Golf is a sacred sport… it is a sport based on etiquette and honesty – two qualities virtually every religion in the world promotes. And there are no two qualities more important in a business partner, employee or boss than those two right there. As such, the golf course provides us with the ideal venue to vet someone.
Two years ago I was working on a new startup and was in the process of putting the team together. I needed a very unique type of engineer for this project; it required someone who we could entrust with confidential information as the technology we had been working on was not yet patent protected. Essentially, if we hired the wrong engineer he/she could steal our idea if they so pleased, at least in the early stages. It could be argued that this engineer would become the most important member of our team given the responsibility of the role.
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Anyway, we had gone through about a dozen interviews and lunches, followed up with a couple meetings over cocktails and finally narrowed it down to one person. This guy seemed to be the perfect candidate. He was a risk taker, extremely intelligent, had experience in the same field our new startup was entering and for all we could tell, he was a team player.
Before I was about to make a decision on hiring the guy (which would guarantee him a six-figure salary and a stake in the company), I invited him to join me and a colleague for a round of golf because I remembered he mentioned being an avid golfer. It would be perfect, I thought. We both loved golf; and from my experience, there is no better way to get to know someone’s character in 4 hours than by playing a round of golf with them. Golfing with someone tells you a lot about their character. After all, you basically keep your own score, so the honor system applies, there are plenty of opportunities to lose your cool given the frustration level most endure while playing the game (myself included of course) and it’s a social sport, which allows us to talk turkey.
I booked us a round at one of my favorite courses in the Greater Vancouver Area: Westwood Plateau. It’s a beautiful course, but also very challenging. The gent we were considering for engineer told me he was a bogey golfer, just like me. And the first time I played Westwood I had one of the worst rounds of my life. It was a perfect venue. If there was a course to test this guy’s patience and cool headedness, Westwood was it.
I got to the course quite early with my colleague, giving me plenty of time to warm up. I like to compete, no matter what sport I play, and I wanted to make sure my game was in form to whoop this engineer-to-be. To my surprise, the guy had already arrived at the course and was warming up on the range – a worthy advisory, I thought to myself. I like him already!
After about 20 minutes on the range, we decided to head to the tee box. Prior to teeing off I suggested we play a little skins to sweeten the pot and make it competitive. This guy was a gamer, and thought it was a great idea. “Excellent”, I said, “10 bucks a hole.” He obliged my ultra-competitiveness.
After 7 holes, the three of us were basically even on skins and score. And I could tell this guy was competitive just like me, which in business is a great trait to have provided you’re not obnoxious about it.
The 8th hole was a long par 4, with water running down the left side of the fairway, making for a challenging tee shot. Basically, hit the ball straight and you were safe. Sounds simple, but for bogie golfers like us, consistently hitting the ball straight is the Rubik’s cube of golf. I stepped up and smashed a drive down the right side of the second cut. It looked like it would be flirting with bushes. The engineer-to-be smashed a three hundred-yarder down the left side of the fairway and it was dangerously close to the water, if it wasn’t already in. My colleague hit a very similar tee shot to mine. None of us were looking very good. We jumped in our carts and headed down the fairway, each hoping we weren’t in a hazard. Given how close the engineer-to-be was to the water, I thought it polite to help him look for his ball first.
I spent about a minute walking along the outskirts of the water, looking for his ball. No dice. I couldn’t find it. He told me not to worry and that he would spend another minute searching for it; but in the meantime, I should go look for my ball. Sounds good, I replied.
Driving across the fairway I went off to hunt for my ball, likely in a bush somewhere… I parked the cart, and for whatever reason, decided to look back at the engineer-to-be to see if he had found his ball or not. We were about 80 yards apart. At literally the exact second I looked over to see his progress I saw him quickly pull a ball out of his pocket and drop it on the ground. I figured he had given up looking for his ball, which was likely in the creek anyway, and had decided to take the penalty stroke. This was good news for me as it gave me a chance to compete for the skin even if I didn’t find my ball.
After giving up the search for my own ball, I took the penalty stroke and chipped onto the green. My colleague did the same. We were all sitting on the green with long putts in front of us. My colleague ended up three-putting, knocking him out of contention. I two putted, as did the engineer-to-be. We had tied, meaning the skin was pushed over to the next hole, or so I thought…
More so out of formality I stated that I scored a 5 and asked everyone what they scored on the hole. “Six” my colleague said. “Four” stated the engineer-to-be. Wait, what? To score a four would have meant that the engineer had never lost a ball. How could that be? Unbeknownst to him I saw him pull a ball out of his pocket and drop it on the ground, making it impossible for him to have scored a 4. “You win the skin” I responded, knowing that he had just blatantly cheated.
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The rest of the round went off without a hitch. It was an enjoyable afternoon. I ended up winning by two strokes. The three of us capped off the day with a nice dinner and a couple brewskies. We said our goodbyes early in the evening as we headed home for the night. Needless to say, we never hired that engineer and our search to find the perfect candidate continued for another two months…
The moral of this story is simple: A cheater in golf is a cheater in life and business.
If I couldn’t trust this guy to keep his own score in a meaningless game of golf, then how the hell could I trust him with critical company information and technology? Character counts more than anything else.