There is probably nothing more important to the future of an organization than to select the right people for positions of authority. Not only will such individuals need to successfully oversee tactical day-to-day activity, they will also have to provide strategic direction and leadership. The overall makeup of an individual selected for a leadership position communicates—both internally and externally—an awful lot about the culture that an organization is trying to create. Since the culture issue is—in my mind, anyway—a critical upshot of manager selection, this article might be seen more as a guide for selecting good leaders than anything else.
Below I’ve listed the Top Ten criteria I consider in reviewing candidates for managerial positions I am filling. Before I detail them, however, let me start by saying that there is no substitute for doing a significant amount of research about their background. Although this is traditionally accomplished through one-on-one candidate interviews, I’ve found it is often more revealing to touch base with their peers, previous direct reports and—in the case of purchasing positions—suppliers they have worked with in order to gain an individual’s true measure.
Most people who are being considered for managerial positions can point to a long track record of significant accomplishment. What I’m also looking for—and have found to be an important differentiator between candidates—is finding out how they achieved their accomplishments, since this correlates strongly with the culture issue cited above. The following are listed in no special order.
1. There is no Team in “I”
Establishing a philosophy of team is important to organizational productivity. Managers need to be good at promoting teamwork and setting an example of it. I avoid putting people into leadership positions that stress their own importance above the contributions of others since, in the long run, this is a major organizational de-motivator and also a sign of too much ego. In addition, Show-Boater and Grand-Stander type managers tend to distract from what should be the main issue: successful project resolution. Refer to my article "Giving Credit where Credit is Due" for more discussion on this topic.
In a similar vein, leaders who don’t credit the talents and knowledge of their people generally don’t produce optimal results. Those who ask for and thoughtfully entertain the input of those who work for them are not weak—they are strong. When bosses listen, employees tend take ownership which—by the way—is strongly correlated with organizational success. By definition, leaders who think they can best figure everything out for themselves are what are called tyrants. Most people I know don’t want to work for a leader who just wants them to follow his or her orders.
3. Creating the Middle Ground
Following up on the last point, I’ve found that a lot of Know-It-All leaders treat input as a type of disobedience, i.e., if you aren’t with me—agree with my ideas—you are against me. This is certainly not a recipe for achieving the best business outcomes. It is natural for people of different backgrounds and experiences to have varying insights on issues. Leaders create middle ground by pulling in the best parts of all input and use it to craft better overall solutions. Consequently, they are more apt to have people who will offer their insights. On the other hand, people working for leaders who react to outside input in a personal way—demeaning and negatively marking the people offering it—learn to keep their thoughts to themselves, negatively impacting an organization over the long term.
4. On-the-Job Experience
There are certain individuals with such rare talent that they will likely excel in any position, regardless of their background. I keep on the look-out for these types of folks but in over 40-plus years in industry I’ve only personally run across two. Most people need a critical mass level of experience in a specific functional area—or one closely related to it—to appreciate the structural challenges they will have to face to be successful. Hiring people without a background within the construct they will be expected to operate in exposes an organization to significant risk of failure. For instance, if you are the owner of a Ruth’s Chris Steak House would you really consider hiring a head chef with only experience in cooking Tex-Mex foods?
I’ve found that some candidates for leadership positions have a difficult time dealing with facts to the point where you almost need fact checkers to review and issue statements on the validity of just about anything they say, especially when it’s related to their personal track record! Most such people are sharp enough to understand that some nugget of truth needs to be included in their statements so that at least upon the surface they appear reasonable. The old line from “Dragnet”—“Just the facts, Ma’am”—applies here. If a candidate can’t back up their words by citing authenticated facts and data, they are probably stretching the truth, or worse, misrepresenting a situation.
I don’t want managers who shoot-from-the-hip as their primary mode of operation. Sure, sometimes this sort of thing is required. Shooting from the hip, though, increases the probability of saying one thing today and having to either revise it or backtrack from it tomorrow when it proves to be off-target. Or worse yet, doubling-down on something that shouldn’t have been said in the first place. Either way, people are impacted by words and because of this, leaders should be measured and consistent in their statements. During the interview process I look for thoughtful, measured responses to my questions.
Employees are not and should not be treated as standardized clones. People have different strengths and weaknesses. Leaders need to recognize this and position their people for both personal and organizational success. Publically identifying and criticizing individuals demoralizes an entire organization, leaving employees wondering, “Will I be next?” Many times, subpar performance by an individual is just as much the fault of the manager as it is the employee. I believe the old rule-of-thumb that “constructive criticism of others should be private and verbal while praise should be public and visual.” People like knowing they have a boss who has their back. Leaders that go around criticizing everybody-and-their-brother are likely just trying to take focus off of their own failings.
8. Job Goals
I once asked a candidate what his primary goal would be if I placed him in the managerial slot I was trying to fill. He answered, “I want to position myself for my next promotion.” At least he was honest. I know what he was getting at but I’m more interested in people focusing on “doing a good job for that job’s sake” first and foremost than someone with an eye on what the job can do for him/herself as an individual. For the most part, if you do a good job promotions will take care of themselves. Avoid candidates whose primary goal in life seems to be “looking out for # 1.”
9. Communication Skills
Leaders need to both have listening skills and when they talk they need to be specific about what they are talking about. When I ask candidates questions, I am interested in some level of elaboration in their answers. I want to know details, not just the one-line PowerPoint bullet item-type response. Better, I like to have the candidates ask for more detail about the question being posed and then consider it a bit before jumping directly into an answer. In my experience it is relatively easy in an interview to identify candidates who are more interested in listening to themselves talk than giving a meaningful answer to a question. They should be avoided.
Integrity is generally something that doesn’t need to be defined. You know it when you see it, and you know it when you don’t see it. For instance if I hear a whiff of evidence about a candidate for a leadership position not having honored their word—even worse yet—a written agreement with a supplier, this disqualifies them for any position of authority, even one outside of purchasing. An example of this might be failure to pay full contract price to a supplier after delivery of goods or services. I want nothing to do with such an individual. ‘Nuff said.
I have two further observations—the first one is an admitted bias. I understand that most if not all candidates for leadership positions have worked hard to position themselves for advancement. But I think we’ll all agree that some have faced higher hurdles. I admit that in my evaluations I have always tended to favor individuals who have had to pull-themselves-up-by-their own boot-straps. This is probably because of my own background. Why? It seems to me that the more impressive accomplishment is starting low and ending high than starting high and edging upward. My observation is that those folks privileged enough to have born on third base don’t always appreciate reaching home plate as much as the guy scoring a run who feels lucky just to have been given a chance to bat. Don‘t get me wrong—I would have loved to have inherited a company or gotten a trust-fund from my parentsJ! Personally, though, I think it’s just as important to understand the HOWs of a person reaching a certain point in their career as it is them being there.
The second observation is more straightforward. I always wanted the managers I hired not only to build upon what I had created—and get recognition for improving things—but also to feel they have the opportunity to go higher in the organization. If the people you bring into your organization never exceed your level of accomplishment or position in the hierarchy, either you are really a special individual or there is something wrong with your hiring practices.
Hopefully the above discussion will positively impact to your candidate evaluation process and help improve your organization’s leadership.
My next columns will be the first in a multi-part series on what is seemingly a never ending topic—what needs to be done to revitalize Lean and apply it to Supply Management?