The Charisma Trap – One Way Entrepreneurs Screw Up Hiring Remote Employees

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A few days ago, a customer of Dynamite Jobs called me seeking advice. On his desk he had two resumes and a dilemma.

“Both of my options seem good,” he said, “but I can’t decide who to choose.”

He went on to describe the candidates:

“Candidate number one could be plugged into the job and perform from day one. But they didn’t seem particularly passionate about what we do specifically, so I’m just not sure they would stick around for the long term. They seem colder and more professional.”

“Candidate two, on the other hand, couldn’t be more excited for the position, and even uses the products we create and thinks they’re great. But I’d have to train them up on fundamental areas, like their writing ability.”

I’ve been in this situation so many times that I’ve given it a name: “The Charisma Trap.”

The Charisma Trap is when a job candidate shows a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the position in a way that resonates deeply with the entrepreneur. This enthusiasm manifests in compelling ways: the candidate is a true believer in the company’s purpose, the candidate is passionate about future prospects and in the companies potential, the candidate has a demonstrated interest in the products and mission of the company.

In short: the candidate couldn’t be more excited to go to battle with you.

In the often isolating grind of running a business, this is music to an entrepreneur’s ears.

But herein lies the trap. A candidate’s enthusiasm and competency in selling themselves to you for this specific position can easily be misinterpreted as competence for the job itself.

The Charisma Trap misleads us into overvaluing job candidates who show enthusiasm for the outcomes of an enterprise rather than its inputs.

It’s easy for inexperienced candidates to fall into this specific pattern of selling themselves based on how cool the company’s mission is simply because they are often naive about what goes into fulfilling that mission. I was guilty of this at my first corporate gig working for a prestigious sporting goods company. I thought, “How cool it is that our products are known worldwide by extreme athletes and that our CEO flies around on a private jet?”

What I didn’t know then is that what paid for the jet and the big TV endorsements was piles and piles and piles of perfectly organized bills-of-ladings from our factories in Asia. There was nothing sexy about it. But it’s what made the business run well and created the profits.

It’s probably the case in your business too. At the end of the day, you do something amazing – deliver a sexy product, help your customers’ revenues grow, etc, but the way you get there is probably less sexy: you focus on details, you fill out the spreadsheets, you make the cold calls, and you make hard decisions regarding your customers.

The Charisma Trap can be particularly problematic when you’re hiring for remote positions. This is because the lure of living and working anywhere is so strong that candidates can express extreme and unprecedented effort and enthusiasm to convince you to offer them a life-changing opportunity.

The entrepreneur who called me still had a final interview to do with the two candidates. I encouraged him to avoid the Charisma Trap by minimizing the weight he placed on pure enthusiasm for his company’s outcomes and culture and focussed on getting to the core of what a candidate can bring to the company, customers and mission.

Here are some tactics to avoid overvaluing naive enthusiasm:

1) Don’t underestimate enthusiasm and drive, just try and figure out where it’s coming from. Your company needs candidates who have a long and burning motivation to do the type of work you need to get done rather than a short term “OMG this is amazing” hot-one-minute enthusiasm. For candidates who aren’t great at the charisma vibe, and for whom you have concerns about them sticking around, try to dig to the core of what is motivating them to join your company.

2) Take the time to have the types of conversations you’ll have in the day-to-day running of your business. What discussions and projects are at the core of how you drive value? Try and have those during the interview process. It might start out quite general: “Tell me about a time you’ve helped a company grow in the past?” But use that standard question as a way to dig in deeper and explore what direct input they had. Get the context and details, and workshop the past problem as if it were an active one in your business. Using a scenario they should be familiar with is often more productive than trying to have a conversation about your current business challenges.

3) Determine, in your case, the difference between things that can be trained and taught, and things that can’t. It’s difficult, for example, to improve the quality of thinking a candidate can do – both through writing and verbally – in just a few short months or years. Do your best to dig into this strength specifically since more information about your business won’t generally change a candidate’s ability to critically engage with ideas to the level you require.

These boil down to the following maxim:

Don’t mistake enthusiasm for a job position as enthusiasm for, and the aptitude to do, a job.

Instead, weigh enthusiasm shown for the type of work that you’ll need to get done by how they are walking (working, thinking) not by how much they are talking (enthusing, being complimentary).

