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The Theory of the 9’s


Lucas Shaffer - November 30, 2021 - 0 comments

After 12 years, I’ve hired dozen-or-so full-timers and interviewed over 120 freelancers in the creative industry, and here is what I’ve learned.

Behold, this is a part of the “secret” to hiring creatives in a post-pandemic digital age.

The Rule of the Theory of the 9’s

It’s simple. I measure creatives on a scale of 0 thru 10. We must recognize that there are no real 0’s and no real 10’s. This means that no one knows nothing about a subject and no one knows all there is. It’s not perfect, but it’s the rule.

The main misunderstanding this theory confronts is that creative work is complicated. It can be, but mostly it’s a learned skill. It is typically earned in non-traditional ways and is applied through trial and error. I believe a lot of our greatest hires learn and work just like this.

So, that leaves everyone as either a 1 thru a 9. And it’s the 9’s I struggle with.

The Problem with the 9’s

When hiring, you often see resumes of those anointed in the art of design and content management, or whatever, and it’s so great to talk to these people. They are on the edge, or close to it, surfing the big waves and it can be mesmerizing.

While all the others, 1’s thru 8’s, still have a natural curiosity based on the excitement of learning, the 9’s tend to have that earned ego about them and a baked-in consensus about how work should unfold; AKA their own process.

The 9’s have been doing one or two aspects of creative work for over a decade and it shows. They are experts in their field and often speak at conferences, teach at higher education, or have a ranked position in the local and national award systems. Some are even famous for their work.

The problem I’ve experienced with the 9’s are once they walk through the virtual front door of Stand And Stretch, they walk into our website and digital media manufacturing plant and immediately start trying to change our process. I imagine this is similar for other businesses, as well.

You see when you take someone with level 9 experience and put them into a machine where their skills aren’t amendable or bound to some other process or best practice, they don’t amount to much in our virtual eco-system.

Our systems and process are cemented into our client success and expected outcomes of years of trial and error, education, and real-world experience.

The 9’s argue about technique, they poke at the process, and can honestly hamper the real growth process of our other team members.

But, as a 9 in multiple disciplines, I understand we can sometimes be more trouble than we are worth.

The Core of the Theory

Fine. I don’t like hiring the 9’s. That’s obvious. So, who do I like to hire?

While working with 9’s, 1’s, and all those in between, something dawned on me. I should be hiring 2’s and turning them into 6’s. And 5’s into 8’s. I need to look for those who’ve shown a solid set of soft skills like work ethic, time management, and, most important, a willingness to learn.

That means that when they become a 7, they are OUR 7. Engrained with our process and belief system around client success and dedication to the process.

I honestly think about it now as if there is no other way to run a business. I spent a lot of time trying to hire my way into good work and good processes. It turns out all I needed was to set our standard and drive a team in a direction. A team member who experiences growth and small successes in short intervals is happier in the long run.

There is this thought when a business owner goes to hire someone and they say, “But they will never do it as I do it.” Well, you’re exactly right. There is no one who will ever do it like you. And when you can’t hire up, meaning afford a 9 from the get-go, you are stuck hiring a 1 or a 2.

So, build your team. Build your own 9’s as we have and never look back. Put a process in place, document it, and then prove it works.

Theory in Practice

In 2017, we adopted this theory as a principle and it has changed our business.

We now hire just about anyone as a freelancer and allow them to access our framework in hopes their soft skills are strong enough to thrive in our pseudo-meritocracy.

I am proud to say that after several years, we do have our own 9’s now and they run the show. They help others when needed, produce work that drives client success, and continue to have the willingness to learn. Because once you start learning and you find success, becoming a 9 is inevitable.

Now, in practice, hiring is something I enjoy because I have no preconceived notions that a person is a skilled graphic artist or writer. My team can make that happen. All I need is a good human with a naturally curious mind that wants to be in a creative role.

Not having to seek a 9 to “do the work” is a revelation for most. However, hiring that 2 and making them YOUR 6, is doable and very rewarding. Training that 5 and making them into a 9 for your business, with your purpose… that is everything.

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