Bob MacDonald on Business

Sage Advice for Superior Business Management

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When it Comes to Finding the Best Person for the Job – Potential Trumps Experience

December 21st, 2014 · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership

The most important qualification for filling a new job should be the Candidate’s potential for future growth, not past experience.

A recent feature story in the Minneapolis StarTribune titled “No Experience Necessary” extolled the virtues and success of northern Minnesota manufacturing company that has a policy of hiring people for their potential, rather than their experience. What qualified this approach to hiring as a feature story is that it is so contrary to the accepted “best practices” for hiring.

The most powerful and rarely questioned precedent for filling an open position is to find “the most qualified” individual available. All too often this fixation on the “most qualified,” will lead a company to search outside the organization because of the assumption that the value of experience gained by working for several companies is more valuable than experience with the company seeking to fill the opening. The first (and often only) commandment Hiring-Practices1in hiring seems to be is to find the person with the most experience in the same type of job and hire them. Despite this approach being endorsed by the HR automatons and those practitioners of doing it “the way it has always been done,” it is often the worst approach to hiring.

There is a certain appeal to focusing on hiring the “most experienced” person, but its greatest appeal is to serve as a convenient crutch for the insecure, unimaginative, disengaged or lazy manager to lean on. The assumption is that by hiring based on experience rather than potential, there is less work for the leader; the new person will fit right in and there is no investment needed to train and develop a newcomer.

In reality, experience in the job to be filled should be the least important consideration in the hiring process. In fact, experience should often be considered a detriment. In today’s world the established precedent of “most experienced” for filling a job opening is upside down and creates more chance for failure than success; and let me explain why.

For starters, if anyone finds themselves in need of going outside the organization in search of an experienced person to fill a job, it is a sign of failure to develop internal talent. When that happens on a regular basis it becomes a two-pronged attack on success in the future and will more than likely lead to failure. The experienced person brought in, more often than not, does not fit into the culture and the “experience” the gained was of the wrong type. At the same time, making a habit of hiring from the outside sends a clear signal to current employees that their experience – and potentially their potential – is not recognized or appreciated.

All too often this fixation on the “most qualified,” will lead a company to search outside the organization because of the assumption that the value of experience gained by working for several companies is more valuable than experience with the company seeking to fill the opening. To facilitate the search for the “most qualified” individual the company will contract with a search firm, collect and scrutinize oodles of resumes and conduct extensive interviews with perspective candidates. Resumes received are prioritized on the basis of the most qualifications and experience, rather than for the most potential for growth.

Following this “best practice” is a lazy way to fill an opening. Sure there is a lot of feverish activity following the precedent to find the most qualified candidate, but the truth is that it is a cop-out for what could be a great opportunity to build and strengthen an organization that goes beyond the single task of filling a job opening.

Now, the Right Way to Hire

Two cardinal principles should become the new approach for hiring the worthiest candidate to fill an opening. To start, every possible effort should be made to make the pending appointment from within the organization. Management should view the need to go outside the organization to find a qualified candidate as an act of desperation and a sign of developmental weakness within its culture—because it is. This type of action sends a message to all in the organization that none of them has the capacity to do the job and that the opportunity for internal development is not a priority of management.

Sure, many managers claim that they initially seek internal candidates and only look outside when it is determined that none are qualified. The problem is that most of these internal “searches” are limited and lack any semblance of creativity. For example, if there is an opening in Human Resources the “job posting” will always list experience in Human Resources as a requirement for the job. This limits the search and eliminates all individuals not currently in HR. Constraining the internal search provides the excuse for management to take the easy way out and rummage for a “highly qualified” candidate from the outside.

The way to break this stale and often fruitless cycle of hiring is to change the very definition of the type of candidate management is searching for to fill an opening. Instead of seeking the “most qualified” individual, the search should be to find the one “with the most potential for growth.” Admittedly, MostPotentialthis approach will make for more work and effort on the part of management, because it will tend to eliminate those who are already fully qualified for the job from an experience standpoint. If someone – especially from outside the company – has the experience of already doing the job, then by definition, there is not much room for growth. If they are willing to take the job, most likely it will be because they are failing, tired of the job they have with another company or they are simply looking for more money.

