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The Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds. A pie chart with three equal sections: Leaders, Team Players, and Dead Weight

When I was in college, I was a member of a nonprofit group. Let's call it a 'social organization'. The group was comprised entirely of students. Members would continually leave the group, primarily due to graduation. As such, we were constantly recruiting new members--without them, our numbers would dwindle to a level that would threaten the group's existence.

There were two big membership drives each year. We'd host four or five consecutive nights of social events where we'd 'interview' prospective members. After the last event, there was a final review of all the candidates and invitations to join the group were made. Everyone accepting our invite became members of the group. And for the next membership drive, we'd do it all over again. And again. And...

At some point, we began to notice that soon after joining the group, it didn't take long for new members to fit cleanly into one of three categories:

  • Leaders - people that put considerable energy and effort into the group. They worked hard to ensure ongoing success for the group, and would go on to become officers or committee chairmen.
  • Team Players - people that you could generally count on. People that cared about the group. They showed up at events and never did anything that might harm or embarrass the group.
  • Dead Weight - people that wanted to reap the benefits of membership without putting anything back into the group. They were in it just for themselves and it showed.

When we reviewed the new membership groups from the last handful of years, we felt there was evidence that our 'Rule of Thirds' theory had some merit. And while the numbers may not have always been even splits, it was usually close. The plausibility of our theory left us exasperated by the Dead Weight types. We set out to try to ensure we never invited the Dead Weight to join the group.

At the end of the next membership drive, we had 27 candidates. Figuring a third of them were Dead Weight, we identified the 9 'worst' candidates whom we did not invite to join. This left us with 18 new members and we felt pretty confident they'd all be great. How did things unfold afterwards? Despite our best efforts, our group of 18 candidates still followed the Rule of Thirds: six of them turned out to be Leaders, six were Team Players, and six were Dead Weight. And those nine we excluded? I bet they followed the Rule of Thirds too. In our zeal for exclusion, we missed out on six quality members.


Recruiting members for a non-profit organization and hiring employees that have to be paid real money are vastly different things. So what does any of this have to do with hiring? I suspect the Rule of Thirds applies somewhat here as well. It's such a crapshoot. You get a few interviews and a short amount of time to determine if a stranger will be a good fit for your organization. It's easy to misjudge a candidate despite your best efforts.


My last point to make is that we consciously (or unconsciously) 'label' candidates and  put them into categories. One of those is "Certifications". The loudest voices tell us the certified candidates are Dead Weight. They won't hire them or give them an interview. This is exclusion at best, and discrimination at worst. And it's not just the excluded candidates they're hurting. They're hurting themselves by passing over Leaders and Team Players too.


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