I was once asked in a business meeting, “What is the business decision that you most regret?”

This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I have made a lot of mistakes, and I always find it useful to examine them. But the second thing I realized is that I don’t regret them. Each mistake led my longtime partner, Wil Heupel, and me to ultimately improve the way we thought about and ran the business.

Almost all of my bad decisions were people decisions. We took on bad clients, hired the wrong people, kept people longer than was good for them or us. Originally, I was going to say that most of my bad decisions came from not listening to my instincts. But upon reflection, it was really about incorrectly weighing or completely ignoring evidence.

For example, we hired somebody from outside our firm to play a significant role in it. He had successfully started and sold one company, and he ran another one. When we were first talking, he mentioned that one of his favorite perks as president of a previous company was his indoor parking spot close to the building entrance.

We live in Minnesota, people! Indoor parking is a big deal. But I said to him that if we had that perk we would offer it to the employee of the month, not to ourselves.

We ended up hiring him, but realized after less than two years that it hadn’t worked out for a variety of reasons, some of which were his problems and some of which were ours. We certainly took a financial hit for this mistake, but more important is that our staff likely questioned our judgment, since he was such a big cultural miss.

I later thought I should have listened to my instincts in that early meeting. But it wasn’t even instinct: I had direct evidence of a problem. I ignored it, as well as some other signs, either because I badly wanted the relationship to work or because our hire had filled a role that I felt we desperately needed. Or maybe I thought I would change him. 

In any case, I listened more to the evidence suggesting he’d be good than to that indicating he wouldn’t be. Every people problem comes from incorrectly weighing evidence. If the job market was tight and I needed to hire someone, I might have chosen to overlook something.

I have brought in clients who did not fit our firm’s culture because there was something attractive about them and I chose that over evidence they weren’t good fits at all. I was once asked to act as chairman of the board for a political organization even though I don’t participate in politics and was uncomfortable with the concept. But I was flattered and took the job. I resigned a year later after allowing myself to re-examine the situation.

I am embarrassed to say that I still make mistakes. But I have found some helpful things to protect me from myself.

The first is to ask if there is a more objective way to look at a situation. The single best decision we have made in staffing (besides not involving me in the hiring at all!) is sending all of our prospective employees to an industrial psychologist for screening. At first, we didn’t always accept the results.

Why? Because we chose not to appropriately weigh the evidence. We needed to hire people in a tight labor market, and thought we could fix the problems the psychologist reported. But every time we ignored his recommendation, the employee did not work out, and while not every employee who passed the screening is successful in our firm, our success rate for hires dramatically increased once we started using this approach.

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