The Messiah Hire Fallacy
June 24, 2019

Things can go wrong very often at startups. Sometimes when the impact is pretty evident, there’s a chance of rectification right away. At other times watch things go wrong over a stretch of time bit by bit, letting the damages accrue, and the consequences present themselves only when the proverbial sand is out of the hand.

Now, the most common reaction of leaders when they hit the second scenario in a sudden stroke of realization is panic. Since the damages have accrued over time, it becomes almost impossible to get a grip on the situation. Now instead of looking at a solution inward, which is where the solution is most likely to be, the leaders start looking at the easier way. Outward.

All organizational problems have a solution inward. But looking inward for a solution mean deep introspection, which often leads to discovering one’s own faults. It involves uncomfortably probing into the hot mess that your organization is right now, asking difficult questions, and taking the hard decisions.

Looking outward is easy. You get to turn a blind eye to all that’s wrong and put all your hope for a better tomorrow on a shiny new thing which is guaranteed to solve all that’s broken right now.

This shiny new thing takes many forms: a new product line, a new strategy, or a new hire. We’ll talk about the last one.

Enter the Messiah. The new hire who’ll seemingly solve all problems and more, magically! The leaders fall in love with this new hire who’s supposedly going to save them and the company and put unrealistic hopes and expectations from this person. I’ve been there. So have a lot of other founders, especially first-timers. I’m here to tell you, it’s the worst mistake you’ll ever do.

Never hire when you’re desperate

The magic never happens. Consider the following reasons:

  1. A startup is a team effort, and it is incredibly rare — almost impossible, for someone to just drop in and solve some intractable problem. There is no rational argument that can support this premise.
  2. In desperation, it is common to make bad hiring decisions, primarily because you end up looking for a messiah rather than a proper fit. Instead of empirically and objectively judging someone’s competence, it is very common to look at signals — fake indicators of virtue. What works for others most definitely wouldn’t work for you.
  3. By bringing a messiah, the leaders most definitely end up disrupting the existing order in the team. In times of crisis, the last thing people should worry about is that they’re going to report to someone new from tomorrow.

Anand Sanwal, in his brilliant SaaStr Annual talk, mentions the Messiah Hire Fallacy as one of the screw-ups to avoid at a startup. This is something that a lot of startups end up doing. For some, the consequences are grimmer than others.