Monday, March 8, 2010

First Time - Part 15: Hiring

This is part 15 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Hiring new people is, simply put, the most important single task facing any organization. It is not only the means by which the organization brings in new people, it can and should be a vital part in the development of junior leaders. The ability to select the right people to work for your organization is a key element of the leadership ‘tool-kit;’ it is not only an important and demanding skill, it is also the hallmark of every good leader. It is also a completely learned skill.

Most medium to large companies have a Human Resources department or a Personnel department (or something similar), a division with the responsibility of hiring and firing personnel, and to some extent managing their careers. In many cases they perform tasks that are required by law. In nearly every case they are a net drag on the organization.

This is not a condemnation of the people who work in ‘HR.’ They are fine people and they are certainly well intentioned. But the simple truth is that the people who are being hired don’t work for them; they work for you (and your peers). The person who is responsible for the selecting a newly hired individual should be the person for whom that new hire will work.

Is this always possible? No. The law often mandates certain behavior by various organizations, and this can make it difficult, and often impractical, for an organization to use this kind of decentralized hiring. And, in some large organizations there are extensive training programs that everyone enters. In such cases selection may be based purely on an entry test (or series of tests). However, if there is an interview process, every leader should make it a point to be placed on the interview panel at regular intervals. This ensures that, as much as possible, the perceptions and perspectives of those who actually execute the organization’s policies and lead its operations are driving the selection of the people entering the organization.

Returning to the subject, the people who actually do the work are the most important part of any organization. Their selection and their career management is the most important single element of organizational success and should be jealously protected by the leadership, by you. Delegating this responsibility to a department that has no direct responsibility for the result of their selections – no matter how well intentioned the HR people may be – is a path to mediocrity at best, and often is a key factor in the failure of an organization.*

Now, in most cases when you arrive at a new position, particularly as a first time manager/leader, you will probably find that you have little to no say in who works for you. That is to be expected, as you will still be under a good deal of scrutiny as your boss tries to get the measure of you. However, you should make a point of insisting that you have some role in the selection process, even if you need to hire or replace someone a soon as you get there. This is necessary both for the organization’s benefit as well as your own: you need to begin to acquire the skill of reading people and fitting them to the task at hand and you should start as soon as possible. If you have never hired anyone this before, seek the advice of your peers and your boss, but make it clear that it is going to be your choice – good or bad. Identify the skills and traits you need in the position and focus on them.

You will now find that you don’t have enough time to ‘do it right’ and interview dozens of people; you will need to make a choice from a relatively small pool because time is short. This puzzle – hiring new folks is the most important thing you do versus you don’t have enough time to interview all the people you would like so you can make the best decision – is one of the facts of leadership. As I will discuss in a future article, one of the other ‘learned’ skills of good leaders is picking good people and getting them to ‘fit’ into the organization. Nevertheless, spend as much time as you can clearly identifying the skills and traits needed for a particular position, and then carve out as much time as possible to review potential candidates.

Begin by reviewing resumes or applications, and ask for inputs from your peers and others you trust. You won’t hire anyone based on a resume, but you might be able to eliminate him from contention. Focus on the hard data for this initial ‘sorting,’ specific skills and experiences. After you have narrowed the field somewhat, rank them and then ask someone else to do the same. If you have differences in how you ranked them, discuss the differences and then reappraise your rankings. Once you are satisfied with your rankings, schedule interviews with the top 5 or 6 – because that is probably all you have time for. Resolve that you are going to pick the best candidate out of this group.

As for the interview, focus on the tasks of your organization and its goals. Explain to the applicants what your organization is trying to do and let them talk about how they see themselves in your organization. Let them do the bulk of the talking. Take notes, and when the interview is finished, spend a few minutes alone writing down your observations.

When all the interviews are completed, you need to review your observations and decide. If one candidate stands out above the others, you are fortunate. But, there is no magic and easy answer at this point. You will probably find that it is a ‘coin toss’ between two candidates, two people who have equal credentials and impressed you in the interview. At this point you simply have to choose one of them. This skill will improve with experience, as you will acquire the ability to see more and more differences between nearly identical candidates, but, even then, this can be a difficult choice. Good Luck!

* It is worth noting that elite organizations have rigorous selection processes that normally involve lengthy “interviews” that last months at a time and give the entire senior leadership the opportunity to evaluate potential members. A look at Special Forces units reveals that they have a demanding screening program followed by lengthy basic courses of instruction and even longer advanced training programs. During these periods each candidate is frequently examined by the leadership and the ones who don’t fit are weeded out. The same process takes place in internships and residency programs in medicine.


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