Why you should recruit pioneers

by Bee Heller
April 4, 2017

Would you recruit someone if you felt they were over-qualified for the job? Why?

I think most people’s instinctive reaction would be to avoid it. It certainly seems to be a common reason given for not offering someone a job. I guess employers think overqualified employees will be bored and potentially disruptive if they’re not fully occupied. There’s also the suspicion that they’re just using the job as a stop-gap before moving on to bigger things.

However new research published in the Academy of Management Journal, suggests recruiting slightly overqualified people may not be such a bad idea after all. Billian Lin, Kenneth Law and Jing Zhou conducted studies with school teachers and factory workers that showed low to moderate levels of over qualification can lead to increased productivity and creativity. But this effect tails off beyond a certain point as high levels of over qualification result in no better performance than the average.

But how do you identify someone who is low to moderately overqualified?

At The Pioneers we advocate that organisations should recruit pioneers – people who they believe will exhibit the behaviours they would like to see more of in the rest of the group. Pioneers set an example that others can copy and emulate, which in turn improves the overall performance of the group.

Rather than thinking about recruiting slightly overqualified people in isolation, we think it’s helpful to think about recruiting pioneers in relation to the rest of the group. In this context, recruiting people who are too far removed from the rest of the group (or too highly qualified) is unhelpful because people can’t copy them. Rather than their behaviour dragging overall performance up, the rest of the group will see them as an outsider or maverick that they can ignore rather than be influenced by. Once isolated from the group, this highly qualified individual will cease to have a positive impact on overall group performance because they don’t influence how other people behave.

But when you recruit someone who’s slightly overqualified they can become a new benchmark of performance, stretching the aspirations of the rest of the group and providing an example for others to copy. As long as these slightly overqualified people exhibit behaviours that others in the group recognise as being similar and yet usefully different to what they’re already doing, then they can exert a positive influence.

So how can you benefit from recruiting pioneers?

Here are my three top tips for finding people who are, in Goldilocks’ words, “just right” for the rest of your team:

1. Recruit people that existing employees can copy and learn from

The degree of separation from existing behaviours and skills is important. It’s no use recruiting someone who is lean six sigma black belt and then expecting them to put their lean skills into practice if they’re going to be the only person in your organisation who’s heard of lean. You need to recruit people who have skills that existing employees will recognise as being useful to them and who you believe will exhibit behaviours that reflect the best bits of the existing organisation.

2. Recruit people who are intrinsically motivated to do the job

One of the advantages of people being slightly overqualified that’s highlighted in the research is that these people have spare capacity beyond their ‘day job’. If they enjoy the work they do they will put their spare capacity to creative and productive use. For example, some of the teachers in the study organised special classroom events or brought in materials from home to improve classroom activities. So when recruiting pioneers, find people who are likely to be both good at and who will enjoy the work required of them – and then continue to give them opportunities to learn and progress to maintain that intrinsic motivation.

3. Recruit people who will make good coaches

If you want your pioneers to have as much influence as possible on the behaviour of others, you need pioneers who are able to teach. Then rather than just waiting for their good behaviour and skills to rub off on others, you can actively encourage your best to teach the rest. The better your pioneers are at coaching, the more effective this approach will be.

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