Lessons Learned at Adaptive Path: Recruiting and hiring designers

Four years ago, as I was leaving Adaptive Path, I sent a series of emails about what I’d learned in my 10+ years there. These were recently brought back to my attention, and I think there’s some hard-earned wisdom still worth sharing. Here’s the first.

So, we’re in a super-active hiring phase right now. This is an exciting time. Recruiting and hiring are among my favorite activities. I love talking to people, understanding where they’re at, how they approach problems, what they’re looking for, and trying to figure out if they’re right for us. Hiring can be a huge time commitment, and you need to be prepared for that. But, honestly, there’s little else we do that is as important to our business as hiring, and it’s worth all the time and effort to make sure we’re doing it as best we can.

My cardinal rule of hiring would be, Don’t hire the best; hire the most appropriate. It’s not enough to be a great designer — you need to be someone who will be great in the context of Adaptive Path. 

The slippery thing about that is that context always changes. Sometimes it’s a matter of what we need at a particular moment — do we need more strategist/thinkers? More maker/prototypers? More people interesting in speaking, writing, sharing with the world? 

I’m a big fan of complementarity. You don’t want a team that all looks the same. You want different skills, capabilities, backgrounds, and perspectives. You want diversity of experience, whether professional experience or life experience. Breadth is crucial, particularly in the kind of Big Picture work we do that requires synthetic thinking. 

At Adaptive Path, I’ve never been interested in hiring people who are passionate about design. I actually think that leads to a navel-gazing-ness that focuses too much on form. I have always looked for people who are passionate about the impact that design can have in the world. Design is a tool — it’s not an end to itself. I think crucial to Adaptive Path’s success, and our distinctive take on challenges, is born of this appreciation. What’s great about it is that you sometimes end up solving problems with non-design tools. My personal favorite deliverable in my past two years here was the SKT Trend Map [a 6-foot tall poster that was mostly words, articulating how the media landscape would evolve over time]. It was the right way to solve the problem, and not in anyway anything you’d think of as “design.” 

The other thing that you get when you engage with people passionate about impact is that they also tend to want to engage more broadly. They want to speak, write, and interact with a community, because their bigger-picture passion spurs them to do so. 

Don’t let people’s quirks turn you off. Given that we’re a consulting company, we tend to get nervous about how someone will present in front of a client. And so we get wary of people who come across a bit differently. I love quirkiness. It has served me, and Adaptive Path well. Embrace some freakiness. 

In terms of recruiting, I would suggest that you not be shy. In this latest wave, I’ve trawled through my email folders looking for people we’ve talked to in the past, seen where some of them are now, and reached out and said, “Hey, I don’t know what you’re up to, but we have these amazing opportunities… And if it’s not right for you, maybe you know someone?” And it has lead to us starting some conversations with great candidates. 

And: LinkedIn. It works, even if you don’t have a paid account.

In the four years since I’ve left Adaptive Path, this still is how I operate. The only thing I can think to add is, “If a candidate doesn’t feel right, go with that instinct and don’t hire them.” While my gut has mislead me on the positive side a few times, where I’m excited about a candidate who then ends up not working out, my gut has never mislead me on the negative side — anyone I’ve hired against my get (because there was some other logical rationale), has never worked out.

If you have questions about recruiting and hiring, I’d love to read them in the comments.