Asking the right questions


People decisions are the hardest decisions to make. And it all starts with hiring the right people. Few managers have ever received meaningful and professional training for what is one of their most important activities. Yet most of them rank their abilities to select the right candidates highly. Reality, however, does not look so good. In a 2009 international study looking at 20,000 employees globally, the US consulting firm LeadershipIQ found that 46 per cent of all hires failed within the first 18 months. This did not always mean that they left their new organisations but they did not meet the expectations that were set. So what are the mistakes we make in the selection process and what can we do to avoid them in the future?

Cloning ourselves

If we do not know what we are looking for, it will be hard to find it. Or, as psychologist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick put it many years ago: "as we lost sight of our goal, we doubled our efforts." What we often see in hiring decisions is that managers select candidates who are a lot like them. This is not too much of a surprise: after all, they have had success in their careers; otherwise they would not be where they are now. So they look for copies of themselves in the hope that their new hires will be as successful as they themselves have been. Most of the time, this happens on a subconscious level. But the results can be damaging. Take an extroverted, results-driven, decisive, no-nonsense CEO: if she selects her new direct reports with the same attributes, the organisation might eventually lack the analytical and comvisionary skills needed to create the necessary balance to reach their goals.

"If we do not know what we are looking for, it will be hard to find it. Or, as Paul Watzlawick put it: 'as we lost sight of our goal, we doubled our efforts.' "

What we have to define before we begin the selection process is what exactly the new person needs to bring to the table to be successful. What business problems has he been able to solve, what skills must he possess, what crisis should he have overcome, what values are important to him, how quickly does he learn, how does he cooperate in a team and how does he operate under pressure? These are some of the questions we have to be able to answer about each candidate. They are at the core of the job profile we need to put together before we start our search.

First impressions

As we react to our candidates' handshake, body language, voice, clothing, eye contact and much more, we form an intuitive reaction within the first 15 seconds of meeting them. Most of what we register is not part of the job profile. But if we are not careful, we might use the remaining 59 minutes and 45 seconds of the interview to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. How we react in the very beginning, of course, is not accidental. The first impression we form (and again it mostly happens in our subconscious) is a reflection of our own values, perceptions and assumptions. It helps to raise these to a conscious level and gain clarity on our 'hot buttons', the things, good and bad, that often predetermine our assessment of people. Does the fact that the candidate arrived for the interview five minutes late lead us to disqualify her as unreliable or do we shrug it off as something that can happen to all of us? Knowing ourselves and our trigger points is not just helpful in evaluating candidates: it is the key to successfully managing others. In his 1999 book Management Challenges in the 21st Century, Peter F. Drucker wrote: "to be successful you will have to develop a deep understanding of yourself. Not just what your strengths and weaknesses are, but also how you learn, how you co-operate with others, what values you have and how you can contribute the most."