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Don’t just hire for skill, hire the right player

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

When Dennis Johnson joined the Boston Celtics in the early 1980s, he wasn't particularly fast, he didn't look particularly fit and he didn't seem to shoot the ball all that well.

DJ, as radio announcers called him, had completely changed his approach to basketball. In the early years of his career, he was a high-flying dunker who could also shoot from outside, and a player who didn't get along with coaches. Regardless, he won an NBA championship and earned the most valuable player award, and then was traded to the Celtics. There, he became a different player, a new person.

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DJ became the guy whose job it was to play defence and pass the ball to any of the five Hall of Famers in the green jerseys. He was the silent leader and it worked: the Celtics won two championships during his time in Boston – including one thanks to his lay-up with time running out.

Yet years after he retired, Johnson is still considered one of the most underrated players of all time. My guess is that you've heard of Larry Bird and maybe even Bill Walton, but DJ is not on the tip of your tongue. Nonetheless, Bird has called him the greatest player he ever played with. Players on other teams have said he was among the best of all time, but he wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame until years after his premature death at age 52 in 2007.

You might say he finally got his due by not being the guy putting up all the points, but instead by being the leader who did everything else to make those around him better. That was his special ability: understanding a powerful force that makes players mesh with the culture of the team, be what the team needs at a given moment, and sacrifice for the better of the team.

When I look at Dennis Johnson and his time with the Celtics, I see a perfect mix of skill and personality meeting the right kind of team culture. This might explain why the Celtics are the greatest NBA organization of all time. It also sheds some light on the way we look to incorporate talent into our team at Tangerine.

In the early years of the bank, we didn't hire bankers. We hired people whose personal values aligned with the values we needed to succeed: solving problems, customer focus, ability to simplify, an appetite for tough work. People who wanted the challenges needed to pave their own road. We have consistently considered these qualities key. They are part of the whole package we are looking for, and being good and being able to simplify are top of the list. We hire, promote and reward against that.

Change is part of our foundation, because we're in a constant form of innovation. That's how we stay ahead of our competitors. We can't wait for and adapt to change – we have to instigate change.

If you limit yourself to technically strong people whose skill set lies in one area of expertise only, you lose the humanity because everything is focused on one skill and one skill only. You get people who are like silos, operating by themselves in their own world and, at Tangerine, silos are a problem that need to be avoided.

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Top universities look at academic transcripts but also put a heavy emphasis on finding out what kind of person students are before letting them through their doors. Skill, knowledge, experience, all these are great; but you have to find good people, the right people for you, your culture and your customers.

Technical skills, while important, are probably not even 50 per cent of the solution. Understanding people, relating to people, coaching and teaching, figuring out how to put pieces together to solve a problem – there are so many other skills needed that are bigger than knowing how to price a mortgage. At least, that's what Tangerine insists on. How can you have a team if your employees don't understand the concept of team play, the strengths and benefits that come from teamwork?

If you only have subject-matter experts and they are leading the charge, you're in big trouble. I need the detail-oriented people around me, but they also have to have equal skills in personal relationships.

I think I know the reason why Larry Bird admired Dennis Johnson so much. I remember seeing a poster of Bird, all 6-feet-9-inches of him, diving after a ball, with this caption: "It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds." DJ was that guy, a player who got more joy from a great defensive stop, or maybe a fabulous pass, than from scoring the basket himself – a guy who dived after every ball, no matter what.

Peter Aceto (@PeterAceto) is president and chief executive officer at Tangerine Bank, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bank of Nova Scotia, and best-selling author of Weology: How Everybody Wins When We Comes Before Me.

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