Sippican Cottage

Search
Close this search box.
businessmanonbik.jpeg
Picture of sippicancottage

sippicancottage

A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men

I have only infrequently been an employee. When I was an employee, I would always be hired as the lowest of peons, then immediately be promoted to just short of the top of the greasy pole. In the past, I’ve been the employer of a good number of people, and as a manager acting for others I have supervised many hundreds. I now work alone.

When I had a handful of men working directly for me, I was in a business that absolutely demanded that the world be altered in a concrete, demonstrable, measurable, and productive way, every day, all the time, and without exception. I employed a rather bright fellow I recall now with fondness. I didn’t employ him because he was bright, because that was mostly superfluous to the topic at hand. He was pleasant, and cooperative. He was not a lifer in the manual trades. 
One day, I gave a raft of instructions to him and all my other employees, and then left on an important business errand. When I returned, everything was either not done, or not done correctly, or an admixture of those two. I was rather heated in my reaction. In a quiet moment later, he said something to me that I found interesting, and useful. He told me that no one that worked for me was as smart as I was, and they couldn’t understand things that I took for granted, and that there was no way the work would ever come out like I wanted it to unless I did it myself, and I was wasting my time trying to make it happen.
Since I did not make this assessment myself,  I guess I can tell you about it without feeling like it’s simply rotomontade on my part. I had made a very bad mistake, and had hired a brilliant person to run my affairs, which is a very big mistake indeed. To hire a brilliant person to run your affairs marks a man as none too bright, if you ask me. It makes no nevermind that the brilliant person was me. 
I do not employ a brilliant person in this capacity any longer. If he gets up to anything brilliant-sounding, I tell him to put a sock in it, and sand another tabletop, because that’s what needs doing.

But that’s old advice, of course. Here it is, from 1924:

 Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men
by: Unknown

SITTING in my office last week, facing the man whom I had just fired,
I thought of the contrast between that interview and our first one,
nearly two years ago! Then he did almost all the talking, while I
listened with eager interest. Last week it was I who talked, while he
sulked like a petulant child.

“Your contract has sixteen months to run,” I said. “My proposition is
that we cancel it at once, and that I hand you this check for ten
thousand dollars.”
With a show of bravado he waved the check aside. He would hold me to
the letter of the contract if it were the last thing he ever did.
I told him he had that privilege, but I was sure he would see the futility of exercising it.
“Let me review the situation for a moment,” I continued: “You came to
us as general sales manager on January 1st, 1922, at a salary of
twenty-five thousand dollars. It was by far the largest salary we had
ever paid in any executive position; but your record seemed to justify
it.
“The letters you brought spoke in the highest terms of your sales
genius. The only question which they did not answer to my satisfaction
was why companies which had valued you so highly should ever have
allowed you to get away! When I voiced this, you stated that they merely
had been outbid by their competitors — and I accepted your statement.
It wasn’t until you had been here a year that I learned the truth. You
are a quick starter, but a poor finisher — no finisher at all, in
fact.”

“Who told you that?” he demanded.
“Nobody needed to tell me. I found it out from your effect on our own organization.”
“Organization!” he sneered. “You haven’t got an organization.”
“So you have remarked to me frequently,” I answered; “and you may be
right. Our folks have mostly grown up in our own business; they know
comparatively little of the way in which things are done in other lines.
That’s what we wanted you to teach us, and you were very sure that you
could . . . We were all receptive.”
“Yes, you were!” he exclaimed scornfully. “Your folks were jealous
from the day I arrived. They sat back and dared me to show results. I
told you that six months ago.”
“I remember you did,” I replied, “and my answer is just what it was
then. You claim to be a brilliant salesman, and yet you failed in the
first essential. You never sold yourself to the people with whom and
through whom you had to work. You say they were jealous, but a man of
your intelligence ought to know that the answer to jealousy is modesty,
hard work — and results. They would have jumped on your band wagon fast
enough if you had made them see the advantage of it. But after waiting
around for the band wagon to start, they concluded that it wasn’t going
to start, and it never has.
“You brought your own assistants, and we paid them high salaries,” I
went on. “You moved our offices away from the plant and took these
expensive quarters in the center of town. You were given a sales and
advertising budget more than twice as large as any we have ever had
before. Every request you made I granted as whole-heartedly as I knew
how, because I believed that your fresh ideas were what this business
needed. But twenty months have passed, and the sales simply have not
grown.
“That’s the stubborn fact which can’t be blinked; and now it’s come
to a point where I must choose between you and my good old wheel horses
who, in spite of their mediocrity, have somehow managed to build a very
profitable business.
“You can stay here until your contract expires, but you will have no
further responsibilities. The news will get around that you are merely
hanging on; and when the end comes you will step out, discredited, to
look for another job. Or you can leave now with ten thousand dollars,
which is the additional penalty I am willing to pay for my mistake in
judgment. If you go in the proper spirit, you are still young enough to
profit by your failure.”

