In a relentless effort to achieve sustainable competitive advantage, leaders of the past demonstrated a decided preference for recruiting people with needed technical skills. Twelve years ago, I wrote a blog on this topic emphasizing the lack of appreciation of what are often called “the soft skills.” These include the qualities required for collaboration, adaptability, resilience and creative problem solving, among others. You can always rent the hard skills to solve problems that demand specialized expertise but you must buy the soft skills in the talent you intend to develop.
That early blog was aimed at my primary audience: those I define as smart leaders. I referenced a twenty-year study of leadership effectiveness conducted by Stanford University’s School of Business which concluded that, while 15% of one’s success in leading organizations comes from technical knowledge, 85% is a consequence of the ability to connect with people, engender trust and build mutual understanding.
Like everything else in life, things change. Today that happens at warp speed. According to the Business Council of Canada, industry-specific technical knowledge is no longer among the top five attributes sought in new hires. The #1 skill employers now want is the ability to work with others. (Conversely, employees rank “a purpose-driven and caring mindset”as the number #1 trait they want to see in their leaders. But that is a different topic for a different blog.)
Buying the potential to grow is the indispensable imperative of every high performance organization today. Without that, you’re destined to perish. It’s just a matter of time. The typical vehicle used to discover this trait – the employment interview – needs to be rethought in the context of our increasingly complex, uncertain business environment. A good hiring process is supposed to tell recruiters why a candidate will be a positive addition to their workforce. As routinely practised, this is a crap shoot. It’s easy for candidates to make a positive first impression but what really counts in finding the right hire is far more important and enduring than one’s initial perceptions.
The reasons bad hiring is common are many. In random order, they include interviewer bias – hiring those who appear to be like us because that’s who we like the most. Unconscious biases influence every recruiter’s decisions. Credible research confirms that attractive people are rated as more competent, intelligent and qualified. We assume taller people will be better leaders, particularly when evaluating men. (This is one reason most leaders are men and taller than average.) We also view people with deeper pitched voices as more trustworthy than those with higher vocals. Other examples abound.
Using same-old questions that have been asked for generations tell us little about what we really need to know in our ambiguous, volatile world. Standard, cookie-cutter queries do little more than nudge the interviewee to respond with answers that fit what we assume may be needed (but actually isn’t). These predictable interrogatories include inane questions like: What’s your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Or why are you leaving your current job?
The answers to poorly thought out questions rarely unearth the high potentials every organization so desperately needs. Overwhelmed by a pressing need and tight time lines to choose the right person, interviewers frequently make snap, knee-jerk emotional judgments based on limited information. Or at least information that doesn’t speak to the essential objective of the search process.
As indicated in an earlier blog, people lie or bend the truth during interviews and few recruiters know how to detect or see through fraudulent claims. Indeed, given the usual questions with which any good candidate is already familiar, the job interview actually encourages deception. Minimally, candidates engage in nuanced forms of confabulation or deceit, like taking credit for things they haven’t done or framing answers, practised to perfection, to fit what they think will likely be asked.
In my experience, few organizations have any clue about what constitutes the essential attributes of a “high potential.” When I’ve asked, the standard reply is “people who have potential.” Well, everyone has potential. But high potentials are a cut above the ordinary. Gallup tells us for example that only “1 in 10″ can be a high-performance manager. That’s because the deliverable is extraordinary performance. In my judgement, there are five critical markers that qualify one as capable of becoming extraordinary: the candidate must prove herself to be a continuous learner, demonstrable change agent, operationally savvy, adaptable and resilient, and, above all, trustworthy.
So how do you hire the best? You hire for what can’t be taught but that can and will make all the difference in the world to your enterprise – truthfulness and potential. As noted, everything else can be taught. Design questions that measure these requisite attributes. Then assess all candidates quantitatively (as a fair basis of comparison) not qualitatively (where biases invariably come into play).
A structured format with predetermined criteria and rules for scoring responses in a reliable manner is superior to unstructured interviews which allow interviewer biases and preconceptions to creep into the evaluation of these competencies. I’ve identified eight questions that can inform leaders on that count. Among them, you need to know whether they can honestly take responsibility for their actions (rather than blame others), how they really feel about those to whom they must report, whether they have a track record of good business acumen, and can act independently and creatively.
You also want to know whether their expectations about what constitutes high performance is reasonable, whether they’re genuinely buying into your business purpose and philosophy or just looking for a paycheque, whether they’re consistently accountable, are willing to ask for help when needed, and whether they acknowledge and value the spirit of collaborative effort. In other words, your questions must quantify the potential you seek. Because what can be measured usually gets delivered.