Management Unleashed – Assembling the best team
By John Bittleston

The mantra that ‘your people are your most important assets’ is nowhere more dishonoured than when hiring. Two criteria dominate this activity – qualifications and experience. Both are valid for making a simple, preliminary assessment of someone – about as valid as age or the colour of their hair. Qualification is proof of a discipline to pass exams but it says nothing about your emotional quotient. Experience doesn’t guarantee you can build, innovate, handle, or optimise a business. Past success is no guarantee of future glory. Knowing when and how to change is key.

Why are qualification and experience so depended on? Because they are easy to assess and to use as excuses should things go wrong. “S/he had a double first so I was entitled to expect a high performer.” “S/he had been CEO of several big businesses. That allowed me to assume s/he was experienced.” Yes, but at what? Experience is a particularly dangerous measure of success. The best definition of it that I have heard is: “Experience: It lends precision to the craftsman’s tool, and confidence; but leaves a fool, a fool.” We are surrounded by experienced fools.

I had a friend who made a career out of being fired from CEO jobs. With each succeeding job, his CV looked more and more impressive. What it actually spelt was failure – but he got big payoffs. Why? Because he had learned how to write his contract for the next job.

So if qualification and experience are poor bases for judging a potential employee, how should we do it? First, we must know what we are looking for. Unfortunately, the answers to this are all ‘good’ words – difficult to enumerate, somewhat meaningless and impossible to measure. ’Responsible’, ‘reliable’, ‘loyal’, ‘committed’, ‘innovative’, ‘creative’, ‘imaginative’, ‘honest’ … you can go on forever. How are you to assess these qualities in an hour or two’s interviews?

The answer can be summed in one word – attitudes. How will the prospective employee deal with tricky situations? Well, ask them. Invent situations that are realistic, perhaps just a little above their current level of work. Situations to which there are no right answers. In life, there are seldom right answers, only right approaches. Even when there are right answers to some of your imaginative situations, they are not what you are looking for. You want to know what is the attitude of this employee to dealing with difficult and ambiguous problems.

We call these inventions ‘roleplays’ but it doesn’t matter what you call them. What matters is that your potential colleagues can handle them with the right attitude. Building Cerebos Pacific Ltd I had six managing directors reporting to me. Every single one of them was hired on attitude rather than qualification or experience. All were successful. What had I learnt from the interviews I had with them before I hired them? First, did they have the courage to say ‘I don’t know’?

An employee who cannot say this is going to let you down badly sooner or later. Second, were they creative in their approach to dealing with an opportunity or a problem? Standard answers are published on the internet. Exceptional thinkers make their own answers, and beat the competition. Third, will they encourage and help others to contribute to the thinking? Good managers are mentors whether you like it or not. If they don’t behave like mentors,
they won’t be successful.

Fourth, what questions did they ask me? Their questions were more telling about their abilities and interests than their answers. It is always the way. S/he must be able and willing to ask difficult questions that clearly display their thoughts. A potential employee who asks no questions should be shown the door. Sounds a bit cruel? Well, building a great team is a tough, sometime cruel business. What matters is that you are fair.

The fifth lesson I learnt from interviewing was what were this person’s biases – and how do they interact with mine. We are each a bundle of bias. It’s what helps us make up our minds quickly about who we will befriend, who we will deal with, who we will live with. You cannot escape your biases but you can know them. Knowing them allows you to somewhat lay off for them. More important, what are your potential colleague’s biases? If they match yours, beware. You may start building a cosy clan rather than a business. What matters is awareness of biases.

You cannot know anyone very thoroughly in a few short interviews. Consider getting other colleagues to talk to your aspiring workmate. But be certain you know that they will interview them properly and about the right things. Their interviews will probably tell you more about the interviewer’s predilections than about the candidate. Still worth a second view.

Time spent hiring your colleagues is never wasted. It teaches you, it helps ensure you don’t make too many dreadful mistakes. So where do ‘liking’ or ‘gut-feel’ come into the decision to hire or not? They are important, provided you don’t choose someone just because s/he has the same interests and tastes as you. Old school is a great network but a potential threat to institutions relying on it.

Learn to hire well. It is the greatest asset you can bring to a business.

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