HE MADE a little further show of protest, but he took the check.
I wonder what old-line company will next be dazzled by his sales
talk; and what I ought to say when the president writes to ask me why we
were willing to let him go. If I tell the entire truth it may end his
business career. And there is always the hope that, next time, he may
enter modestly upon his opportunity and produce real results. For he has
the talent; there is no doubt about that. He is undeniably a very
brilliant man.
When I was a small boy my father bought me two pairs of shoes; one at two and one-half dollars and the other at five dollars.
“My son,” he said, “I want you to wear these two pairs of shoes on
alternate days, and watch them carefully. Later on I will ask you to
tell me about them.”
Without understanding at all what he had in mind I wore the
two-and-one-half-dollar pair on Monday, the five-dollar pair on Tuesday,
and continued to give them equal service for about six months. At the
end of that period I reported that the cheaper shoes were worn out.
“How about the other pair?” he asked.
“Here they are,” I answered; “I’ve had them half-soled and they are as good as new.”
He nodded his head, as if he had expected this information.
“I bought those shoes for a special purpose,” he told me; “and I want
them to be a lifelong lesson to you. There are just two grades of
commodities in the world: the best — and the others. My experience is
that it pays to buy the best; and what applies to things applies equally
to men. Pick out the best men for employers; and when you get along in
life pick out the best men for employees. never mind what the price mark
may be; the question is, what service will they deliver, and how long
will they wear?”

I NEVER forgot that homely incident; but not until years later did I
understand its full significance. The five-dollar shoe has a lot more
wear in it because there was a lot more work in it. Even fine material,
carelessly put together, will not make a fine shoe; but if material
which is of just average quality is fashioned with special care and
attention, it will result in a quite superior article.
What my father was trying to teach me was this: God Almighty, in
fashioning his most useful men, often works slowly with quite common
stuff. Now and then He turns out a quick job of superfine materials — a
genius who really delivers the goods. But most of His better grade line
is ordinary in everything except the extra effort, and dogged
determination, which have given it a finer texture and finish.
This knowledge, as I say, came much later. When I set out in life, it
was with the idea that if I could attach myself to exceptional men, and
exceptional men to me, my advancement would be assured.
In my sophomore year in college my father died. One of his insurance
policies of twenty thousand dollars was paid to me; the balance of his
estate went to my mother. It would have been far wiser if I had
completed my college course; but I was ambitious to make an immediate
record.
As it happened, I had come under the influence of the first of my
costly collection of brilliant men. I will call him Carroll. He was five
years older than I was and a member of my college fraternity. But he
had dropped out at the end of his freshman year and was supposed to be
making a great record with a wholesale grocery house in New York. We
undergraduates were dazzled by the splendor of his visits. He wore fine
clothes, smoked the best cigars, and talked with the assurance of a
successful man of the world.
One night, following the initiation ceremonies at the fraternity
house, he drew me into a corner and asked me about my plans. I had no
plan, I answered, except to finish my course and to take the best job
that came along.
“You’ll just be wasting two years,” he said decidedly. “You’ve got
everything that college can give you, except a diploma. Look at me. I’m
just as much a college man as though I had hung around here four years;
and compared with my classmates I’ve got a three-years start in
business. I’ve been watching you ever since you entered, and I think you
have the stuff.
“I’ll make you a proposition,” he went on confidentially. “The big
future in the grocery business is in chain stores.” (In which he was
right, as has subsequently been proved.) “I know the business; you have
twenty thousand dollars. I know a city where we can buy two good little
stores for that amount in cash, and pay off the balance out of the
profits. When we get those two going right, we’ll buy another, and
another, until we have a big chain. It’s a sure-fire fortune. You think
it over for a few days, and if you want to hook up with me, let me
know.”
I was flattered by his interest, so I thought it over. That is, I
indulged in what young men frequently mistake for thought. In
imagination, I saw my name over the door and myself in a fine glass
office looking out and watching clerks taking in money. I had, in
anticipation, the thrill of buying one store after another and going
from town to town on tours of inspection. I tickled my fancy with the
idea of coming back to college and letting the boys consult me as an
experienced man of affairs. And having finished this process of
“thinking” I wired Carroll that I was ready to join him.

