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Is the quality of your hires the most important test of good leadership?

The best leaders are not successful by themselves; they create an ecosystem of talent around them, says this tech CEO.

Is the quality of your hires the most important test of good leadership?
[Photo: SophonK/iStock]
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At least 90% of my evaluation of any leader is the quality of people they get to work for them, and teamwork and judgment comprise the other 10%. I recently tweeted about this calculation and followed up by sharing how I assess newly hired leaders on the caliber of people who follow them. That evaluation sparked debate and enlightening points about what else to consider.

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As some of my peers brought up, these percentages and the overall judgment of who leaders attract, hire, and retain should shift depending on the unique role or situation. Some executives may have smaller teams reporting to them, so the percentage decreases. It’s also of course critical to consider non-majority founder bias and account for priorities such as D&I when hiring, which has to start at the top.

The responses evolved my thinking, but the core belief remains: People management and hiring skills should be a key factor when interviewing C-suite candidates. It’s not easy to assess this trait during the interview process, but if you can do it, you’ll build a leadership team that employees admire and candidates seek out.

Credibility counts; perfect the reference check

Credibility is everything. If an executive isn’t credible, people won’t want to work for them. Sometimes measuring credibility comes down to looking at the organizational success or the achievements of their team; can they point to accomplishments that will win the respect of others? Or do they have experience overcoming a challenge your organization is also facing?

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Reference checks are the best way to understand a candidate’s reputation as a team leader. Speak with people they’ve managed and ask if they’d want to work with that person again, how that person helped them grow, and what personal career accomplishments wouldn’t have been possible without them.

The trick with reference checks is to not rely solely on references provided by the candidate. Use LinkedIn or your network to source your own references. Keep the conversation informal and natural. If the reference you’re speaking with is comfortable, they’ll be more transparent about the candidate’s personality and leadership style.

Look for a community of leaders

The best leaders are not successful by themselves; they create an ecosystem of talent around them. The PayPal mafia is the most well-known example, but enterprise software has one too: Salesforce executives from the early 2000s who went on to become founders and CEOs (me, Tien Tzuo, and Peter Gassner). At Okta, I never want to see an employee go, but it also brings me great pride when I watch teammates start their own companies, grow teams, or help build something they’re passionate about from scratch. That’s why we recently created the Okta Incubation Fund, a pathway for employees to develop and incubate disruptive ideas within Okta, with the aim to cultivate even more leaders and entrepreneurial thinkers at the company.

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Because providing ample opportunities for employee growth is so important to me, I always ask executive candidates about the other leaders they’ve produced. People want to work for leaders who will invest in them and help them advance their career, so ask specific questions about how they put their team first. You’ll want to know who they’ve supported in their career, in what ways they’ve mentored team members who have climbed the ranks, and how they would create a culture of empowerment at your organization.

Beware of ego

For several years, I’ve felt that everything I do in the CEO role feels entirely new and that none of my past experience ladders up to it. This means that hiring executives who bring in different experiences and knowledge becomes critical, and you have to learn to check your ego at the door. At first, it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge that the people reporting to you are the real experts in their respective fields, but letting them lead the way is critical to creating a high-functioning company. Every leader I hire has to be willing to do the same, because you can only hire a team of exceptional people if you’re ready to let go of control.

When I’m interviewing for executive roles, I’m not only checking my own ego, but I’m also wary of a candidate’s ego; leaders focused on self-importance are unlikely to be willing to pass the baton to others to lead the way. I question them about times they’ve let team members handle major initiatives along with the role they played in overseeing them. It’s also essential to ensure they have a clear vision of their own strengths and weaknesses and how they plan to hire people who fill the gaps.

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Regardless of the percentage, people management is a critical skill for every C-suite leader—and if you support your team in a way that helps them grow and succeed, people will want to work with you no matter where you go. You’re only as successful as the people you hire, and you want to bring on leaders who have similar mindsets and a common goal of building a humble, high-performing team.

About the author

Todd McKinnon is the CEO and co-founder of Okta, the first cloud-based identity management platform. Founded in 2009, Okta helps companies of all sizes secure their users, applications and data — both in the cloud and behind the firewall — so work gets done, from any device, anywhere

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