Why you should recruit executives who are better than you…

In his 2011 AdWeek memoir on David Ogilvy, the advertising legend, Kenneth Roman tells the following story:

“At one board meeting, he [Ogilvy] gave directors sets of Russian nesting matryoshka dolls. Inside the largest doll a smaller one, then a smaller one, and so forth. Inside the smallest doll there was a slip of paper:

“If we hire people who are smaller than we are, we will become a company of dwarfs. If we hire people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants.

“Hire people who are better than you are. And pay them more than you if necessary.”

It is a great guiding principle. The smart manager hires the best team and revels in its success – a success which reflects well on all of them; everybody wins. The less smart manager hires down, the team struggles to meet targets, and the manager ends up blaming team members; nobody wins.

In the current media climate – where businesses are undergoing huge transformation – Ogilvy’s principle is absolutely necessary if your business is to succeed.

We met with a client yesterday, a content agency owner, who completely understands this approach. His business, like many, is undergoing huge change from print, to digital, to mobile. A knock-on effect of this change is that his clients are increasingly looking for proof of effectiveness: in the digital world, performance measurement is relatively easy, but it requires skill and investment in platforms and people.

As a result, the client has been bringing in junior analysts for the last four years (“super smart digital natives,” he calls them). They crunch the data and take a lead on performance management. He wants people who are comfortable with social media, those who use it in their daily lives.

The point is: he knows they know a great deal more about this stuff than he ever will, but he embraces that. He is not afraid, even at this junior level, to have people who make him look old-fashioned. He knows he can learn from them and that they will enhance the business. He also knows that, if he does his job properly – which is to keep the business running smoothly, win clients, and deliver shareholder value – the team will respect him. He has created an atmosphere which encourages and celebrates success – and he has consistently hired people who are better than he is at certain key elements of the role.

This is a relatively specific and junior example; but the same thinking can be applied to most of the board level roles on which we work. A good CEO wants people who will push her and the team; this will, in turn, make her look good.

On Ogilvy’s second point*, it’s not usually necessary to pay people more than their hiring manager – although many sales directors (and their bosses) recognise that top sales performers should have commission packages which at least give them that opportunity. However, where specific skills are highly sought after and in short supply, the market might dictate that you think creatively about levels of pay.

Clearly, in a fast changing market, we all need to be flexible in the way we think and recruit. But, despite all the change, Ogilvy’s principle about hiring people who are bigger than you remains constant.


*The way Roman tells the story is not exactly the way Ogilvy tells it – which does not mean Ogilvy did not later adapt it and reuse the same ploy. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy says this:

“When someone is made the head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send him a matryoshka doll from Gorky. If he has the curiosity to open it, and keep opening it until he comes to the inside of the smallest doll, he finds this message: If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”