Finding the candidate with the “most potential” is often resisted because it can create more work – before and after the hire – for the manager. There is a misconception among many managers that once they find and hire the “most qualified” candidate, their job is basically finished. The assumption is that if the new hire is fully qualified to do the job, then all the manager has to do is get out of the way and let them have at it.

On the other hand, if the manager reaches out to find an individual who may have limited – or even no – experience in the new job, but has tremendous upside potential for growth, the manager will have to be closely involved in the support and development of the individual. The decision the find the individual with the “most potential” for growth requires vision, creativity and risk, but by accepting this challenge, the potential rewards for the manager, the individual and the organization are increased dramatically.

The vision is being able to recognize the potential in an individual, despite what experience they may or may not have. The creativity is the willingness to go against precedent and expand the search to all disciplines within the company. What law says a bright young person in the accounting department can’t – if given the desire, opportunity and support – be an effective leader in marketing? Who says that a talented young person in operations can’t be the perfect person to lead Human Resources? Why can’t a proven leader in Human Resources transfer that talent to operations? Of course, there is a risk that these individuals could become a fish out of water and fail, but if they really do have the desire and potential for growth and the manager provides necessary support and development, the risk is significantly mitigated.

The rewards for this type of rule-busting are significant: It is likely that most hires will come from within the organization, saving time and money. The individual given the opportunity to grow will be appreciative for the chance and do their best to prove it was the right decision. There will be a strong message sent to the entire organization that the opportunity for growth and development exists within the organization and individuals don’t need to look elsewhere; resulting in higher morale, lower turnover and improved productivity.

And the Moral of the Story …

The idea of using past experience as a guideline for hiring is an alluring promise as an effective way to save time, reduce risks and leap-frog the effort required to develop the potential internal talent, but it is a false promise. At its heart, this “best practice” locks a manager into a precedent that can – and does – constrain the ability and willingness to respond effectively to changed circumstances or to find a better way to do things. Managers can become successful leaders when they recognize the value of fresh potential over stale experience.


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“Best Practices” May be the Worst Practice

December 14th, 2014 · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Effective Leadership

Following the concept of “best practices” is trying to copy what others have done successfully, but without the creative ingenuity needed to achieve real success.

The road to leadership and management success is not an easy one, and there are many who fail to reach the desired destination. Those seeking success are inevitably confronted with potholes, perilously winding curves, blind corners, dead-ends, and bridges to nowhere. There is no question that these impediments can be discouraging and test the mettle of any success-seeking soul. The frustrations that come from facing these obstacles can weaken the resolve of those searching for success and make them susceptible to the illusion of time-saving short-cuts and the allure of “success made easy” promises. And there are those who – for a fee – will promise to divulge the secret to clear sailing and the shortcuts to success.

For the most part, however, these are false promises; nothing more than detours of slick pledges of easy success that fail to deliver. These assurances of BestPracticesuccess are offered by those I call the “medicine men” of the business world, a.k.a. consultants. One of the most insidious of these false promises of success is a concept that has in recent years gained widespread acceptance and promotion. It is the theory of “best practices.”

The essence of “best practices” is nothing more than a scheme invented by management consultants to serve as a type of perpetual annuity of fees paid by those seeking the yellow brick road to success. The concept is simple: If you copy the “best practices” used by successful people or organizations, then you will become successful as well. It is a “copy to create” strategy, but without the ingenuity needed for real success.

The conventional “wisdom” of best practices is that a leader can be more effective at delivering a specific outcome by following a standard way of doing things that has been established by other organizations. The promise is that success will be achieved if the processes, systems, checks and structure of other organizations are adopted. What has allowed the concept of “best practices” to become so accepted is the alluring, but false promise that success can come faster and with less effort simply by following, copying and repeating the procedures that have worked for other leaders and organizations.

The Sad Truth about BP

Unfortunately, the only ones to benefit from the wishful thinking that adapting “best practices” as a leadership or organizational philosophy are the consultants. Selling the proposed benefits of “best practices” allows the consultants to charge outrageous fees by offering prefabricated templates to standardize leadership and business process systems. At least selling best practices does make success easier for one group.

