The Right Stuff Part 1

In the famous movie The Right Stuff, the astronauts eventually chosen to rocket into space not only demonstrate the normal toughness associated with the challenges of military service, but also possess an almost intangible character that separates the very best from the best.

Whether you’re preparing to shoot for the stars, or trying to pull your organization out of a nosedive, at some point you must select staff to fill one or more open positions. In the view of most Human Resource experts, hiring is the most significant of management decisions, eventually impacting all aspects of an organization. After all, these same experts remind us that 80 percent of our budget is allocated to personnel-related expenses.

Ideally, you want the very best of the best. Yet, despite our good intentions and doggedly following established processes, job candidates’ less-than-desirable characteristics somehow may be overlooked, and a person with the “wrong stuff” is hired.

While standard practices, such as establishing quantitative measures of candidates’ qualifications (for fair and efficient initial screening), personal interviews and background checks, are employed, many of these methods miss important traits directly affecting job performance--those that indicate how the candidates will mesh with your organization’s existing structure and “culture.”

Three simple and informative models address an equal number of interrelated aspects of this critical issue--awareness, respect and partnership. This article discusses the first of these; the remaining two will be presented next month.

No Miss With Hitt

Originally developed in 1988 by W. D. Hitt, the four quadrants comprising Figure 1 describe leadership (or the lack thereof) in terms of the degree to which people possess the ability to dream (creative recognition of possibilities), and the ability to do (the skills and detail orientation necessary to successfully turn dreams into reality). Implicit in this scheme, however, is a more fundamental concept--internal and external awareness.

A resumé listing a relatively unbroken series of jobs held (and previous employers’ increasing reluctance to go beyond verifying employment) is not a reliable gauge of future performance. On the other hand, asking job candidates what they noticed about their jobs will reveal both their performance and their dream-ability. Which aspects of their performance made sense, and which didn’t … and why? What could have been done better … and what did they do better? Did they initiate change within their own spheres of influence, and did they suggest changes to their supervisors regarding matters beyond that scope?

These questions illuminate important details, and address whether opportunities were recognized and completed (doing), and whether possibilities and alternatives were imagined (dreaming), in other words, an awareness of what could, should, or did occur in relation to both the job itself and within the organization’s context.

The very best candidates integrate both doing and dreaming, leading themselves to success, as well as the teams under their direction or with whom they serve. The result is a high-performing organization. In contrast, a person who lacks internal and external awareness and actualization is a slacker who cannot (or will not) contribute to your organization’s success, resulting in low performance.

Certainly no organization can tolerate a slacker. However, asking prospective employees to describe only their do-ability likely will not reveal any slacker flaw. But does Hitt’s right stuff make the remaining two quadrants irrelevant? Not necessarily. Were the astronauts who didn’t make the roster somehow worthless? Of course not. While every manager who aims high seeks the very best, prospects who meet those lofty criteria are rare; there aren’t enough to go around. Here is where Hitt’s model is most useful.

Although a leader cannot completely offset a slacker (and should not have to), candidates possessing either doer or dreamer preferences can complement each other under the proper conditions. Therefore, Hitt’s model first requires managers to assess all of the current employees’ capabilities, and to plot each staff member’s position within Figure 1. Making this determination prior to interviewing job candidates allows evaluators to hire for complementarity. An organization of doers--balanced by an equal number of dreamers--may perform as well as another organization filled predominately with “leader” types when the blended organization is guided by a leader capable of both.

Under these conditions, your creative but somewhat reclusive promotions director can be well-complemented by hiring someone who enjoys the details of negotiating with print-shop staff and schmoozing media personnel to keep a branding campaign on schedule. The same concept applies to recruiting members to your advisory board or strategic planning committee.

Given the wide variety of prospective employees’ skill sets, and the general scarcity of dreamer-and-doers, the right stuff can be discovered by thoughtfully combining complementary types, provided you know whom you already have, and you know the right questions to ask potential employees.

Work cited:

Hitt, W. D. The Leader Manager: Guidelines for Action. Columbus, Ohio: Batelle Press, 1988.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation, and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at