Remember the who is more important than the what

August 5, 2022

From Principles by Ray Dalio 

People often make the mistake of focusing on what should be done while neglecting the more important question of who should be given the responsibility for determining what should be done. That’s backward. When you know what you need in a person to do the job well and you know what the person you’re putting into it is like, you can pretty well visualize how things will go. 

I remember one case where one of our most talented rising executives was putting together a transition plan so that he could move on to another role. He arrived at a meeting with the Management Committee with binders full of process flows and responsibility maps, detailing every aspect of the area he’d been responsible for, and explained how he’d automated and systemized as much of it as possible to make it foolproof. It was an impressive presentation, but it quickly became clear that he didn’t have an answer for who was going to take his place and what would happen if they saw things differently and put together a different plan. Who would oversee the machine he’d built, probe it for problems, and constantly improve it or decide to get rid of it? What qualities would such a person need to produce the same excellent results that he had—i.e., what were the important job specifications we should match the person against? Where would we go to recruit such a person? 

While these kinds of questions seem obvious in retrospect, time and again I see people overlooking them. Not knowing what is required to do the job well and not knowing what your people are like is like trying to run a machine without knowing how its parts work together. 

When I was younger, I didn’t really understand the saying, “Hire someone better than you.” Now, after decades of hiring, managing, and firing people, I understand that to be truly successful, I need to be like a conductor of people, many of whom (if not all) can play their instruments better than I can—and that if I was a really great conductor, I would also be able to find a better conductor than me and hire him or her. My ultimate goal is to create a machine that works so well that I can just sit back and watch beauty happen. 

I cannot emphasize enough how important the selection, training, testing, evaluation, and sorting out of people is. 

In the end, what you need to do is simple: 

  1. Remember the goal. 
  1. Give the goal to people who can achieve it (which is best) or tell them what to do to achieve it (which is micromanaging and therefore less good). 
  1. Hold them accountable. 
  1. If they still can’t do the job after you’ve trained them and given them time to learn, get rid of them. 

This article is reprinted with the permission of the author from Ray Dalio, Principles.