No job experience? Cool. You're hired!

About fifty years ago (the exact date is debatable) a small business team that would become the most commercially successful entity in the history of the performing arts made a significant—and risky—new addition, which would forever alter the organization's brand.

What made the hiring risky was the fact that this individual—who immediately became a full partner in the fledgling enterprise—had zero performing experience and almost no technical ability to do the job.

But the senior partner, John Lennon, prevailed on his mates, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, to bring his friend Stu Sutcliffe on board—and the band that was to become the Beatles began to take shape. (Pete Best would join a few months later.)

Stu's contribution to the band turned out to be more aesthetic than musical (as he never quite mastered the electric bass, according to most reports), but that's not to diminish his importance to the band. A promising young painter with a fey presence, Sutcliffe had an artistic sensibility that attracted young artistes to the band when they performed in Hamburg—one of whom, Astrid Kirchherr, ended up the band's first photographer and fashion mentor.

Under Astrid's spell, Stu became the first in the group to adopt the German "mop-top" haircut. By the time Stu died tragically from a cerebral hemorrhage a year-and-a-half later, his hair and fashion choices had left an indelible mark on the band—giving the Beatles a truly revolutionary look by the time they cracked the British charts. (Meanwhile John Lennon never seemed to get over Stu's death; Yoko Ono, who came along later, said "I felt I knew him… John referred to Stuart daily.")

The Beatle hair-do of course did much to provoke the teen hysteria that propelled them to worldwide renown, before the public fully realized the musical genius underneath it. This answers the question that has vexed musicologists for generations: "Who put the 'do' in 'Love Me Do?'" Such was the legacy of the mysterious Stu Sutcliffe, the "lost Beatle."

This of course raises the perennial question: when should you hire someone who has little experience or technical ability for the job?


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21 Comments

  1. You can hire someone without the job experience or ability if they appear to be a good "fit" for the culture of the company and if the company can give them the skill training to succeed at the job. The latter doesn't always happen, unfortunately.

  2. Great topic John - Happy Sunday Sir!

    I'm FIRMLY in the camp that says "recruit for attitude - train for skills."

    It seems to me that traditional management theory works on the opposite axis.

    I think John Lennon got it absolutely right.

  3. jd, good points. In the case of the Beatles I suspect Lennon (on some intuitive level) wanted to CHANGE the band culture and promote a more "design" awareness - while at the same time move his best friend into the band. Apparently the band never gave Stu the "training" on the bass to succeed, although by most accounts his heart wasn't in it. (His primary passion was painting, for which he had prodigious talent.) Jude Kessler writes about this brilliantly in her historical novel, "Shoulda Been There."

  4. Another great artical, good job.
    I heard a business man say they hired " attitudes " and trained them for the job. Not a bad way to go because so much of this life is how we think and feel about things.
    Those thoughts and feelings have a huge impact on our lives.
    Thats what all the great metaphysical leaders say and now quantum physics is saying it also.

    Best, Grayson

  5. Trevor, I would agree with your axiom in general. The Stu Sutcliffe story is probably not the best example of it because if the attitude was right (and that could be debated) the training failed. Lennon thought Stu had the right 'tude, personality, sensitivity, etc. - but I don't know if McCartney and Harrison agreed. (And Stu certainly didn't have the exuberance of the others.) Paul & George felt he was completely unqualified musically - which was true. Lennon probably assumed Stu would pick up the bass easily (and they wouldn't have to "train" him) because Stu played a little guitar and he was after all an ARTIST. But not everyone (like 99% of the population!) had the raw music acumen of a John Lennon - or a Paul McCartney or a George Harrison. Stu's inability to keep up with the others, and his lack of passion for the job, undoubtedly surprised and disappointed Lennon in the end. (Ironically Stu's artistic gifts were never in question.)

    Hey, congratulations on your new site! http://sites.google.com/site/trevorsimplicity/home

  6. It begs the question as to whether Sutcliffe's recruitment was:

    a) an inspired choice;
    b) laziness (he was already mates with and working for the band so on a personal level they know the character they were getting along with his musical pro's and con's);
    c) a bad choice that has subsequently been post-rationalised.

    With the band going on to be so succesful, it's easy to characterise all their early moves as part of a clever plan. Frankly, I think his influence has been exagerrated and it was closer to c) than anything else.

