Hiring for Humility

By Sean Knapp
February 9, 2016

"There is always somebody bigger, stronger, smarter, faster."

This was a lesson my twin brother and I were reminded of many times growing up, usually followed by “if you want to be the best, you have to be willing to work harder.” As a couple of competitive young kids, we celebrated our victories over one another with even greater intensity than was applied to the competition itself. Big fish, very small pond.

At Ascend we put a huge emphasis on hiring for humility. Why? In short, humble teams are unstoppable. Humility paves the way for 10x teams where all members embrace and leverage each other’s strengths.

Why is humility essential? Humility counter-balances one of the most natural human emotions: insecurity. Insecurity, when left unchecked, inhibits our ability to learn. Humility protects against the erosion of our intellectual curiosity, and fosters the pursuit of polymathism. By moderating our insecurities we accept the reality that there is always someone smarter, and proactively seek the knowledge that they have.

Humility also fosters healthy dialogues. At Ascend we have a saying that “once you share an idea with the team, it is no longer yours; it belongs to the team.” It is neither yours to promote, nor defend, but rather to evaluate in collaboration with your teammates in pursuit of the best collective outcome. Furthermore, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, you want teammates uninterested in assigning blame, and who instead, care only about resolving the issue at hand.

Finding humility is easier than you think. It’s surprisingly similar to that horrible old interview question: “what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” Here, however, we expect everybody to have made mistakes. Half-assed responses to our humility seeking questions highlight a lack of awareness. Who on your team is smarter than you? What have you learned from them? When was the last time you encountered a problem that truly, truly stumped you? How’d you work your way through it? When was the last time you really, really screwed up? What’d you do about it? Thoughtful answers to these simple questions tell so much about a person.

As a start-up, we must be humble. We are a small company in a crowded space. Without a sense of awareness and respect for our predecessors, partners, competitors, and customers, our hard work lacks focus, and our impact is largely diluted. We have a long journey ahead, and look forward to the many lessons not yet learned.