Do You Know What You Want?

Paul Stansik
4 min readJun 24, 2021

Decide what you’re looking for before you add someone new to your team.

Photo by Miikka Luotio on Unsplash

The last decade hasn’t been so hot for Michigan football. When your team loses a bunch of winnable games, you can’t help but notice other teams’ success.

Though it pains me to admit it as a Wolverine fan, I admire how Nick Saban runs his program. The Alabama Crimson Tide is a recruiting machine. Yes, capturing 5 national championships in 10 years makes things easier. People want to play for a winner. But here’s another reason Alabama is great at spotting talent: They know what they want.

I love this passage on Alabama’s recruiting approach from The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football:

“Saban and his staff follow what defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called ‘the blueprint’ for success. As detailed by Andy Staples in Sports Illustrated, that blueprint targeted high school athletes who fit certain character/attitude/intelligence criteria and position-specific height/weight/speed guidelines tailored to Alabama’s offensive and defensive schemes. Cornerbacks, for example, should ideally be between six feet and six feet two inches and about 190 pounds and run a sub-4.5 forty-yard dash; linemen should stand no less than six feet two because, as Smart drily noted, ‘big people beat up little people.’”

Sticking to their blueprint is helping Alabama build what Google calls a “self-replicating talent machine.” Coach Saban and his staff pay close attention to what’s different about their best players: The ones that not only perform, but also fit cohesively into the team’s culture. Alabama pinpoints the qualities that make these players the best. Then they build a rigorous process that helps them find others who share those qualities.

Alabama’s specificity keeps them disciplined. Their scorecard for “what works” is clear for every position. It’s decided in advance. And it’s built on objective criteria that are difficult to fake. Are you fast enough or not? Are you big enough or not? Can you throw an accurate deep route or not? Their blueprint minimizes the need for discussion and debate amongst the coaching staff — the evidence is right there in the measurables and on the videotape. The coaches have clear standards (their blueprint) and the means to detect whether they’ve been met (by reviewing film + watching recruits perform). This objectivity helps them “miss less” when recruiting, which creates a stronger team, which wins them more games, which makes recruiting future players easier. It’s a powerful flywheel at work. Once it gets going, it’s hard for others to catch up, including (though I hate to say it) my Wolverines.

I want you to think about this the next time you’re hiring someone. Be honest: Are you clear on what and who you’re looking for? How specific are you about the impact you want this person to create? About the skills they need to have? About what you want them to actually get done? Are you making clear tradeoffs on the must-haves vs. the nice-to-haves? Or are you trusting yourself to simply “know it when you see it?”

Before we hire any portfolio executive, our team spends hours debating what we want them to accomplish. We map out their first year on the job and create a simple success plan: A short list of the controllable, impactful, finish-able milestones that we expect a successful hire to accomplish in their first 12 months. Then we align on the key skills they need (and the ones we don’t) and how the role will fit within and contribute to the company’s strategy and culture. Spending this time to clarify what we’re looking for is worth it. It gives us a clear scorecard for how to evaluate candidates. It aligns our team around what we’re looking for. And, interestingly enough, candidates love the end result. As one recent interviewee told us:

“I read through your profile — It’s the best written job description I’ve ever seen. It tells me exactly what I need to do in my first year, and I love that. Someone has put a lot of thought into not only what you’re looking for, but where there are opportunities in the business and how to grow it.”

Building a strong team happens one person at a time, and getting a critical hire right can be almost magical. Good stuff just starts to happen. Things get fixed. Problems get solved. Your business — and your team — improves in a bunch of tiny but noticeable ways. The difference (as I wrote about previously) is even more pronounced when you swap out an underperformer. Trading someone who holds you back (-1) for someone who moves you forward (+1) creates a two-point swing.

But I’ll warn you: Knowing what you want takes longer. Laying out a blueprint for a new hire’s success isn’t easy. Making trade-offs between must-haves and nice-to-haves isn’t easy. Writing it all down and getting everyone to agree on what you’re looking for is even harder. But as Raymond Teller (half of the magician duo Penn & Teller) puts it:

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

Spend the time. Decide what you want. Write it down. Be clear.

Then (and only then) start looking. That’s how great teams are built.

Want to learn more about how we hire — including how to clarify what you’re looking for? Click here to download ParkerGale’s “How We Hire” Handbook.

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Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, and how to be a better leader. Views my own. Not investment advice.