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Would you recruit a jazz musician for a bank?

Apr 25, 2011 Business Daily, Management

“Arkadi Kuhlmann, founder and CEO of ING Direct USA, has invented a whole new approach to retail banking. Over the past decade, as he has recruited thousands of employees to his organization, he has made it a point not to look to his competitors as a source of talent. “If you want to renew and re-energize an industry,” he told me, “don’t hire people from that industry. You’ve got to untrain them and then retrain them. I’d rather hire a jazz musician, a dancer, or a captain in the Israeli army. They can learn about banking. It’s much harder for bankers to unlearn their bad habits.””

WILLIAM C TAYLOR Harvard Business Review (1 February 2011)

Bill Taylor, one of my favourite business writers, was in fine form recently on the subject of recruitment.

He quoted Arkadi Kuhlmann, CEO of maverick bank ING Direct in the USA, who tells us he looks for jazz musicians and army captains rather than other bankers when he recruits.

The reason is simple. Arkadi is a rule-breaker, a game-changer. What on earth would he gain from recruiting grizzled banking veterans who do things in all the bad old ways that Arkadi doesn’t want to mimic? As he points out, he would have to ‘untrain’ them and then retrain them.

Southwest Airlines, the original air industry maverick, has also been profiled by Bill Taylor. They follow the same recruiting practice, looking for teachers, waiters, even police officers. Recruiting from the airline industry doesn’t happen as often as you might think.

Taylor explains: “In other words, the company evaluates talent based on the proposition that who you are as a person counts for as much as what you know at any point in time — and subjects prospective employees to a barrage of character tests before they join the organization. Over the years, Southwest has elevated to something of a science the practice of identifying its star performers, understanding what makes them tick, and devising interviews, group exercises, and other techniques to probe for those same attributes in new employees.”

I hope Kenyan recruiters are paying attention. Here, companies are invariably interested in how much experience you have in their industry before they even consider you. The bank and the airline might be doing many things very badly, but will still end up recruiting people from competitors who do the same things even more badly. Make any sense?

If you recruit for a customer-facing position, I would suggest the last person you want is from most banks or airlines. Those are precisely the people who have no clue about customer service in this part of the world. You would be better off looking at people from the hospitality industry.

If you are just another me-too player in your market, then keep recruiting me-too employees. If your ambitions are to break a few norms, bend a few rules, twist the conventional wisdom, look beyond the tried and tested – then you must be willing to inject fresh thinking from outside your industry, outside your professional class, outside your comfort zone.

Game-changing is not done by those who have played that very game meekly and submissively for decades. It is done by fresh minds from new perspectives. Too many of our companies are going around hiring clones of clones and creating cookie-cutter organizations. Why? The business of tomorrow will not be about doing more of today; it will be about designing whole new ways of thinking and working.

A jazz musician in a bank? Why not, if that bank wants to make sweet music for its customers, and wants someone creative who can design moments of customer delight? An army sergeant in a media house? Why not, if that company needs to design strict processes to meet tight deadlines? A waiter in a hospital? Why not, if patients need bright smiles and helpful service?

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