THE BLOG
07/11/2014 04:29 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014

How to Win by Throwing out the Traditional Hiring Playbook

What do an architect, a stand-up comedian, a professional volleyball player, and a hedge fund manager have in common?

They were all hired away from promising careers in their respective fields by a creative agency named after a breakfast food. See, at Omelet, we believe that reform-minded individuals with diverse backgrounds, let's call them the misfits, are the ones who can help you accelerate change and evolve faster than your competitors.

As access to new technologies, data streams, capital, and sales tools become increasingly commoditized; your greatest competitive strengths will lie in your people. And when you're in the business of ideas, as we are, you win by providing better solutions to the problems - old and new - that keep your stakeholders up at night. In order to stand out in a crowded field, you have to approach these problems differently, with a fresh perspective. You have to provide insights and ideas that others in your line of work oversee. And that's where the misfits shine.

That architect I mentioned? We hired her three years ago, with no marketing experience whatsoever, because we saw value in applying her critical reasoning skills to our client service model. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "Surgeons can bury their mistakes, but we architects have to cover ours with ivy." That kind of lateral thinking can fulfill a real need in an organization like ours. Add to that a great sense of humor and a natural ease with clients, and it's no surprise that this former architect is one of our rising stars.

How about that stand-up comic? Like the architect, he had zero experience in our business. In fact, he was moonlighting at a bakery when he walked in off the street and told our receptionist, "My super powers are creating ideas, connecting with people, and parallel parking." With that one brilliant line, he got an impromptu interview with a Creative Director, and was eventually hired as a copywriter. By demonstrating a natural aptitude for storytelling, a hunger to learn, and a relentlessly positive attitude, he beat out dozens of more experienced candidates.

So the question becomes, how can the next generation of industry leaders apply this misfit math to a unique business model, structure, and culture? Here are three lessons we've learned from our own experiences, both good and bad, and the wisdom of some pretty smart folks:

1. Hire for personality

As Richard Branson has proven so relentlessly, year after year, decade after decade, you can build an enduring empire on the shoulders of great personality. "The first thing to look for when searching for a great employee is somebody with a personality that fits with your company culture. Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality." Well said, Richard. We always evaluate talent with an eye for those fearless, entrepreneurial personalities that can thrive in our culture of organized chaos. It's difficult to glean from a resume, but the ability to step into punches, pivot quickly, and celebrate both successes and failures is more important to us than pedigree.

2. Hire for unexpected compatibility

Out-thinking the competition requires the right mix of left-and-right-brain characteristics; of art and science; of strategy and creativity. Samar Birwadker, Founder and CEO of Good.Co, is a vocal proponent of hiring people who are the exact opposite of those team members they'll be working with. We love this odd couple philosophy, and are constantly tinkering with our lineups to find untapped value. What happens when you pair up an MFA with an MBA, or a Hollywood writer with a hard-science analyst? You won't know until you try, and the results might surprise you.

3. Hire for aptitude over experience

Marina Gorbis, the brilliant futurist and Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), recently said, "Don't give people job descriptions. Instead give them a new canvas on which to create. Job descriptions narrow the scope of what great people are capable of doing." We couldn't agree more. We are always on the lookout for the best athletes, regardless of what position, or even which sport they're playing right now. And when we find them, we don't just create roles for them - we create roles with them. So long as they're motivated, can learn quickly, and, above all else, are willing to put the needs of the team above their own, we'll give them a shot.

Visionary leaders who understand how to create a culture on collective personality, rather than on a cult of their own personality, have succeeded in large part by hiring smarter than their competitors and developing a bench of unconventional yet exceptional talent. For proof of concept, look no further than Tony Hsieh, who grew Zappos into the retail juggernaut it is today by recruiting, in his own words, those who are a "a little weird somehow," and letting their true personalities shine with not only their co-workers, but also their customers.

In our current innovation economy, forward-looking organizations, outliers by their very nature, embrace the idea that when you're on an island, each and every individual has a huge influence on the community - so culture, compatibility, and chemistry become vital to survival.

At Omelet, our island is one of misfit toys, and the hiring practices I've outlined here have been instrumental in attracting and retaining (our voluntary turnover sits under 5% annually) an incredibly talented bench of strategic and creative insurgents who were stifled in more traditional structures. Admittedly, they're not for everyone, but that's kind of the point, isn't it?