Staffing for the Big Idea

The Big Idea is the development of a unique product, a “killer app,” that actually works and no one else has yet thought of or implemented. If powerful enough, the Big Idea can be the driver of growth and success for many years, but it is not by itself a guarantee of success—the social entrepreneur may screw it up through poor execution, or the competition may eventually steal it and do it better. Big Ideas, however, are surprisingly resilient and tolerant of early failures, and it often takes the competition a long time to wake up and start copying you.

Speaking of the competition, another way to become a social entrepreneur, if you don’t have your own Big Idea, is to borrow one from some struggling small pond or social entrepreneur, and do it better and bigger.

Where do Big Ideas come from? The process is mysterious and could be the result of years of trial and error or a momentary flash of inspiration. In the case of miracle rice and wheat, the research took years.

You’ve had your poverty experience, found your mission, identified your Big Idea, completed your apprenticeship, and built your skill sets and competencies, thanks to a mentor or two. Maybe you have even risen to the top of your small or large pond and are ready to take command, put your stamp on it, and “make it your own.” Alternatively, you see a long road ahead, littered with obstacles (your competitors and colleagues) with no guarantee that you will ever be anointed with the CEO job or have the opportunity to turn your Big Idea into a reality. It’s time to make your move. It’s your “own pond” moment.

Sometimes you have no idea of what can be accomplished in a position until someone new comes in and shows you. A bar raiser, that is, a builder with a turbocharger, sets a new standard and forces everyone, including you, to rise to it—or else.

It is not easy to recognize a bar raiser right away, although there are signs in the interview process. At some point, usually very early, you realize it is you who is being interviewed. The candidate is trying to discern whether or not you are the kind of boss who will “give him wings,” as the Salvadorans say, and enable him to fly high. He is also trying to figure out who is in your organization right now and if they will be obstacles to what he wants to accomplish. At some point, if you have succeeded in satisfying his concerns and piquing his interest, you will sense a restlessness setting in on his side of the table. Now he really wants this job. And he’s itching to start tearing into the guts of your organization and fixing it.

Bar raisers will also likely attach conditions to their coming on board. They may immediately require a waiver of some sacred policy, like the signing of a noncompete agreement, or they may want a downside parachute if it turns out you can’t get along. They will ask for the maximum number of vacation days (and then won’t take any the first two years), even though the policy says new hires only get two weeks.

To maintain your company’s culture, all new hires should be screened for their interest in the mission. You can’t assume because they are applying to your organization that they are down with its values. Nor should you persuade yourself that, if someone is a great candidate in every other sense, you can indoctrinate her later. If candidates lack commitment to your core values, they won’t fit into your top team and you won’t be able to count on their support when decisions must be made that involve the mission. In the worst case, they may undermine you in subtle ways, behaving in a way consistent with their reading of what the mission of your organization should be, not what it truly is.

There are other times, however, when you suspect your candidate will never come to the light, when you’ve clearly spotted the cloven hooves inside his tasseled loafers and the bulge of the tail tucked into his trousers. You’ve been looking for months, and the “mission fit” person with the skills you need is just not out there. Meanwhile, the organization is slipping into chaos. In that case, you might hire him anyway.