    I think a better case study would be Ian Stewart, who founded The Rolling Stones. He was moved aside because his image didn't fit. Never the less, the band found him a role, often as a session or back-of-stage player, and largely remained loyal to someone who was able to both shape the original band and continue to help their development.

  7. Mark, I'd give Brian Jones the "founder" status for the Rolling Stones (he even named the band) but Stewart was right there from the beginning and was certainly the unsung hero from day one.

    Yes, there were MANY fortuitous synchronicities surrounding the Beatles' success story—as there are with all such narratives—that appear only in hindsight to have been a function of intention and planning. But part of Lennon's friendship with Sutcliffe was clearly based on his admiration for Stu's artsy charisma which—I suspect—Lennon wanted his developing band to be dipped in. Interestingly, Lennon's "good intuition" on artistic matters was often undone by poor intuition on practical, business matters (such as pushing for Allen Klein to manage the later Beatles—a subject for a later post).

  8. Bands hire musicians with no talent if they own a truck or sound equipment. Family businesses hire workers with no talent if they're relatives. Experience and ability must be overrated.

  9. Anon: such cynicism is unbecoming on this blog. You should wash your mouth out with "Think and Grow Rich."

    But I admit I was hired by one band years ago (Uncle Crusty and the Venice Canaligators) because I was the only one with a CAR — albeit a '56 VW. As a mention in a previous post, the piece of crap used to run out of gas all the time (the fuel gauge was broken) so we had to walk the thing home.

    Re family businesses — and most other businesses, come to think of it — if you refer to the owner or the president as "Dad" or "Mom" it may help your employment chances.

  10. Q: when should you hire someone who has little experience or technical ability for the job?

    A: when you're absolutely sure you can provide organisational cover for what will be seen as a maverick appointment so that said maverick can make a difference. (And while you're doing that, you also need to figure out where to put the maverick next because they tend to have limited a shelf life if left in one place.)

  11. Mark, that's valid - unless it's such a maverick culture that the new maverick won't need protection. I'm thinking of a company like Zappos.com (an online apparel & footware company that boasts an exuberant - and wacky - customer service team) where the right kind of maverick will fit right in.

  12. Thoughtful post, as usual, John. Are there any hard and fast rules on hiring? Each hire is different, even though the position remains the same. This is what makes the person who does the hiring essential. I love Anon's comment and your response. :-)

  13. Thanks, Judith. I always enjoy hanging out at your blog and ranting on topics unrelated to biz/rock.

  14. I wouldn't hire someone who couldn't do the job if they didn't have the qualifications. Stu was an exception, as he made more of a contribution that lasted on and on....the hairstyle, etc.

    Looks don't count when technical skill and knowledge is what is sought...

    :-)

  15. Hey Nick, looks do count in some professions of course - including modeling and acting - and I've known bands who hired primarily for looks. (I never made it into one of those bands for some inexplicable reason.) Glenn Frey said when he was putting together the Eagles he was only interested in musicians who had the musical & vocal chops AND the looks. In country music it starts with the looks, though vocals are the other half.

  16. Love it John - it's why I never made a rock star either.

    By the way my beloved Eagles - thanks for the mention - contains Joe Walsh of course so how does Glen justify the good looks statement??? - Sorry Joe it's your charm that gets you by!!

  17. Joe Walsh of course was a later hire by the Eagles to replace Bernie Leadon and move the band away from their country-rock brand. Frey & Henley were desperate for a harder edge guitar virtuoso (to pair with Don Felder), and Walsh fit the bill perfectly. Felder & Walsh were a great combo - until Frey & Henley fired Felder in 2001, a story told in a previous post.

  18. Hi John

    Joe performing a guitar duet with Stu Smith playing 'Funk 59' at the Eagles concert NIA in Birmingham last year was incredible. It got a deserved a standing ovation.

    Joe is a wonderful character. when he introduced 'Life's Been Good" Joe said "If I'd known I'd have to sing this so often I'd have written something else"

    Gotta love Joe and looks don't matter a jot as far as I'm concerned!

    Have you heard this interview John? - it's hilarious and so typical of Joe.

    Joe Walsh interview

  19. Thanks, Trevor. That's classic Walsh. I've loved his playing since the James Gang. Landing Walsh was a great hiring move by Frey & Henley which diversified the Eagles' brand.

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