WE BOUGHT our two stores; there was no trouble about that. We hung out
the signs which my imagination had pictured, washed the windows,
rearranged the goods, painted the delivery wagons a bright red and
worked like Trojans. We made progress — quite encouraging progress. One
of the fine traits in human nature is the desire which almost every
decent man has to help young men do well. The second month we broke
even. The third month we began to show a small profit.
Everything might have gone well for us if it hadn’t been for
Carroll’s brilliance. He walked into the office one night and sat down
with an air of immense satisfaction.
“We’re on our way, Jimmy!” he exclaimed. “I’ve just been over to Booneville and got an option on the best store there.”
“How are we going to finance it?” I gasped. “We’re short of working
capital as it is, and I don’t see how we can spread out our time any
thinner.”
“Leave that to your Uncle Dudley,” he cried, with a wave of his hand.
“I’ve been over to the bank, and they’re willing to take a chance on
us. It will be a tight squeeze for a few months; but we’ll make it. And
as for spreading ourselves too thin, don’t you ever make the mistake of
tying yourself down to this desk. Nobody gets anywhere by doing all the
work himself. We’ll take Ferguson” (referring to one of our clerks) “and
make him manager here, while we step over to Booneville and breathe the
breath of life into that dear old town.”
His enthusiasm was contagious. We sat up half the night figuring and
planning, and by one o’clock we had already moved on, in imagination,
from Booneville to the two adjoining towns.
For another six months the sun seemed to be shining in at all our
windows. We put on more delivery wagons, took an option on more stores,
laid in lines of goods which had never been carried before, and reveled
in the joys of big business.
Then the thing happened which was inevitable; we came smash up
against inventory time and found that we had been insolvent for weeks
without knowing it. Plenty of money was passing through our hands; but
not enough stuck.
We made an assignment, turned over every cent we had in the world and
trailed sadly back to New York, where I found a job as a clerk for one
of the jobbers from whom we had bought goods.
Carroll, crushed to earth, rose brilliantly again. I heard of him
next as one of the promoters of a new process for treating rubber. It
lasted a few months, and exploded. Various enterprises followed, and my
latest information about him is that he is practicing the profession of
“Industrial Management.” I should think it might be a good profession
for Carroll. He is a bad employer for himself, but he could put a lot of
ginger into somebody else’s business, if the other man knew the trick
of handling and properly discounting brilliant men.
Well, I went to work behind a high desk copying orders. After a while
I was given a chance to sell; and ten years later, at the age of
thirty-five, I was general sales manager. At this time the owner of the
business died and was succeeded by his son, a man about my own age. I
will call him Adams. He announced immediately that I was to be vice
president and general manager, and made a private arrangement with me by
which I was able to purchase some of the stock.
“I don’t want to be tied down by details,” he explained. “You know
that end of things. I want to be free to work on big deals and think out
plans for the future of the business. Father was a darned good man in
his day, but he got pretty conservative toward the end. You and I
together will do big things.”

I OUGHT to have been warned; for while the voice was the voice of my new
boss, the words were the words of my old partner, Carroll. Indeed, the
two men were curiously alike — both handsome, magnetic chaps with a
facility for making quick friendships.
I was still young in experience, however, and I entered into the new
arrangement whole-heartedly. But disillusionment came swiftly. Our
principal customer walked into the office one afternoon and asked for
Mr. Adams.
“He hasn’t been in today,” I said. “He may come later.”
“May come,” repeated the big fellow with unpleasant emphasis. “He had
a definite appointment with me, and I’ve traveled a hundred miles to
keep it.”
I lied as nimbly as I could: Mr. Adams had been called away
unexpectedly, I said. He told me about the appointment and would make
every effort to get back. Probably he would come within the next
half-hour.
But the customer refused to be mollified. He waited in Adams’s office for exactly thirty minutes; then he stalked out.
At five-thirty that evening Adams burst in and began to unfold some
new and splendid plan. It was dramatic — a stroke of genius. But for
two men in our circumstances it was impossible. When he had finished I
poured the bad news of the Big Customer’s call over him like a bucket of
cold water. At once, all his enthusiasm died out; he was so contrite
that I couldn’t possibly be angry with him.
“That’s a rotten shame,” he exclaimed. “I forgot all about it. I’ll
write the old bear a letter and lay myself humbly in the dust.”
And write a letter he did — a masterpiece — with delicate reference
to the Big Customer’s years of dealings with his father, and a profound
apology. Better than that, he took a train and arrived in the
Customer’s office a half-hour after the letter, coming back with the
best order we had ever shipped out.
He was brilliant, there was no denying it, and so lovable that I
value his friendship to-day more than that of almost any other man in
the world. But I couldn’t stand him in the business; I decided that
within the first year, and we had a showdown.
“One of us should go,” I said in the course of the hardest interview
of my life. “Either I’ll sell my interest, or you sell me yours.”
“I don’t see why,” he answered; and he had the look of a favorite puppy who has been scolded. “I thought you liked me.”
“Like isn’t a strong enough word,” I said. “I love you, and you’re
brilliant. But I’m a commonplace plodder, and so are all our employees.
Moreover, this is a plodding kind of business, where the money is made
by pinching pennies. You’re about as much at home in it as J. P. Morgan
would be running a barber shop.
“You conceive a big idea, get the whole organization on tiptoes to
carry it out, and then you lose interest and go off on a new tangent.
You think everybody else’s mind ought to function as swiftly as your
own, so you are alternately overenthusiastic and over-depressed. One day
you carry some poor devil up into a high mountain and make him think he
has a chance to become general manager. The next day you blow him up
for not doing something which you think you told him, but which you
actually forgot. You are always living, in imagination, about six jumps
ahead.