If you focus on this ‘true enthusiasm’ for the work, you’ll better your chance of finding a teammate whose work will endure.

It’s the walk, not the talk, that’s going to grow your company.

Good luck,

Dan

PS, we made 50 successful placements at Dynamite Jobs in 2018, our goal in 2019 is to be making that many every month. Get in touch with us if you need hiring help!

Published on 01.15.19
  • Super good point, Dan. We see this quite a bit in places like Chiang Mai; heading back in 2 months of course LOL….but….fresh-faced, enthusiastic, passionate digital nomads raring to work….who just arrived last month with zero experience. Skills plus experience plus passion, that is the recipe to find awesome employees, or awesome entrepreneurs.

  • Oooh i get where you are coming from but have to disagree with 50% of this!

    Although it’s definitely important to hire people that have the right skillset or competency for the role, proactive & ambitious people can easily learn skills. I’d rather have an enthusiastic “skill collector” on my team who can contribute a TON of value in the long term by being proactive than someone who is “good at what they do” and will maintain a steady pace. Of course it’s important to have a balance of both types, but it’s the proactive enthusiastic people that believe in your mission who will ultimately push the needle forward for your business.

    The rockstar on my team is now our Director of Product & Partnerships and is incredible at it, even though she had no prior experience in these areas and initially joined us as an intern after months of her emailing me to pitch me on hiring her. Best decision I’ve ever made.

    Also it’s too easy to assume someone is enthusiastic because of the mission or purpose of the company, and then disregard them as having the wrong motivations. For example, when I applied to work for you guys (!) about 5 or 6 years ago it seemed like you guys thought I was enthusiastic about the brand / idea of the company but wouldn’t actually want to do the grunt work needed in the role. So far from the truth! I was most excited about doing that type of “boring” work on the ecommerce businesses but I think because I’m always overly enthusiastic when I talk, the interviewer made incorrect assumptions about me based on that.

    I think certain personality types can have a tendency to write people off as being naively enthusiastic, especially nowadays where there’s a lot of skepticism & cynicism towards “noobish digital nomads”. But that can lead to hiring mediocre people instead of people who can push a business forwards.

    Of course it depends on the role you’re hiring for – in this guy’s situation here if he needs a strong writer then he should never hire someone without existing strong writing skills as that’s something that can pretty much never be trained in my opinion (you either get how to write well or you don’t).

    But I think having your guard up and looking for The Charisma Trap is a mistake as it will often cause you to incorrectly assume people’s motivations simply because they have strong enough communication skills to show enthusiasm!

  • You tell ’em Leanne! #teamleanne :)

    The main point of not getting blinded by someones enthusiasm is correct. I think hiring for attitude > skills.

    It’s generally not an enthusiasm vs. skillset issue, it’s all about work ethic.

    Unfortunately it’s one of the hardest things to interview for. So set up a “testing” portion of your interview process.

  • Yes! That’s a great point – actually most full time people now in my team originally started with small paid tasks for about 1-3 months until I was confident enough in their work ethic to hire them full time. Won’t be able to do that with senior hires as we grow and poach more experienced people from bigger companies, but it’s a good way of vetting people without much track record!

  • Thanks for the great discussion. My observation is that I see enthusiasm fade if the daily work does not directly connect to the lofty vision of the candidate.

    My rule of thumb is: hire for aptitude, not attitude.
    This rule works if you outsource specific tasks. If you hire someone for for a broader, more strategic role, than attitude and enthusiasm become more important.

  • Such a good comment guys I was working up a full response piece for this week’s post but didn’t manage to finish it. Appreciate to posting your experience here Leanne for everyone reading to benefit from. I value your opinion because you’re putting it into practice!

    I think you’re point is well taken in many situations.

    It got me thinking that the old saying “attitude over aptitude” might not be quite right, but “attitude over skills” might not be quite right.

    The distinction intended is that skills are something that can be learned with ambition, work ethic, etc. But fundamental aptitude’s or long term track records basically are what they are. The idea of the charisma trap is simply to see through the excitement to see what is actually there. If it’s a high aptitude and a great attitude about the company, and a demonstrated enthusiasm in learning new skills than you might have a winner.

  • True!

  • Interesting inversion there, see my comment above seems like the old saying has some holes.

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