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Can Hiring Poker Players Make Your Business More Competitive?

September 21st, 2021 5 minute read
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
If you were in charge of hiring for a hedge fund, who would you choose: an Ivy League graduate with an investment background, or a former professional poker player?

If you went with the Ivy League, you’re in good company—that’s precisely the choice most funds still make every day. As a result, competition over that relatively small pool of candidates is fierce. When Arthur Matuszewski joined Bridgewater Associates back in 2011, he challenged himself and his team to think differently. What might they gain if they could source talent from a pool no one else had even considered?

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Arthur came to understand a critical truth about talent acquisition: professional skills can be taught. Instead, we should hire for values and abilities. In our hedge fund example, if you hire someone who possesses the core abilities of a fund manager, they can very likely learn the skills they need—even if they lack directly relevant experience.

Arthur has done a little bit of everything, from founding a babysitting startup called SmartSitting to working in hedge funds with Bridgewater Associates and helping well-known companies like Wayfair scale at hyper speed. (He helped grow Better from 300 employees to 8,000.) These days, he helps build and scale organizations, aligning talent strategy with organizational growth plans for early-stage and hypergrowth companies.

Here’s a look at what he had to share about how to hunt for core abilities over traditional skill sets, and how to scale at speed without compromising quality.

Quantity isn't the enemy of quality

As Arthur sees it, the tension between quantity and quality is a false one. When he grew the staff at Better from 300 to 8,000 in just a couple of years, quantity was the enabler. Without it, they would not have been able to hire for the quality they were looking for: productive candidates who could do more in less time. The more candidates they had in the funnel, the more selective they could be about who made it through to offer extension.

So how did they ensure that they covered both bases? In the quantity camp, they went broad. They opened up their hiring pool across geographies and talents by hiring remote candidates from disparate backgrounds. The more volume they got, the better their sample size for any new approach they wanted to test. Over time, they dialed in their criteria for who would succeed at Better and who wouldn’t.

With clarity on the core values they wanted to hire versus the skills they could train, Better grew at lightning speed.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Arthur is a big advocate of measuring, testing, and improving processes over time based on what works and what doesn’t. 

For example, he and his team set monthly hiring targets but soon found that candidates hired late in the month routinely underperformed. They found that the question at the end of the month wasn’t, “Do we want to hire this person?” but rather, “Do we need to hire this person to hit our targets?”

So Arthur and the team stacked interviews over a three-week period, clearly communicating the hiring timeline to candidates. At the end of each three-week round, they sent offers to the best of the bunch, allowing them to pick the best people without succumbing to time pressure.

Arthur’s talent acquisition philosophy is all about working backward from the desired output. If you know you need to hire 1,000 people, and that roughly one in four candidates is a good fit for your organization, it’s just a matter of getting 4,000 applicants in the door. The “how” matters less than the “why” and the “who.”

Characteristics of rapid-growth people teams

A large part of Arthur’s professional experience has revolved around defining what makes a person successful in a role. So I asked him to share the characteristics he’s seen in recruitment staff who excel at talent acquisition during periods of hyper-growth.

Never one to disappoint, Arthur gave me three:

  • Down to clown: There’s a lot of talk at startups about being comfortable with ambiguity. But as Arthur sees it, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. The goal isn’t to be playful and strappy forever—it’s to balance that playfulness with the desire to move forward. For Arthur, “down to clown” means tolerance for uncertainty plus the desire to shape it into something more defined.
  • Commitment to personal growth: A level of self-awareness and honesty about what you can contribute to your team is the second characteristic Arthur looks for. If your company is growing 100% quarter over quarter, your job is going to change, no matter how good you are. Successful TA professionals at rapid-growth companies can’t be too attached to the baggage of identifying with a specific title or task because everything is subject to change. 
  • Willingness to share: The third quality is recognizing that success happens at the collective level, not the individual level. People should care about what they do, but without attaching ego to what (or who) they’re in charge of. One startup founder Arthur advises has framed this skill as “giving away your Legos,” even though you don’t know how many Legos are available in the first place.  

Aligning talent strategy with growth strategy

There’s a concerning disconnect in the market between organizational growth strategies and talent strategies. Ideally, one should be built upon the other—but that rarely seems to be the case. I asked Arthur what he thinks companies can do to better align their objectives. 

For early-stage companies just finding their feet, Arthur sees good reason to struggle in aligning talent strategy with that of the overall business. Namely, these companies are generally still finding their product/market fit and struggling to define their customers’ expectations. When you’re facing these existential questions day after day, it’s hard to have organizational clarity around the hires you need and the core qualities they must possess.

That said, Arthur says, “It’s fine to be adrift or figuring it out, as long as you’re running a controlled hypothesis and experiments to prove it.” If you think your customers want X result, you can guess at the values and employees you’ll need to deliver that result. 

In the case of a slower-growth business with an inherited legacy, Arthur’s advice is to look back before looking forward. Because these businesses want to preserve their client relationships and their culture, they should ask the right questions about how they got there: What has allowed us to do that? What characteristics have enabled that culture? Only then can they define what will propel the business forward.

In that vein, Arthur warns against looking for solutions without first understanding the problem. Be clear about what you’re solving for before you go searching for a silver bullet—understanding the question could be its own answer.

Join us each week for more tales from the trenches and best-practice people guidance.

About the author
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
Tom is the CEO at Pinpoint and he's passionate about building world-class teams.

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