Thomas Brooke

Paint and People: What Does “Good” Mean?

Several past articles have focused on the similarities between hiring and coatings technology. A recent search pointed up another parallel: “good” is a relative term.

One of the most fundamental principles in formulation of paints and coatings is an accurate understanding of the environment to which the coating will be subjected and the particular results it needs to achieve. You can’t formulate a coating successfully without this information: no prizes awarded for knowing that the inside of tanker carrying hydrochloric acid needs an entirely different coating from the inside of a can of soup, or that your house needs different paint from your car. The point is that the formulation is guided by the specific properties desired, and the context of use. There’s no such thing as a universally “good” paint or coating – it all depends on how and where it will be applied. But we can all recognize a bad paint job.

The same goes for hiring; yet frequently the logic isn’t applied, which is one major reason why so many companies experience turnover and people fail to “stick”. The paint & coatings industry understandably values industry experience as a cornerstone of a “good” candidate – but sometimes that can be an oversimplification, leading to the equivalent of a bad paint job.

Here’s an obvious illustration: What makes a “good” coatings sales person? Of course one answer is “proven results” – but what did it take to achieve those results? How does the sales person actually get those numbers on the board? A “good” candidate for a sales role with a Fortune company is rarely the same as a “good” candidate for an entrepreneurial, independent business. The core characteristics it takes to succeed in such different environments favor two very different personalities.

In the big company environment, a successful sales person needs to have experience with a sophisticated CRM system, know how to navigate, tolerate and manipulate corporate bureaucracy, and function effectively in a structured environment with complex internal relationships. Various rankings and metrics point the way to President’s Club status. There is an expectation – even an assumption – that Marketing has properly and explicitly positioned the brand, good sales collateral will be available and a support team of technical specialists is behind the scenes. There are mandated internal sales training courses, and usually a pretty well-populated list of target accounts to go after. Success here has a lot to do with knowing how to work the complex controls and levers of a big machine effectively.

In the entrepreneurial environment, a “good” candidate is probably not interested in most of that and may find it hampers their ability to succeed. In fact, someone with a successful big-company background may flounder when put in an environment where the number one definition of “good” may be “can rub two sticks together to make fire” – no company-provided CRM or target list, but the ability to build trust and credibility based on little more than their own reputation and integrity. Being their own first responder for tech support likely means they need to have much deeper technical knowledge than their big-company counterpart. Coloring inside the lines in an entrepreneurial environment is potentially a drawback, whereas it is pretty much essential in a big company.

One is not “better” than another inherently, but certainly one is better than the other in a specific context.

Another example: let’s talk growth. A company of any size with aggressive growth goals, playing to win, has a radically different definition of a “good” candidate from a company playing defensively. Ability to live with a level of ambiguity and a pretty good risk tolerance are both highly important in aggressive growth companies. When playing to win, years of industry experience alone don’t cut it. We’ve been brought in on numerous searches where the vaunted “industry expert” failed to deliver the goods because they didn’t have the rest of the requirements for success in the specific context of our client’s company; frequently, we’ve placed people who have gone on to succeed and be promoted even without the niche expertise initially considered to be essential. But they had the skills, experience and ability to understand and replicate the steps to growth – all the elements of the formulation – needed for success in that particular environment.

Another attribute to think about is stability. Nobody wants a paint that falls off the substrate, nobody wants to hire someone who changes jobs all the time, and nobody longs for job insecurity… But there is such a thing as too much tenure with one company these days. Someone who left high school or college twenty five years ago to work for Company A and has steadily advanced up the ranks is not necessarily going to continue to ascend at Company B – there’s a real risk that their success is not inherently transferable. That individual is like a coating that has only been tested on one substrate. They may be confident, and it may look like they have done just what you want done… but there’s potential for a disconnect if the cultural factors and specific expectations of the job are not explored explicitly and in depth (of course, that requires the hiring stake holders to be aware of those factors… which, like coatings buyers, often they are not…). I’ve seen way too many resumes of people who had long, stellar careers with one company, followed by a series of short stays indicating they couldn’t find another home that fit them as well where they could deliver equivalent results and be happy. These are not coincidences. They indicate mismatched expectations.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? What does it mean to you as a candidate, a direct hiring manager or an executive with responsibility for building a successful team to meet business goals?

  • Just like a coating, make sure you fully understand the key performance requirements, including their context, before deciding what or who is a good fit.
  • Look beyond subject matter expertise – of course I am not saying to ignore it, but to consider other factors as well.
  • Try to get as well-rounded a picture of the total situation (or person) as you can – how does the individual experience mesh with the context of the role? How well do you understand the cultural factors?
  • As a candidate, what environmental factors helped you succeed in your job? You don’t exist in isolation. It is a mistake to think your success is all about your abilities. You will probably do very well in some environments and be miserable in others… don’t ignore this!
  • As a hiring manager, what are the top three cultural attributes that need to match up on a hire? And what are the top three attributes your team is missing that you need to add? Are you and your team truly ready for the personality that goes with those attributes?
  • As an executive, what cultural landscape are you seeking to create in your organization? What are the biggest challenges you need to overcome in terms of the organization’s ability to meet your business goals? Are you explicitly, consistently and proactively hiring people who have the attributes to make that unique landscape a reality?

Bottom line: a “good” candidate is like a “good” coating – everything depends on the context of use. Ask probing questions about a potential job or a prospective candidate in the same way you would ask about a paint or coating’s suitability for a specific application. And don’t go forward unless the specifics all match up well.

"Great partner on several international searches."David Wolf, Former VP International Sales, Carboline

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