7 Lessons for HR Professionals from 'Hamilton'

August 3, 2020

Image of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr from the Hamilton play

When the musical Hamilton opened in 2015, it had something for everyone. The play “is the only thing Dick Cheney and I agree on,” quipped U.S. President Barack Obama. Hamilton set box-office records and received widespread critical acclaim — 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other honors. Earlier this summer, a filmed version of the play debuted on Disney+, sparking renewed interest in the landmark work.

First-time viewers discovered — and play-going veterans rediscovered — playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s electrifying music and dazzling, hip-hop-infused lyrics.

And embedded in the show’s many delightful history lessons are a number of enduring lessons for recruiters and HR professionals. Here are seven takeaways from Hamilton:

1. Recruit for potential, not pedigree

Alexander Hamilton himself was a profound example of why organizations should keep their eyes on potential rather than pedigree. The opening lyrics of the musical laser in on this: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by Providence impoverished / In squalor grow up to be a hero and scholar?”

Community leaders on the West Indies island of Nevis saw enough potential in the teenage Hamilton that they took up a collection to pay for his travel to the mainland to receive a formal education.

Hamilton’s schooling at Elizabethtown Academy and King’s College (now Columbia University) certainly helped shape him, but the qualities that propelled him forward — intelligence, grit, passion, writerly flair — were all present before he left the islands. He had the necessary skills if not the fancy diplomas. The Harvard Business Review notes: “[M]any high-achievers, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, attend less prestigious universities for reasons having nothing to do with ability. Yet, by adopting exclusionary school lists and school quotas, firms systematically close their eyes to talent that resides elsewhere.”

Embrace the notion of skills not schools. “The Ten Dollar founding father without a father,” the song “Alexander Hamilton” tells us, “got a lot farther by working a lot harder by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter.”

2. You need to stand for something

The acrimony between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, a central thread in the musical, arises because Hamilton wears his beliefs proudly and defiantly. Burr? Not so much. He’s constantly wetting his finger to see which way the wind is blowing. 

Moments after the two meet, Burr advises Hamilton: “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” To which Hamilton replies, “You can’t be serious.” And with that, the die is cast.

When Hamilton asks Burr to help write essays in support of the new Constitution, Burr deflects the request by responding, “And what if you’re backing the wrong horse?” Confounded, Hamilton rejoins: “For once in your life, take a stand with pride / I don’t understand how you stand to the side.”

Companies, much like late-18th-century politicians, need to stand for something. Your company’s well-articulated vision is an enormous selling point for prospective employees — 52% of job seekers want to work for a company whose mission and vision reflect their own values. And LinkedIn data says that mission and vision are even more useful to share during candidate interviews than salary and benefit information.

Hamilton grasped the importance of purpose: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

3. Pick teammates that complement rather than mirror one another

In the musical’s second scene, set in a New York City public house in 1776, Hamilton meets Burr and tensions immediately ensue. But the scene also introduces us to Hamilton’s comrades in arms: John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

They’re all cut from different cloth: Lafayette is a French aristocrat who became a major general at 19; Laurens is a brave, reckless South Carolinian who opposes slavery; Mulligan is an Irish immigrant who is a tailor to the British nobility (and uses that position to spy for the Continental Army); and Hamilton, as noted above, was an orphan from the Caribbean. They all, however, are ardent supporters of the Revolution. The public house meeting is fictionalized but the diverse backgrounds of the country’s pioneering patriots is not.

And this combination of varied backgrounds and shared purpose makes them a mighty team. It’s very similar to the way championship sports teams — and great talent acquisition departments — bring together cohesive, high-functioning units: They look for team members who complement one another rather than share the same skills and strengths.

4. Invite differing points of view onto your team to avoid unproductive groupthink

Complementary colleagues are not necessarily complimentary.

Among the countless delights of Hamilton are the two sizzling cabinet battles in which a sharp-tongued Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, raps against the equally acerbic Hamilton, the pioneering Secretary of the Treasury. As president, George Washington gets the advantage — and the challenge — of hearing two powerful, deeply felt points of view.

At the end of the first cabinet battle, Washington instructs Hamilton to work out a deal with Jefferson: “Winning was easy, young man / Governing’s harder. . . . [Y]ou need to convince more folks.”

