Strive For A Meritocracy, And Never Settle For Mediocrity

I remember the first time I heard the term "meritocracy."

I was playing baseball on a junior-league team, and our coach (the father of one of my teammates) told us that the team would function as a "meritocracy." We were told that this meant that the players that were the most deserving would get the coveted infield positions and the best batting lineup slots. What intrigued me most about this concept was that the term "deserving" was not about who had been on the team the longest, whose father was the coach, or who had the most experience. It was based solely on ability, and who, based on their own merit, should be given a particular role. 

Although that may have been the first time I heard the term meritocracy, the concept itself seemed native to me.

During law school and shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to work with some really great law firms and their clients, which typically consisted of large corporations. In working there, it became obvious to me that in most of these corporate environments, decisions around career advancement and promotion were often based on legacy and tenure rather than sheer ability. 

A few years earlier, I encountered a similar phenomenon while trying to sell T-shirts and promotional products to a large university. I was advised by the school’s procurement office that despite my company having far better pricing and products, the school preferred to give the contract to the same supplier they had been working with for the past few years. Hearing that only motivated me further, and eventually I was able to convince that school (and many others like it) to allocate their contracts not on the basis of past experience alone, but rather by taking into account a number of different weighted factors.

It was around that time that I realized that the real path to success and upward mobility, whether on a kids' baseball team or in closing a commercial contract, would stem from merit, and an ability to better execute. As such, my age, my experience (or lack thereof), and even my network would come second to my ability and my determination to do great work.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that while certain environments and work cultures embraced the concept of a meritocracy, others work places seemed fundamentally against it. The latter group, which in my experience tended to be large corporations and service providers, seemed to prefer measures such as seniority, legacy, and rank in deciding issues such as who should own critical tasks and who should be promoted. 

I am sensitive to the fact that with experience often comes expertise, and those that have "been there, done that" can be better suited than a "newbie" for a particular task. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that length of service should never be the only criteria for selection in any environment, and I believe that merit is a far better evaluation metric.

Similarly, I have the found that one of the primary tenets of entrepreneurship is the idea that the person or company with the best product, service, or offering will ultimately win. And what attracted me initially to entrepreneurship was the fact that it didn't matter who I was or how long I had been in business, the only thing that mattered was my value proposition and how that compared to my competitors or others around me.

Practically speaking, one of the hiring practices that we often use at Shopify is to have candidates complete a coding test as the initial step in the interview process. The reason for this is to ascertain the candidate’s programming aptitude on an objective and unbiased level. The result of this exercise allows us to begin the interview process by evaluating candidates on their coding abilities exclusively, and only then we will begin to look into their background and past experiences.

We use a similar line of thinking when it comes to determining compensation packages for new hires; whereby the overriding consideration in determining salary is based on the value that an individual brings to our company, as opposed to their age, seniority, or past accomplishments (although we do look at those as well, to a lesser degree).

In terms of geography, I also believe that certain areas have a higher propensity to accept the meritocracy model than others, and I have found that cities with vibrant startup communities tend to embrace merit-based promotion with greater fervor. Anecdotally, I am reminded of this phenomenon whenever I meet with a large corporation or a government body at our offices here in Ottawa, and they inevitably look around and ask about my age and the average age of our team—as if that matters. And while someone’s age has little connection to their value-add, it seems that those outside the entrepreneurial realm often get caught up with trying to correlate vintage with perceived value, which is perhaps "scar tissue" from a previous time.

There’s an amazing dialogue from Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, where Francisco d’Anconia explains that the reason for his family’s multi-generational prosperity is due to the fact that each new member of the family isn’t truly considered to be a "d’Anconia" until they prove themselves based on their own merits and abilities. I always loved this explanation, as despite Francisco’s nobility, he was committed to succeeding on his own merits and worked ferociously to prove himself without any support from his family.

In a startup setting, and certainly at Shopify, we reward and promote the most deserving of individuals, despite age, experience, or length of service. While I can appreciate the need to be patient in certain professional advancement, I can't endorse a practice where the vehicle to success and advancement is based on "time served" rather than merit. I believe that we should all endeavor to produce our best work, and managers and entrepreneurs alike should look at the merit of their employees and partners as the most important and most relevant criteria for evaluation.

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[Image: Flickr user ~Oryctes~]

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  • Harley Finkelstein

    Ati: I agree that it may be tough to find the appropriate KPIs that demonstrate "merit" - but I think it behooves all companies to clearly define (and publicly explain) what success means for them - based on their unique culture and business model. Thanks for the comments :)

  • Ted Inoue

    Great post.
    As one who started his first company at 19 in the early 1980's before such things were commonplace, I definitely suffered the agism issues you outlined. But after out executing the competition and carving out a market niche, they eventually had to take me seriously.Now almost 50, I'm "old" and can't help but see 19 year olds as very young! Holy cow, did I look and act like that? It's no wonder the old always regard the young with suspicion and skepticism! However, I also remember the reverse ageism I used to feel, looking at old farts and assuming that they were stupid. Both perspectives overlook the fact that people of all ages can and do amazing things - meritocracy applies to everyone, something we all need to remember.
    And so, I fight the urge to see the world through the eyes of the old and remember that those with skills and passion, regardless of age, are the ones who change the world.

  • atimoshenko

    Fittingly, the value of meritocratic systems depends on their ability to execute correctly. A significant and unavoidable challenge is knowing what to measure and how to measure it, especially if the work is done by a team of complimentary talents. After all, not everything that is important is easy to measure, and not everything that is easy to measure is important. How do you measure the value of, say, that one sunny personality that is not able to work as well, but is critical to ensuring that the rest of the team are never at each other's throats?

    We should definitely strive for meritocracy, but we should also always be truthful about our generally poor ability to identify and measure "deserving", especially outside of artificially simplified activities, such as sports.