WITH Adams out of our business, it gradually settled down. That is a
terrible phrase, I know, but it describes our situation. We no longer
had the brilliant emotional moments which he had inspired; we didn’t
attempt any very daring exploits; but at the end of every year we had
more money in the bank than we had while he ran things.
After that, I never hired a brilliant man from one of our
competitors, nor listened to the siren-tones of “experts” who promised
to double our volume — until I encountered the
twenty-five-thousand-dollar beauty I have mentioned at the start of this
story. Every year I picked up a half-dozen live young fellows who
seemed to have a capacity for hard work, and shoved them in at the
bottom of the pile, letting them make their way up to the better air and
sunlight at the top — if they had it in them to do it.
For a time I tried picking these youngsters out of the colleges. But
my experience with college men was not fortunate. If I selected good
students, I found too often that their leadership had been won by doing
very well what their teachers had laid out for them. They had developed a
fine capacity for taking orders, but not much initiative. If I hired
athletes, too many of them seemed to feel that their life work was done;
that the world owed them a living in exchange for what they had
achieved for the grand old school. Also, there is not much social
distinction in the grocery business. Young ladies — and their mothers
— are much more thrilled by bonds than by butter and eggs.
So I took most of my raw material from our delivery wagons, or other
places right at hand. Out of this hard-muscled, hard-headed stuff I have
built a business that has made me rich according to the standards of
our locality, and has built modest fortunes for at least twenty other
men. More important than that, it has stood for clean dealing and a
faithful adherence to the best business ethics. Even our hottest
competitors, I think, are willing to grant us that.

READING back over what I have written I am quite conscious that it is an
indictment of myself, as well as of the brilliant men with whom I have
been associated. Any reader might fairly say, “He was too mediocre to
appreciate anything better than mediocrity.”
That criticism may be justifiable, for I am mediocre. But the point I
have in mind is this: Business and life are built upon successful
mediocrity; and victory comes to companies, not through the employment
of brilliant men, but through knowing how to get the most out of
ordinary folks.
I was talking not long ago with the president of one of the big insurance companies.
“There is not a single brilliant man in our organization,” he said.
“I am not brilliant myself. I am just an average chap who started in
peddling policies, and — knowing my own limitations — felt that I must
put in a couple of hours’ extra work every day in order to hold my own
against my competitors.”
In one of our largest cities is a newspaper which is said to earn
nearly a million dollars a year. It was on the verge of bankruptcy when
the present owner purchased it. He has made it practically a daily
necessity to the business men of his city — complete, accurate,
dependable.
One day a very talented journalist joined the staff in a position of
considerable responsibility. He had been editor of a smaller newspaper
noted for the brightness of its style; and in the first editorial
counsel he volunteered a suggestion.
“You have made a marvelous success of this property,” he said to the
proprietor. “Nobody would think of suggesting any change in the news
policies. But won’t you let me hire two or three really brilliant
editorial writers whom I have in mind? Even you must admit that there is
room for improvement on your editorial page.”
“What’s the matter with the editorial page?” the proprietor demanded.
“Why, it’s so — so commonplace.”
The proprietor was silent for a moment. Then he said:
“My dear sir, the average business man is commonplace.”
There is a great deal of encouragement to me in that statement, and I
find the same sort of encouragement in reading biography. Who have been
the doers of important deeds? . . . Geniuses? . . . Yes, some of them.
But not a majority, by any means.
No man contributed more to the winning of the World War than Lord
Kitchener, who was one of the dullest boys that ever entered a school.
All studies were hard for him, with one exception: he was remarkably
good in arithmetic. Capitalizing that one point of strength, he learned
to handle men in large numbers and to make accurate estimates of the
strength of his own forces and those opposed to him. When brilliant men
were talking about a six-months war, he bluntly prophesied a three-years
war, and forced the Allies to prepare for it.
Charles Darwin,
who revolutionized scientific thought, was so unpromising as a boy that
his father predicted he would be a disgrace to the family. James Russell Lowell
was suspended by Harvard for “continued neglect of his college duties.”
Neither of them showed any youthful brilliance; they matured gradually
into eminence by the slow process of diligent effort.