The chastened Hamilton meets with Jefferson and Madison and hammers out the Compromise of 1790. Hamilton is given the go-ahead to have the federal government pay off state debts and Jefferson and Madison get the national capital on the banks of the Potomac, a win for the South.

It’s critical that companies, like young republics, have decision-making that is informed by many life experiences and points of view. In LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2018 report, 78% of talent leaders said their company focused on diversity to improve culture, 62% said they did so to improve company performance, and 49% said they did so to better represent customers.

5. Executive sponsorship can be critical for the advancement of people with a nontraditional resume

Early in the Revolutionary War, Hamilton becomes the top aide to Washington, whose sponsorship turns out to be a key to Hamilton’s continued ascendancy.

In “Washington on Your Side,” Burr, Jefferson, and Madison all lament: “It must be nice, it must be nice to have / Washington on your side.” Washington’s support not only lands Hamilton a field command at Yorktown and later a post as the original Secretary of the Treasury, it keeps Hamilton’s many enemies at bay, particularly those like Burr who are confounded by the president’s confidence in someone with an unprivileged upbringing and nontraditional background.

Executive sponsorship — having a senior person in a company who advocates for an up-and-coming employee and therefore helps them build stronger networks and locate opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible — can help women and employees from underrepresented groups move up the corporate ladder.

Melissa Thompson, the head of global talent acquisition at Nielsen, believes the Hamilton song “In the Room Where It Happens shows why Black and Latino employees often struggle to advance. She says that executives have to understand the importance of sponsorship before they hold talent reviews and succession planning discussions. “At what point,” Melissa asks, “is there someone in the room who says, ‘We haven’t had any diversity in the leadership of that organization the last three times we’ve looked at their org charts. What are we going to do? Are we going to move somebody to make that happen?’”

6. Offer paternity leave and create a culture where dads are comfortable taking it

As noted above, Hamilton was an indefatigable worker. His accomplishments were legion — he was the Founding Father who founded the U.S. Coast Guard, the New York Post newspaper, and the young nation’s financial system. It was hard for him to shut down.

Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, pleads with him to take some time off to spend with their first child, their then infant son Philip. In the song “That Would Be Enough,” she sings: “But you deserve a chance to meet your son / Look around, look around, how lucky we are / To be alive right now.”

We’re also lucky to be alive right now, as more and more countries and companies are offering more and more parental leave. In the United States, a laggard in terms of parental leave, 34% of companies offer paid maternity leave and 30% offer paid paternity leave, according to the 2019 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) benefits report.

And even when it’s offered, paternity leave often goes unused: According to research by Deloitte, 57% of male respondents in the United States said taking leave would be interpreted as a lack of commitment to their jobs. In fact, taking paternity leave has been shown to shrink the gender wage gap, improve health outcomes for both fathers and children, and create stronger bonds between dads and kids.

7. Succession planning can drive long-term effectiveness

As he neared the end of his second four-year term as president, Washington made it clear he would not serve again. In part, he was tired after decades of national service; in part, he wanted to make sure that a truly contested election could successfully be held.

“If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on / It outlives me when I’m gone,” Washington sings in “One Last Time.” He implores Hamilton to join him so they can “teach them how to say goodbye.”

Some mock the idea. George III, in “I Know Him,” sings: “Are they gonna keep replacing whoever’s in charge? / If so, who’s next? / There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large.”

But Washington understands that the presidency of a nation shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment. Neither should be an executive role at a company. It’s important to build a cadence of fresh leadership — on the board of directors, in the C-suite, on the broader executive team.  

Final act: Embrace some nontraditional ‘casting’

The son of parents who came from Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel was drawn to the story of a Caribbean immigrant who came to New York and had enormous success.

Part of the genius of the play is in Lin-Manuel casting so many of the characters — Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton (originally played by Lin-Manuel himself) — with nonwhite actors. This helps make the story of the founding of the United States more universal, a story shaped by everyone’s participation. Hamilton and Lafayette proudly exclaim in “Yorktown”: “Immigrants / We get the job done!”

The implicit challenge the musical lays out for companies everywhere is to think about what would happen if you recast your executive team so that, like Hamilton, it includes a cast that is as diverse as your audience or your customers.

Perhaps a little nontraditional casting would bring about the revolutionary moment your company has been looking for.

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