There are a number of fallacies and fool’s gold temptations in the promises of adapting best practices. The first of which is the assumption that all leaders and organizations are the same and that they face similar challenges and opportunities. Of course, this is simply and patently untrue. What distinguishes truly outstanding leaders is their individuality. And what distinguishes truly successful organizations is their unique culture.

While there are fundamental principles such as open communication, consistency, trustworthiness, respect for followers and high ethics that are common among successful leaders, a closer look at their application of will show that there are distinct differences in the style of these leaders and how the concepts are applied. The reality is that there are no “best practices” of real leadership that can be easily quantified and copied.

It is even more foolhardy to think that the processes and procedures – let alone the culture – of one organization are easily transferable to another. As with individuals, organizations develop their own unique style and culture. There is no doubt that a leader should seek out and instill best practices within an organization, but those best practices must be designed to leverage the culture and resources of the organization he/she leads, not those of a competitor. Companies come in all shapes, sizes and stages of development; each comes with its own culture. And it is as reckless to compare and overlay the best practices of one company on another.

I am not suggesting that you don’t study the style of leadership of others or understand what it is your competition is doing, but you ought to do that to do better than the competitor, not to become the same. Imitation may be the sincerest of flattery, but blatantly copying the management styles of others is a type of “me-tooism” that simply doesn’t work. Nor am I suggesting that “consultants” cannot play an important role in the search for success, but it should be more as a “mentor” challenging management to find new ways and making their own decisions as to the best way to do things, not just to copy the “best practices” of others.

There is an even greater risk that comes with falling prey to the fascination of a best practices philosophy. Adopting a “best practices” style of leadership or the processes of other organizations legitimizes sameness and mediocrity; it stifles innovation and encourages bureaucracy. Ingenuity, which is the real fuel of success, is lost. Once you believe that the best way to achieve your organizational objectives is to adopt the best practices of other leaders or organizations, there is no reason to attempt to discover a better or more innovative way to achieve objectives.

Moreover, what might be best practice of 10 or 20 years ago may not be best practice today. Just ask Blockbuster Video or Circuit City. If you think the path to achieving success for your organization rests with process and procedure lifted from others, then you are following—not leading. Process and procedure creates a bureaucracy that rejects innovation and effort. In reality, “best practices” encourages you to attempt to be successful by doing what the competition does. This is wrong. The way to beat the competition is by being better than the competition, not by doing what they do.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you want to be successful, develop your own style and your own best practices. Don’t be fooled by the false promise that the easy, simple path to success is to study what others do and copy them. Yes, study what others do, not to do what they do, but to do what they do better.

“Best practices” is a wonderful idea and a philosophy. However, they should be the best practices that you develop in your leadership style and the practices that best fit the strength and culture of your organization. In short, the best practices you can adopt to overcome the obstacles to success are the practices that others will want to copy.

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The Best Way to the Top is to Look to the Bottom (But not the boss’)

December 7th, 2014 · Business Ethics, Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership

When working your way to the top of an organization it is better to be pushed up than pulled up

At the start of any career, getting to the top looks like a long and arduous journey. The climb to the pinnacle of any corporate pyramid is considered so tricky and fraught with so many seemingly impenetrable obstacles that thousands of books and articles have been written purporting to the offer the secret route to the apex of corporate power.

For the most part, these lessons in corporate ladder-climbing suggest that the climber look to those above them for a helping hand. The idea is to try to kissing-assimpress, curry favor, ingratiate and kowtow to those above you; all in the misguided hope that they will pull you up the ladder to power. This strategy for getting to the top is succinctly categorized as the practice of “ass-kissing.”

And ass-kissing must work, since so many people have done it for so long. In fact, from a very young age we are conditioned and trained to use this technique to get ahead. Children learn early on that acting sweet and nice in front of adults, no matter how they may act with peers and siblings, will invariably get them treats. Most are so indoctrinated in the dissemination of false flattery and insinuating themselves into the good graces of those in authority, that by the time they graduate from college they are ready to turn pro. This preparation is deemed essential, because it is a generally accepted dictum in the business world that admission into the elite corporate inner sanctum comes only to those who have proven their proficiency at kissing the asses of those above.

