Bozo Explosions

I was a guest at a breakfast meeting at the headquarters of News International in London this week (don’t worry, I switched off my phone) as part of The Times Business Masterclass series, a broad based series of events and thought leadership designed to help growing businesses share and obtain insight from some of the UK’s most successful business leaders. It was a great session. The discussion touched on many predictable areas like how and when to raise capital as well as general business strategy.

However the topic of people was the one that resonated most with me; not just the challenge of deciding when to hand over the reigns of responsibility to others as your business grows, but specifically about the hiring process and the need to hire the best people.

Learning how to hire great people is something most business owners and managers are never taught as a core business competency. Nobody ever showed me how to hire well and I’m sure I’m not alone and that it’s something most people just learn as they go. Often painfully.

While instinct is absolutely key in hiring decisions, in my experience hiring on the strength of a couple of conversations or a single interview, a flick through a resume and a liberal chunk of instinct is more often than not, precisely how you end up in what the late, great Steve Jobs called the Bozo Explosion.

Regardless of the label, it’s a popular theory that goes something like this.

Conceptually rank candidate employees on a general scale of capability from A through to D, with the best, most capable people being the As, and the least capable being Ds.

The thinking is that uber-confident and capable A grader managers will always hire other A graders into their teams because they want to build the best possible organisations, but B grade managers will never hire As because they fear – consciously or subconsciously – that if they hired an A grade report, their own B grade failings would be exposed and their report might soon steal their job.

So, B-grade managers always hire downstream in terms of capability, and so on.

The Bozo Explosion colourfully described by Steve Jobs is what happens to companies who make the mistake of hiring B-grade managers. Hire a B-grade manager, turn your back for a few months and then watch your business, once a shining example of excellence, get over-run by hordes of well meaning incompetents, from the top right down to the tip of its toes. And the spectre of the unwelcome Bozo Explosion usually portends an inevitable decline in decision making, product quality or design, customer service – you name it, everything turns to mush. And unless you’re very lucky, say good-bye to your business. Oh, and that’s just for starters. Getting rid of a Bozo Explosion in your business is a whole other world of HR pain for which there’s unlikely to be a quick fix.

All of which places supreme importance on the job of great hiring.

No matter how busy or time pressured you (or your managers) are, no matter how good you think your gut instinct is, always sweat the details, always do extensive background reference checks and never compromise on quality for the sake of short term expediency.

7 Comments

Gina
May 5, 2012 at 12:09 am

The problem faced by so many of our ‘service’ organisations today? Trying to report a problem with your internet? Calling to pay your gas bill? bozos everywhere! And it isn’t the poor operative who is the problem, but the managers who write their scripts and insist on verbatim repetition. And the further up the food chain you go, the more incompetence you find. Is this the reason for the decline in innovation that you described in your earlier blog? Hire one poor manager, watch the inadequacy spread?

Julian
May 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Great piece.

Reminds me of a debate on Question Time last night. Centered around how these days we have a successful car industry even though most (if not all the companies) are German, American or Japanese. So the ground level skills are there and always have been – its just that the British management hires throughout the decades has let the country down.

Alex
May 5, 2012 at 1:40 pm

An alarming trend these days is the reliance of hirers on behavour-based (“tell me about a time when…”) interview structures. What this guarantees is not necessarily the right person for your team, but someone who is good at answering those questions — usually by putting “I” in front of a story about some work that clearly involved more than one person’s input – and with outcomes that may or may not be auditable. Up against that, your ‘gut’ might be just as good — especially if you’ve had loads of experience.

Gayle Buchanan
May 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Agree with @Julian .. great piece.
Recalling the book – good to great – Jim Collins. It isn’t easy stopping the bus and asking people who don’t fit to get off, but when no food on the table is the alternative, certainly makes it easier – still a yukkie job.
Lesson well worth taking just the once of course!

Stop planning for the rationale | unreasonablemen
June 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm

[…] understand the value of employing good bosses, Xero’s Gary Turner wrote a good blog about Bozo explosions pictorially depicting what we all know, Hire a B-grade manager, turn your back for a few months and […]

Johan Löfman
September 9, 2012 at 9:11 pm

One of the things we so easily miss when hiring is to check if he people we hire share the dream of the organisation (if we have one…). When we have an articulated and vivid dream, and we communicate it, we will get people who want to JOIN that dream and have an inherent drive to work for it. My experience is that thiz bozo phenomenon surprisingly often is about dream mismatch, of course also combined with competence gaps.

Kirsten Barrie
March 3, 2013 at 8:47 pm

I completely agree with this! With the one suggestion of implementing some initial training of personnel (to perhaps get them from a B to an A). I believe that most people can and are willing to be trained to do well at their job. And like Gayle said above, it’s a yuckie job to ask someone off the bus, but better than them taking the other hard working people and a good company down with them.

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