What sticks two years out

I learned a lot of different things during the MBA. All of it was interesting and worthwhile and most of it I remember quite well. But what is interesting to me is what REALLY sticks almost two years out. I should say at this point that the idea of this post came from a colleague of mine, Danny Starr, who recently wrote a review of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Dan and Chip Heath. I agree with him that the book is excellent and I continue to use the SUCCESs checklist he speaks of – in any case, it is worth going over to Danny’s blog as he illustrates quite well how to apply some of the book’s advice in a very concrete way in a real-life example.

So, like I was saying, what is interesting is what REALLY sticks over the life of a 15 month program such as the MBA. I began the program in September 2007 and we finished in December 2008 (officially we graduated in May 2009). Probably there are a few life-changing experiences or moments of learning that I could point to, but I chose this one because it still blows me away whenever I think about it. This piece of advice came to me through an hour-long guest lecture in our Business Strategy class by Amos Michelson, CEO of Creo Inc. (we were also lucky enough to have Dan Gelbart, also of Creo fame, speak to us in that class). He spoke to us about how he came to be involved with Creo, how they operated, what they accomplished, and of course how they ended up selling the company to Kodak for approximately $1 billion USD (when he came to Creo in 1991, it was worth about $3 million). Amos has since moved on to some projects in health care and clean tech – most notably a company called Kardium.

Our hour with Amos passes very quickly. He is a great speaker and he peppered his tale with witty, memorable anecdotes. I still remember quite a bit of his lecture. It was amazing. But one concrete piece of advice he gave us I will take to my grave, so beautiful, simple and valuable it was. I will attempt to paraphrase it now, because it really is worth sharing.

However you measure your employees is up to you. But it is easier to think about people on a scale of 1-10, 1 being a disaster and 10 being a superstar you cannot live without out (in many ways these are the Linchpins that Seth Godin based his most recent book on helping you to become). Obviously, you want to stay away from employees or candidates that would be on the bottom of the scale. If you are hiring 5s and below you have deeper problems. But it is difficult to distinguish between certain levels of output and achievement. For example, 5s can look like 6s, 6s can look like 7s, 7s like 8s, and so on and so forth. However, 6s are easily distinguishable from 9s, 7s from 10s, and so on. Now, if you have a company of 9s and 10s, it almost doesn’t matter what you do, you will have great success. You can probably survive and do well with a few 8s, but only if the rest of the team are all 9s and 10s. If you make a mistake and hire some 5s, 6s or 7s – that’s no problem. They are easy enough to identify and you can eventually get rid of them.

Now, you probably would think that as long as you have 7.5s and up you are going to be fine. But I am here to tell you that the 7s and 8s are what will kill you as a company. Particularly those pesky 8s. These are the people who work only hard enough to sometimes appear to be 9s or maybe even 10s, but they are not – they are only masquerading as high achievers. You will see them do well and you will think ‘let’s keep them on a little longer. They might work out still’. But I am here to tell you that they are still 7s and 8s and they will mire you in mediocrity, and mediocrity will never get you anywhere in business. Of course, firing and hiring are costly endeavours – but mediocre employees will drain you forever. So, fire your 7s and 8s. Don’t wait too long to see if they are really 9s and 10s.

It was probably more eloquent than that, and a lot funnier, but that is the single piece of knowledge from the MBA that I will always remember. Fire your 7s and 8s. They will sink you. It really does run so counter to what we think of normally as what constitutes a good employee. You might think a good employee is one who keeps his head down, gets his work done and doesn’t cause any problems. But by Amos’ definition, this person is almost certainly a 7 or 8. He is not thinking about the big picture, he is thinking about his payday and what he is doing on the weekend. Sure, he’s better than a 6, but if you are in the business of hiring 6s you will not be in business for long and you will not create things of real and lasting value.

The anecdote was sticky because, whether he meant to or not, Amos pretty much nailed the SUCCESs checklist from Made to Stick. The story and the wisdom it implied was Simple. The punchline was Unexpected – who would have thought that a bunch of 8s might sink your company? The advice was Concrete – fire your 8s. It was Credible – Amos had been CEO when Creo was sold for $1 billion USD and he helped revolutionize an industry along the way. His anecdote was Emotional – he was very passionate about his beliefs and he delivered the advice emotionally, as if your entire future depended on you understanding what he was saying. And last, the anecdote told a Story. Fill up a room of people all pulling in the same direction and you will go somewhere. Fill it up with superstars, and you will create real, lasting value. Fill it up with 8s and you will put-put along eternally.