At the same time, we are encouraged to facilitate this ass-kissing task by using those below us in the pecking order as stepping-stones so as to be properly positioned to pucker our lips. (All the while expecting those below us to perform the same function. Much like a chain ass-kiss.)

Down the Up Staircase

The truth is that this concept is ass-backward. In reality, the surest, fastest, safest and most secure way to the top is to pay more attention to the needs, plans, desires and motivations of those below you. By adopting this contrarian approach to career-climbing, the respect you show for those who work for you (after all, they know you don’t have to do that) will motivate them to join together, work hard and push you up. In practical terms, it is much better to have a broad basis of support pushing you up than it is to depend on the idiosyncrasies of a few above you to pull you up.

But don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in offering deference and respect to those with greater experience and higher in the pecking order – if they deserve it! And even if they don’t, it is appropriate to show respect for the position, if not for the individual. Our bosses deserve loyalty, respect, and support – until they do something to prove otherwise. But those qualities are best delivered honestly – face to face – not by false flattery and bending over to find an ass to kiss.

I know that it seems like pure Pollyanna to suggest that this anti-ass-kissing strategy will work in the real world, but that is because so few have the courage to employ it; not that it won’t work. There are so many real world examples of the weakness of power when it is focused at the top and the broad base of real power that comes from below, it amazes me that more in the corporate world don’t recognize this reality and use it for their benefit.

Remember back to the days of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. Poland had been sucked into the orbit of the Soviet Union. The power in Poland was consolidated at the top and supported by the military strength of the USSR. If ever there was an ass-kissing society, this was one. The only way one could survive, let alone move up, was with some very serious ass-kissing. Then there was this guy Lech Walesa. He was a lowly electrician in the Lenin Shipyard (now the Putin Shipyard) in Poland. He was about as far down as possible on the political power-grid, but he was anything but an ass-kisser of those above him. He certainly was not helped from above, but he ended up leading the overthrow of the Russian ass-kissing government and ultimately became president of a free Poland. So what happened? Walesa looked down, not up. Appealing to the needs and desires of the masses of powerless people he was able to congeal the efforts of the many to create a power force that ejected those at the top and pushed Walesa up.

Think of it another way: The most powerful natural force on earth is the volcano. How is this power demonstrated? Rocks and debris are hurled thousands of feet in the air and miles away from the volcano, but they are not sucked out of the volcano, they are ejected by a massive force that pushes up from the bottom.

Sure, these examples are a bit grandiose and unlike anything any of us will encounter in our own day-to-day corporate battles, but the fundamental concept demonstrating that real power always works its way from the bottom up and not the top down is relevant – even in the more mundane task of corporate ladder-climbing. It is the recognition of where real power comes from that is important in these examples, because it helps us to understand that the best way to move up is to be pushed up not pulled up. When we recognize that fundamental fact, it not only allows us to see the ultimate futility of ass-kissing for what it is, but more importantly it offers a better strategy for moving up.

My experience in business taught me that the pathway to real and lasting success came from helping others be successful – not the dead-end of ass-kissing. Although I do plead guilty to sometimes playing the fun game of faux ass-kissing, simply to mock those who lived by and fed off it (oh, the stories I could tell about that.) Anyway, the reality is that if we will look down the ladder, instead of up it, and help the people below to be successful, then they will push us up.

I learned early on the rule of “power of numbers” in trying to accomplish my goals. There was a limited amount I could do alone – and even less if I spent time ass-kissing. However, if I could support and motivate those below me, then a lot more could be accomplished and my fortunes would rise with the tide. When you are sincere and honest in your efforts to protect and help those below you to achieve their own personal success, they become a base of support that gives you immense power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Don’t be beguiled by the value of kissing up to your superiors, regardless of how far you ascend the corporate ladder. Deferential? Yes. Toadying? No. Ass-kissing? Never. Break the culture of corporate ass-kissers by stepping out; concentrate on being the best at what you do, accept responsibility and most of all, build a solid foundation of support by looking down the ladder, not up.

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