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A CEO’s hiring quandary: Pedigree or chemistry?

Faced with two great candidates, a CEO should consider: What is your toughest issue?

A CEO’s hiring quandary: Pedigree or chemistry?
[Images: Dilen_ua/iStock; cgdeaw/iStock]

Editor’s Note: Each week, Fast Company presents an advice column by Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay. Webb offers candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. I am making a hiring decision, and I have two finalists, both of whom have great references. One has an incredible track record, incredible companies on her CV, board experience, and glowing unsolicited references. I get along better with the other candidate. She’s thoughtful and doesn’t have an ego, but she’s been at the same company for 20 years. That’s a lot of time spent at one place. Who do I choose?

 —CEO making a very strategic hire at a public company

Dear CEO,

This is an interesting conundrum.

If you want to solve this, think about facing your toughest issue. First, think about the problem, and imagine one of these candidates on your side. Then think about solving the issue with the other. Who do you trust most?

When you are in that kind of situation—when you are in the fray and facing a really hard decision—you will likely find that pedigree doesn’t matter.

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I admit that sometimes I’ve hired for pedigree, and it worked out well. Other times, I hired someone with a fantastic background who was very accomplished, and it didn’t. Once they started, I found that they didn’t want to do the dirty jobs. They thought they had already put in their time and were used to managing big organizations. They didn’t want to work weekends or work overnight in a crisis. But that’s what the job I hired them for demanded. One time I hired a CEO of a big competitor, and I was excited to have his experience on my side. It turned out that he didn’t want to be on the road anymore when we really needed someone who would be able to travel.

You are right; 20 years at a company is a long time, especially in this era when people change jobs every 18 months. I don’t know the company involved, but I’m willing to bet that in 20 years she saw—and navigated—a lot of change. She likely survived leadership changes and cultural shifts—and there’s something about her character to be said for that, too.

I would not penalize this candidate for staying at a company for a long time, and I wouldn’t prize pedigree over your gut instinct and comfort level. I would recommend meeting with both again to get to know them better and to gain clarity of their expectations of the job and share yours so that you can get alignment. That will help you make the right decision and help all of you get off to the right start.

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