for getting closer to finding your ‘fighter jet pilots’ (inspired by this excellent article), with an example from Aula:

  1. Write down your starting point when hiring. On a scale from ‘Never met anyone who has done this before’ to ‘A world-class expert is helping us interview’.
  2. Define the skillset you want to find ‘world-class’ for. Narrowly. For example, we recently built Europe’s largest community of learning designers at Aula from scratch, fast. I needed help to attract a large pool of part-time folks in education. If you're a startup, don’t look for generic ‘great engineers at Google’: it's a different challenge and skillset than what you need.
  3. Locate centres of excellence: Which organisations solved these problems before really, really well? In our case, Trilogy had built a community of 5,000 part-time instructors, fast. They are fastest-growing company in higher education in recent history.
  4. Get in touch with the exact people who solved the problem for them. I met the person who had solved this problem at Trilogy: from first hire to their $750M acquisition. He was generous with advice and intros. Use your company's investors or advisors, or go for simple cold emails.
  5. Example of cold email

    When we rebuilt our editor, we got help from the person who had built the legendary editor at Notion (where this is typed!)

    I'm Anders, CEO at Aula, the learning experience platform.

    We make it easy for educators to create community-centred learning experiences. At the core of our platform is an editor, quite similar to the Notion editor except that it has a lot of education-specific integration.

    After 4 years, we're doing a major refactoring and given how important this is to us I really want to get it right.

    I was wondering if you would have time for a coffee with me and our product leadership team to share the do's and don'ts you learned along the way?

    I'm not a fan of free work and I'm sure you have a lot to share, so we would be happy to make a donation to your favourite charity for the time you spend with us.

Your organisation’s performance depends dramatically on your leaders’ ability to define world-class for their function.

Expect it from your managers, and support them to do it. It is the basis for much of their work.

Defining ‘world-class’ will not guarantee perfect hires: skillset is only one thing to get right. But without knowing what world-class looks like, you are certain to struggle. Both in hiring and in enabling world-class performance.