During his college summer holidays, Colin Smith worked as a ski-lift painter in Vermont, America.
There wasn’t a lot of snow over the summer months, so the crew would drive up the mountain, climb up the lifts and chip away all the rust and paint away, before repainting them.
Fast forward more than 20 years and Smith has just been appointed as the CEO Motorsport Network, the world’s largest motorsport media company.
He landed the job, in part, because if his experience on a major project for NASCAR, where he was vice president of the wildly popular US motor racing sport’s digital output.
In 2013, Smith had to hire 50 people in two months as NASCAR took its digital operations in-house after a long association with broadcaster Turner. He had to run the transition, recruiting a front-end team and a back-end team.
“It was a phenomenal opportunity,” Smith said. “The only problem was I was hired in May of 2012, and we had no office, we had five people — I was the fifth hire — and essentially we were launching on January 3, or there was going to be hell to pay. Turner was not necessarily going to be there to pick up the pieces if we weren’t ready.”
Below are the six lessons Smith learned when he had to ‘fast hire’ an entire department.
1. Rules go out of the window
Rather than the whole team being able to formally interview a candidate, one of the team would meet with them and decide then and there if they would be a good fit.
“We’d get an email saying: ‘I just interviewed so and so, she’s a really great person, and has the right attitude, and she doesn’t have everything that we’re looking for, but I think given the opportunity she’s going to shine.’ And basically an email would come back that said ‘Great, send her an offer.'”
Smith said this was a really interesting way of working, because he had always learned from his mentors that the interview process needs to be serious.
“[You had to] check all these boxes and ask all these questions, make sure that these people are giving you the right answers, throwing curveballs, seeing how they react to it,” he said. “100% we just didn’t have the ability or the opportunity to do that.”
Instead, they were hiring people who would be able to cope with the fact they would be in the trenches from their first day, and those who would be good teammates and would have their colleagues’ backs. “If you see the broader vision and the broader opportunity, and then obviously can you do the job,” Smith said.
2. Personality can be more important than experience
When it comes to hiring, Smith says it’s important to trust your gut instinct about someone. For example, he met with some candidates who interviewed incredibly poorly, but he gave them a chance. The team were looking for people who would fit in and not cause problems, rather than someone who could interview well.
“If you couldn’t put them in the room with 75 to 100 other people and not have problems, we didn’t hire them,” Smith said. “Because we honestly just didn’t have time to deal with problems.”
Of course, he didn’t recommend hiring managers always use this approach. You don’t want someone who is trained in medical sciences to come run your digital marketing group, for example.
“But certainly when all else fails, and you kind of have to make the judgment between: This person is really smart and they’re going to really do an awesome job running this platform, but they’re going to make everybody’s lives miserable around them,” Smith said. “That was a big concern of ours, so we actually went in the opposite direction and it worked out really well.”
3. You can’t speak to everyone
The good news was word spread quickly about what NASCAR was trying to build, so the situation didn’t have to be explained. The bad news was this meant there was nowhere near enough time to talk to everyone that applied.
“We didn’t have time to speak to all the people that were coming to the door,” Smith said. “We started in a very structured environment and we were going to go through the interview process, especially for some of the key hires. Then all hell broke loose.”
4. People should have a start-up mentality
Smith said the environment was never one where there were weekly or even monthly meetings. Everyone knew what the end goal was, and they just got on with their work.
“The whole startup mentality, just building something from scratch, with everybody together, in the trenches, with a common goal, it was amazing how much of a guiding force that was,” he said. “Everybody worked towards that goal, and it wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always fun, but everybody was growing in the same direction.”
5. Hire people who are willing to learn
Smith said training breeds success, as long as people are willing to learn.
“When people get comfortable with their limits, those are the people that I believe are just difficult to have in a fast growing company and a fast paced environment, because they’re always ultimately going to be intimidated by what they don’t know,” Smith said.
“But people who understand they do have limitations, and they want to get through them and they want to exceed those limitations, and be successful in what they’re doing… it’s amazing what people can do.”
6. ‘CEO’ can mean a lot of things
At Motorsport Network, Smith is in his first official role as a CEO. However, he feels like he has had the role unofficially several times before. Whether you’re managing a small team or an entire company, Smith says it’s important to him that everyone shares the common goal.
“You can be a CEO of a five-person team,” he said. “But this is my first shot and I intend to follow myself and make sure this is not only a success for me but a success for the company and all the people that work here.”
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