BL&T No. 052: Hiring For... Your Replacement?


This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"Guidance, team, and results: these are the responsibilities of any boss."

From "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott [Book]


"Hire for your replacement."

You may have come across a statement like this in a business book, leadership podcasts, or the like. While it is wise advice, for the ambitious young professional, warming up to it can take time. Early on in my career, that was the case for me.

When I joined Barrel, I wasn't looking to simply advance my career and move on (here I am 8 years later!); it was quite the opposite. I wanted to play a role in Barrel's growth. I wanted to contribute to its success.

The key here is I. Though committed to Barrel's success, I needed to be a driving force. It's a bit tricky to articulate. An easy comparison is team sports. Let's take basketball as an example. I wanted my team to win, so I would do all I can, but at the same time, I wanted to be the one to hit the most 3-pointers, save the game, dunk the winning basket.

So, as I got more involved with our hiring processes and sitting in on interviews, the idea that I should hire someone with specialized expertise or a more robust portfolio seemed ludicrous. Why would I put my position in jeopardy?

Until sitting down and writing this newsletter, I hadn't given much thought to when my mindset began to shift. I'm sure there was a slew of contributing thoughts, experiences, and moments, but one that stands out is reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

There’s a lot to be said about Jobs’s leadership style, but at its core, Isaacson paints him as a visionary. Jobs had enough technical background to understand how all the parts worked together, but his strength was in his ideas. He didn't always know how it would get done, but he knew there were people out there with more expertise than him in their field who could make it happen. At times, they might underestimate themselves, but it was never about their ability to achieve anything alone. It was about what they could do together. He rallied them behind a vision, and as a team, they found a way.

As I made my way through the story of Jobs, I came to two realizations. One, if I wanted to achieve extraordinary results, I was going to need extraordinary people by my side. Two, if I wanted to have the space and time to guide the team toward an inspiring future, I would get nowhere carrying all of the weight alone.

If I didn't commit to finding and hiring the best talent for the job, our team's ability to achieve results would be limited, resting solely on me. I'd become a bottleneck, holding the team back in more ways than one. Not to mention - that's a whole lot of pressure!

With our ongoing efforts to grow and evolve the Barrel team, I'm reminded of the "hire your replacement" mantra as I chat with potential candidates week to week. At the end of an interview, it's exciting to daydream about how a talented candidate could contribute to the team's efforts instead of worrying about how they stack up with me.

While the mantra may start with bringing on folks with expertise and talent, it doesn't end there. Those same folks need continued coaching and a commitment from their manager to support them in reaching their potential. To do so, there's no room for I. The irony is that by casting "me" aside, I've grown more personally and professionally than I could have imagined.

Instead of a team that only says "yes," leaving you wondering if your approach was any good, they challenge me with questions and ideas, often helping to fill gaps for others. In addition, the responsibilities that previously consumed my day have one by one been taken over by the team. This has given me the space to focus on higher-leverage activities, like filling those gaps, holding regular one-on-ones, reimagining performance reviews, and designing team workshops.

Lesson? In her book, Making of a Manager, Julie Zhou captures this week's lesson to a tee: "The best managers I know all agree on one thing: growing great teams means that you are constantly looking for ways to replace yourself in the job you are currently doing."

Thought Starter

Am I holding my team back by holding on to my seat?

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