Do publishers have the right people on the bus?

A classic text provides some helpful and timeless advice

I know from talking to many of my clients that most have read Jim Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’. I have also been inspired by his research into what makes great companies great. Many of you will recall an article I wrote on applying the lessons of Jim’s more recent book ‘Great by Choice’ to publishing. Thus inspired I recently read his earlier book ‘Good to Great’ for the first time.

In ‘Good to Great’, Collins and his research team discovered that the great companies didn’t ask what product or which strategy first. They instead asked who. Who do we need on our (company) bus for a successful business journey? Company owners Hewlett and Packard, for instance, consciously built their future by hiring outstanding people even before they knew what they’d be making or what direction they’d be driving. Whenever they found these people they hired them even without a specific job in mind. Hewlett Packard became one of the great American success stories and outperformed the stock market by many times. They were one of many cases that emphasized having the right people is the most important element for an organization to achieve greatness.

So that begs the question who are the right people? More specifically, who are the right people for the publishing industry if it is to thrive in a marketplace disrupted by the digital revolution? I’ve had a lot of conversations of late about what constitutes the right person and have tried to document the most well-considered and proven profiles for success.

Several times I’ve heard from hiring managers that someone with a willingness to experiment is important. These days, for marketing programs, that means more than just plying social media. Understanding and employing tools with acronyms like SEO (Search Engine Optimization), SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and PPC (Pay Per Click) are needed to make up a comprehensive strategy to exploit new opportunities in mobile devices and other digital channels.

Thinking quantitatively has been another common theme in conversation. Content specialists that rely on more data as opposed to anecdotal evidence to justify new products are in demand. Not a few people have said that they prefer to recruit outside of the normal publishing talent pool for people who think in numbers. Indeed, I’ve had to expand my reach beyond the industry to identify talent that suits clients’ newest needs. This goes for positions like Technical Project Manager, Software Developer, and Digital Product Analyst, to name a few.

Given the discoveries in ‘Good to Great’ one can project for publishing that an entrepreneurial mindset with content expertise and digital know-how should be the target for recruitment efforts. Easy, right? Not exactly. And not cheap if you’re targeting these people from other industries. But certain publishers have recruited younger prospects with some skills that can be trained up. The new hires enter a publishing industry in the midst of experimenting with new business models so adaptability has to be one of their personal attributes. But they should also be excited at the prospect of re-imagining a venerable industry. Jim Collins posits that when you have these kinds of people the question of motivating and management largely goes away since they are by definition self-motivated.

Importing technical skills is essential but I think it’s important to note that the case studies in ‘Good to Great’ showed that technology by itself didn’t drive success. For example, the mandate to put at least one robot on assembly lines at GM failed to staunch the loss of market share to Japanese car makers in the 80’s. By contrast the great companies applied carefully selected technology to accelerate their growth strategy already in progress. So even though technical skills are important, core personality traits are even more important according to the research in ‘Good to Great’.

So, if personal attributes combined with creative and digital skills define the right people for publishing, how do we find them? Some have tried an impersonal automated approach to locate these special people. Take a minute for a little thought experiment to see if this approach sounds right in vetting people with the proper personal make up. Some of my hiring clients have definitively said that this method misses some desirable prospects. Some companies do personalize their recruiting by tasking their executives with it but is this an efficient use of their time and skills? It takes time… lots of time to tap the best prospects. To do it right one has to identify candidates whether or not they’re applying to ads or putting themselves out on job sites. But having the right people for your bus is vital so shouldn’t the method to land them be as thorough and efficient as possible?

This post originally appeared on Michael Foy’s Publishing Search blog. It’s republished with permission.

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