SIR ISAAC NEWTON sat one night at dinner beside a very attractive and voluble young lady.
“My dear Sir Isaac,” she exclaimed, “how did you ever happen to discover the law of gravitation?”
“By constantly thinking about it, madam,” her “dear Sir Isaac” muttered.
In that blunt answer lies the substance of my experience, and what I believe to be the real secret of business achievement.
So sure am I of the soundness of this philosophy that I have five
very simple rules for hiring men, which are the outgrowth of it!

  1. Has he good health? Some months ago a newspaper collected from a
    hundred young men a list of the qualifications they would seek in the
    girls they hoped to marry. The list differed widely, as may be imagined.
    But at the top of almost every one was written the asset which I put
    first in men — good health. Without it the best man in the world is
    likely to become pessimistic in his outlook, and to break when he is
    needed most. With it, even mediocrity can force itself by unusual effort
    into something fine and useful. Generally speaking, I would rather have
    a man who was born frail, and has overcome his frailty by careful
    living, than take one whose natural strength has never known its limits.
    The athlete, like the genius, frequently disappoints; while the man who
    has had to fight for his health knows how to value and preserve it.
  2. Has he saved some money? I don’t care how much, or how little, but
    he must have saved something. At times, this demand may seem harsh. A
    man will say, “I have had parents to look after,” or “I have had bad
    luck with an investment,” or, “I trusted a friend who failed me.” To all
    such excuses I am sympathetic, but I do not relent. I answer, “That is
    too bad, but think what it means. You have lived twenty-five or thirty
    years without making a profit on your life; how can I expect that you
    will be a profit-maker for me?”
  3. Does he talk and write effectively? This may seem a strange
    requirement, but it has been a very useful one. If we could unscrew the
    top of men’s heads and look in, many of our problems would be
    eliminated, for we could see what sort of thinking goes on there.
    Lacking that privilege however, we have to judge by what comes out of
    the mind through the tongue and fingers. If a man writes and speaks
    “neatly” it is because his thinking is orderly; if his expression is
    forceful, the thought back of it must be forceful. But if he blunders
    for words, and uses phrases which express his meaning clumsily, I
    believe his mind is cluttered and ill-disciplined.
  4. Does he finish what he starts? Geniuses almost never do. I look very
    critically into little things respecting the men I hire; the details of
    their dress, their handwriting, their record of tying up a job and
    leaving no loose ends. The biggest men of my acquaintance in business
    are “detail men” to an amazing degree. Often the president of a company
    is the only man in it who knows the little things about every
    department.
  5. Finally, of course, I look for courage. General Grant was a rather
    slow-witted man, and a failure in middle life. But he won the Civil War;
    and the principle on which he proceeded was that the enemy was probably
    just as much scared as he was. Napoleon’s motto was “When in doubt,
    attack.” I like to throw something rather hard at a young man, and see
    how squarely he meets it. For with courage and the habit of going
    forward he can travel a long way. He will pass many men more brilliant
    than he is. Their active minds can always see two sides to every
    question; and they stand still while the debate goes on inside.

THESE are quite simple rules. They eliminate the genius quite as
surely as they eliminate the unfit. No Edison could ever qualify; no
Lincoln, either, with his soiled linen duster and his habit of
interrupting important business with funny stories. I am sorry to forego
the companionship of such men in my rather dingy building here in the
wholesale grocery district. But I comfort myself with the thought that
Cromwell built the finest army in Europe out of dull but enthusiastic
yeomen; and that the greatest organization in human history was twelve
humble men, picked up along the shores of an inland lake.

2 Responses

  1. That bit about the newspaper was, well, brilliant. If more of them today followed that advice, I suspect fewer would find themselves failing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thanks for commenting! Everyone's first comment is held for moderation.