Saturday, September 20, 2008

Intelligent Hiring for Clueless Managers

I used to have a rule that I wouldn’t hire anyone to do a job I hadn’t first done myself. It was a good rule. It's become more difficult, though, as our company has grown and lately I’ve found myself interviewing candidates for jobs I could never do. Accurately assessing a candidate’s true abilities is difficult enough. It’s even harder when you don’t possess them yourself. Here are a few things that have helped me.

Go to “School”. While you may not be able to fully learn the job itself before filling it, you should still learn as much as possible about the job. Quiz friends and colleagues with experience in that job. Ask them what you should be looking for in strong candidates and what to watch out for. Probe deeply into what they really do every day, and have them help you flesh out exactly what elements of it would be most important to your company’s needs. Solicit their help in writing the job description. And of course, get their recommendations for possible candidates.

Don’t Fake It. When interviewing candidates for jobs you have little or no experience with, don’t pretend that you do. If the candidate uses a term you don’t know, stop them and ask them to define it. Trying to appear smarter than you are will only ensure you remain in ignorance. Be sure they explain exactly what they did day-to-day in each of their previous jobs, and that they do it in language you understand. This will also help you hire a candidate who can speak your language and communicate what they are doing clearly to you. Hiring an “expert” who can’t communicate on your level will only lead to frustration down the road.

Hire Experience. For some positions, it simply makes good economic sense to hire young, energetic candidates that can be easily trained and motivated. This is NOT one of those times. If you need to fill a role that you do not have extensive experience in yourself, hire someone who does. A novice (that’s you) managing a beginner is a recipe for disaster.

Look for “Manageability.” During the interview, and especially when checking references, pay particular attention to how easily the candidate got along with their bosses and management. Watch out for big egos. Dealing with big egos is hard enough with people who think they know more than you. It’s next to impossible when they really do. When going through their work history in the interview, ask the candidate to describe each of their bosses in detail and assess for you both their technical ability and their overall management ability. Pay close attention if the candidate seems to only really respect the bosses who had strong technical ability in their particular field, since you obviously don’t.

Of course, none of this gets you off the hook for learning as many of the job functions in your organization as possible – especially the core functions. There is simply no substitute for first-hand experience. Work the numbers. Work the phones. Work the warehouse. Go on sales calls. Do tech support. Handle service complaints. Yes, hire well, delegate, and empower – but never, ever abdicate your responsibility to know what your people do. Too often “empowerment” is simply code for abandonment.

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