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Failing forward: revealing the mistakes I did when I hired the wrong person

Written by Keren Lerner on Wednesday, 03 October 2018. Posted in HR, People

Having experienced a few bad hires, Keren Lerner, CEO and founder of Top Left Design, reveals the four mistakes she did that caused her recruitment headaches

Failing forward: revealing the mistakes I did when I hired the wrong person

When you first hire someone new, it can be very exciting. It definitely is for me. I am excited and even a little bit enamoured by the new person and their new enthusiastic energy in the business.

Even now, after running my own business for so long and with new starters a-plenty, I still relish being able to welcome someone new to my company and to repeat all my usual little onboarding lessons about email tone of voice, naming files, saving files, using Trello and Dropbox, proper grammar and capitalisation and how important is is to live and breath our company values.

For the most part, as people have come and gone in the business, I have kept in touch with them and while their departure was sad and poignant, I still felt good about the experience and felt we mutually contributed to our respective development – them to my company Top Left Design and my company to them. I still socialise with and even party with many of my ex-employees.


However, I have to admit that I haven’t got a perfect record. Sometimes I have chosen people who are just not the right fit. While some entrepreneurs really regret these hires and think of that experience as some bad nightmare, I wouldn't go that far. I’d say mistake hires. They’re still better than average workers or I would never have considered them for my company.

The mistake hires? I can count them on one hand. And as I look back, there are certain early warning signs which, had I spotted them, may have shortened the pain and suffering.

Firstly, I hired them because they were there. Just like George Mallory’s saying “why did you want to climb Everest? Because it was there” – these particular mistake hires did not follow our usual stringent hiring process. They had already been in our vicinity and therefore I felt that since we know them already, we can hire them full time. I’d say now that the top five reasons to hire someone should never include the reason that they were there.

Secondly, I hired them even though they only matched one of our values but not all of them. We’ve identified what our four core values are, which is something I would say is imperative for any business, to make sure they’re making good decisions about who they work with including clients and suppliers. Ours are “caring and helpful”, “efficient, effective and reliable” as well as “teach and learn” and “enthusiastic and energetic”. To be honest, I could really only say that these guys were “really nice” which is closest to “caring and helpful.” But their work style wasn’t helpful – by not being quick to learn, efficient in their workflow, they actually cancelled out one half of “caring and helpful” and were kind of, well, unhelpful.

Thirdly, I kept forgiving them for making the same mistakes over and over. The A players at Top Left Design learn fast and take their failures as lessons in order to move on quickly. With these wrong hires I found myself repeatedly asking them to fix and correct the same type of thing over and over. Of course, everyone needs time to learn, it’s okay to fail sometimes, but at some point you need to ask yourself how many is too many for someone new? For me, it was as many as you like until I lose patience. And just so you know, that takes a while. I should have kept track. Now I have decided the max number should be five. If someone’s making the same mistakes after being reminded five times, I consider that a very loud warning sign.

The final warning sign was how they blamed complained and turned defensive (BCD) whenever I pointed out their mistakes. What bothers me the most is when people put the blame on external factors for their failures, which can include missing deadlines, forgetting to do a task and creating substandard work. This is victim behaviour. I should have spotted this early. I realise I want my team to be humble and acknowledge their own part in these situations and avoid “BCD” to keep their personal power. If they do I respect them far more, I am more happy to help them and I am more patient with them.

All too often we entrepreneurs who started our business to give people opportunities take far too long to remove people who don’t fit in, hoping that they can change things. It can happen but more often than not it’s a wasted effort. “Hire slow, fire fast” still seems to be the best rule to follow. While some people who come through your door will have great qualities, sometimes they are better suited to a different company than yours. So don’t be afraid to admit that you are not a good match.

About the Author

Keren Lerner

Keren Lerner is the CEO and founder of Top Left Design, a London-based design and marketing agency. Founded in 2002, Top Left Design specialises in bespoke designed websites, brands, and marketing material with integrated marketing advice.

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