A former employee of Swedish military intelligence was recently arrested charged with espionage. His name is Peyman Kia and he seems to have been working for Russia since quite some time. People who knows about these things, says it might be the most damaging breach in decades.
When David Cornwell – better known under his pen name John Le Carré – looks back at life in the autobiographyThe Pigeon Tunnel, he dedicates a full chapter to Kim Philby; perhaps the most infamous double agent ever to have been unmasked. Philby worked his way up to become head of British counter-espionage, all while reporting everything he knew to the KGB. He was responsible for the arrest, torture and execution of many hundreds of British under cover agents.
Spies back then had what Cornwell calls “impeccable upper class credentials”. They all belonged to the highest echelons of British society, most likely had a military officer in the immediate family, and were often recruited – as Cornwell was himself – by an unassuming professors at one of the elite universities.
This caste based recruitment strategy led to a closely knit monoculture, but it didn’t prove conducive to loyalty. To quote Philby himself, explaining how he got away with it for so many years:
“Being born into the governing class I knew a lot of people of influential standing. I knew that they would never get too tough with me […] because if they had been proved wrong afterwards, I would have made a tremendous scandal”.
These days things are different. British spy agencies post vacancies online, as do their Swedish counterparts too. Anyone is free to apply, as long as they have the right credentials.
That’s a radical shift. Still it seems the the problem of not being able to trust your employees remains. As evidenced by the Kia case.
That’s because you can only get so far with credentials. Instead when trust is the most important value, I think you need to optimise for chemistry.
Space agencies are great at chemistry-based recruitment. When they’re looking for new astronauts, they start by pooling candidate with relevant credentials. Only then does the real selection process start, and it’s all about who you are, rather than what you know.
Which makes sense. If you’re going to spend serious time with someone in a tiny space shuttle, you probably care more about their soft skills than about their impressive resumé.
Can entrepreneurs learn anything here?
I think so.
Putting trust and chemistry before credentials means you get a recruitment process that is slow, distributed and value-centric. Here’s what I mean by that:
Going slow when looking to expand your team can be challenging. There’s lots of work that needs to be done and it’s tempting to simply settle for the first candidate who fits the formal criteria for the position in question.
You might get lucky once or twice with that strategy, but you’re taking a huge risk, since nothing will slow you down more than recruiting the wrong person.
So how slow is slow enough? That depends on the second factor; you want your recruitment process to be distributed, meaning that the future team mates of the new-comer should have a say in the matter. Ideally that entails every candidate getting vetted by every member of the team. Which you can see will add up to quite a number of meetings.
In fact, they gave this trust vs. time equation some serious thinking at Google. Steven Levy reports in his book In the Plex, How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, how the company became positively obsessed with creating a thoroughly distributed vetting process. In the end, management had to step in and decree that if the hiring team hadn’t made up its mind about a potential candidate after twenty interview sessions, they’d pull the plug on the process. (How many sessions led up to *your* latest recruitment?)
Of course, most entrepreneurs won’t have the financial muscles of NASA or Google. That’s ok though, it’s what brings us to the final factor: values.
Your values and how passionate you are about your mission, are by far your most precious assets. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s only when two people share values and buy into the same mission, that they can fully trust each other.
Entrepreneurs often don’t realise how unique they are in this regard, but the fact of the matter is that many if not most established employers struggle to keep their values alive and their mission relevant.
In fact NASA is the exception that proves the rule here. They manage to convince people to accept extreme risk while being paid a fraction of what they could get working in the industry. That should be a hard sell. The reason it’s not, has everything to do with mission and values.
So to conclude: A chemistry-based recruitment process will be painfully slow. It will challenge hierarchies in an often uncomfortable way, and it places high demands on a value-centric company culture. It’s an approach that will seem unscripted and random compared to the more traditional process that most people are used to. And in the end, if you really want to trust the people you surround yourself with, it’s the only way forward.