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Updated Jan 19, 2024

10 Brilliant Hiring Philosophies From Famous Leaders

Famous leaders' thoughts on hiring.

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Written By: Nicole FallonBusiness Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
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Hiring the right people is a complex but critical task, whatever type or size of business you’re running. This includes the people who head the biggest and most powerful companies in the world. If you’ve ever wondered how C-suite executives like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey have tackled the task of building a team, read on for the philosophies and tactics of these renowned leaders.

Inspiring quotes from famous leaders

1. “I like to hire people who have a specific lane, who do something very well. I hire a lot of people who are smarter than me. If I’m the smartest person in my company, then my company will go nowhere.” – Issa Rae, director, actor and writer

Sure, you want folks on your staff who can multitask. But Rae recognizes that sometimes, you need someone in a specific position who is very, very good at one thing, possibly something that you’re less good at yourself.

Rae also echoes the sentiment that almost all these executives offer: Find the courage to hire people who are smarter, more specialized, or more creative than you are. Those people can see beyond what’s obvious to you and figure out ways to reach business goals that may not occur to you.

2. “I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.” – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta

Zuckerberg’s approach to hiring shows that he’s humble enough to listen to and take advice from his employees, regardless of their rank. As a boss and leader, it’s your job to not only guide your staff, but also to identify those who can one day lead alongside you – or even fill your role as you move up. Seeking out employees with a knack for leadership and sound judgment can only help you as your team grows.

Did You Know?Did you know
A little humility goes a long way when you're hiring. Instead of feeling intimidated about someone's skill, talent or intelligence, put those talents to work for you.

3. “When you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.” – Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple

No leader wants subpar work from his or her team. That’s why it’s so important to hire what Jobs called “A-plus” people right from the beginning. Seek out the most driven, hard-working candidates, and you’ll get results.

Successful people often talk about a teacher or other mentor who saw some spark in them when no one else did – someone who expected great things from them. Most of the time, a person will give you what you expect. Aim high for your team.

4. “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” – Oprah Winfrey, chairwoman and CEO of Harpo Productions and the Oprah Winfrey Network 

While she may not have been speaking specifically about hiring, Winfrey’s quote holds true for leaders looking to build a strong team. It’s easy to draw the attention of top talent when your company is doing well. However, the people who believe in your company’s mission statement – those who will stick by you and help see the business through the inevitable rough patches – are the ones who make the best employees.

They are also the people who are best at thinking on their feet in challenging times. This personality type can work through difficulties because their eyes are always on the prize, and they want your venture to succeed because they believe in it.

5. “If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.” – David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather 

Great leaders often recommend hiring people who are smarter than you and can supplement your weaknesses. Ogilvy, known as the “father of advertising,” expressed this sentiment, advising managers to look for ambitious, talented individuals who can make the company greater than the sum of its parts.

This, of course, requires a dose of humility, the acknowledgment that someone else may have a better idea than yours, and the willingness to keep your door open to all comers for suggestions. 

6. “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States 

Micromanaging is seldom an effective leadership style. Learning to delegate and let go of the reins can be difficult, but it’s easier when you hire people you can trust to accomplish tasks efficiently and correctly.

Steer clear of hiring only yes-people. Those who are willing to challenge the status quo likely also have a history of self-management. They are the kind of people who can take your instructions and run with them. 

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Look for self-directed people with a demonstrated history of being able to manage themselves.

7. “For … every hire I’ve made, I’ve gotten the exact person I wanted. It’s been surprisingly easy to assemble what I think is the best and brightest team.” – Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

In an interview with Inc., Mayer suggested that she’s been able to hire every person she wanted because the company “sells itself.” Although your company may never be as big as Yahoo, it can and should strive to have a culture and mission that sell the place to prospective employees – who should, of course, be among the best and brightest in their field.

Job applicants are told to research a company before they apply. This includes non-task attributes, like workplace culture and community involvement. What story will they find behind your company? Actively seek out ways to make your company a place where people want to work.

8. “If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become a mediocre company.” – Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft

Microsoft didn’t become one of the most successful tech companies in the world by taking it easy. If you want to keep growing your business quickly, you can’t slow down or think that where you are is “good enough.” Keep seeking out talented individuals to join your team and take it to the next level.

Consider how you will aim for new business goals once you meet the ones you’ve already set. Then hire the people who show the ingenuity, vision and work ethic to keep reaching higher along with you.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Even if you think your staff is set, it's always a good practice to be on the lookout for talent that fits well with your business.

9. “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world … but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” – Walt Disney, founder of The Walt Disney Company

Disney built a multibillion-dollar global empire – and he couldn’t have achieved that without a dedicated workforce behind him. Find talented candidates who want to help make your company’s dream a reality and who can work well with your existing team to make it happen.

Disney could only build his empire with other innovative and creative people by his side. He made sure to never be the only one in his company with big ideas, or with the creative thinking required to guide those ideas to fruition.

10. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner

He may not have been an entrepreneur in the classic sense, but no one questions the fact that Einstein was a major innovator. And remember, this is the same person who said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

What business leader doesn’t want to stimulate their company’s progress or evolve their business? New ways of thinking are what lead to innovation, and no business venture can be stagnant and also successful. Hiring people who think differently from you is one way to keep your business innovative and innovation is the only real path to success.

11. “You gotta take what you’ve got and fly with it.” – Jim Henson, puppeteer and creator of The Muppets

Maybe you’re reading the quotes above and thinking, “Sure, these all sound great, if you have resources.” In the end, of course, you have to work with what you have. Henson believed in making everything you can out of that.

If you’re looking for innovation but aren’t in the market for new hires right now, lean on the staff you have: Ask for input. Brainstorming isn’t limited to famous people and big executives; some of the answers you need (and might not even know you need) can reside in anyone within your organization. 

Ask your staff questions: What do they need that they don’t have? Can they come up with new ways of doing a task that could make it more efficient, profitable or creative? Sometimes the workers in the trenches will have perspectives and insights you hadn’t considered.

Ask yourself questions too, even if you feel bogged down by your day-to-day. Make one of those middle-school idea maps, and don’t limit yourself in any way; you might surprise yourself with answers you didn’t know you already had. “Use what you have” was the motto that got people through the Great Depression. That motto gets people through tough times even now, and it will help your business survive and thrive too. 

Putting it all together

It’s clear that a lot of famous leaders hold at least one hiring philosophy in common: Never be intimidated by an applicant who may have something on you; they’re the ones who have something for you. The best leaders know that it’s the smarter, more creative, visionary types who will be able to spot things you might miss in your own organization, whether that’s a better way to do something you already do, or an opportunity to try something new.

These leaders also veer away from over-managing. That’s why it’s crucial to think about the types of people (and there should be various “types”) that you’re willing and eager to put to work. Look for self-starters who can help you imagine big things – and let them get to work.

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Written By: Nicole FallonBusiness Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
Nicole Fallon is a small business owner with nearly a decade of experience overseeing day-to-day business operations. She and her co-founder self-funded their company and now lead a team of employees across multiple disciplines. Fallon's first-hand experience as an entrepreneur running a staffed business has given her unique insight into startup culture, budgeting, employer-employee relationships, sales and marketing, and project management. Fallon's business expertise is evident in her work with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she analyzes small business trends. Her writing has been published in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Newsweek, and she enjoys collaborating with B2B and SaaS companies.
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