In the June 9, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a manager asks how managers hire.
When you’re hiring, how do you know who you want to hire? By that I mean, how do you identify the job you need done, the skills and potential for growth you require in a job candidates? I admit I’ve made some hiring mistakes as a manager, but it’s awfully hard to pinpoint what I’ve done wrong. It’s just as hard to figure out what I did right when I picked my best staff members!
I don’t think the problem for most managers is knowing what they want. If they don’t know what work needs to be done, they have no business managing.
Managers hire for profit
If you have doubts about what a job is all about, here’s a good test: It must involve work that is profitable to the company. If it’s not profitable, question the legitimacy of the job.
Of course, this means you must understand how the work of each one of your employees fits into the big profit picture. Most managers I’ve said this to roll their eyes and tell me they’re not finance managers and it’s not their job. If they really believe that, they need to sit down with their company’s CFO and figure it out. Profitability is every manager’s job. Or, why are you even a manager?
The problems with hiring
But let’s focus on hiring.
I think the challenge for most managers lies in the faulty hiring process they’ve been taught. This process emphasizes talk rather than demonstration, and personality rather than ability. It hampers their ability to hire well.
There seem to be two main problems with how managers hire.
Problem 1: Hiring to the job description
Most managers know what they need to get a job done. However, they are usually saddled with over-written, static job descriptions that better serve the requirements of a Human Resources applicant tracking system (ATS) than the ever-changing needs of their company.
Don’t believe me? Is your own job and the work you do today the same as your original job description? How much has your job changed since you started it? (I’ve asked this question of hundreds of times. All I ever get is bitter laughs.)
When a manager interviews to fill the job description, that may satisfy HR. But is it going to meet the manager’s changing, evolving needs? Worse, is HR sending candidates to the manager just because their resumes and applications contain words that match words in the static job description?
Hiring to the job description is a mistake. (The problem of job descriptions themselves is for another discussion.)
Problem 2: Managers hire people they like
Generally speaking, managers are schooled by HR experts in the art of interviewing, if they’re schooled at all. But, what does HR know about hiring anyone but HR staff? HR is not schooled in specific work disciplines like engineering and marketing. Consequently, HR’s interview instructions tend to emphasize only general attributes, mostly relating to personality and attitude.
Managers that know what they want often don’t dare ask candidates to deliver it because to do so would violate the traditional rules of interviewing. Whoever heard of putting a job candidate in a room with all the tools they need and asking them to demonstrate how they would do the job?
Instead, managers learn to sit and talk banalities with applicants. Even managers who know what work they need done end up hiring workers based on irrelevant rules and criteria that have been hammered into their brains by an antiquated and ineffective employment system.
An executive of a multinational telecommunications firm complained to me that his company keeps making the same mistake. “We hire based on personality,” he said. “More specifically, we hire people we like because the interview methods we use don’t really reveal whether the person can do the work.”
Put another way, managers focus too much on who they want, rather than on what work they need to have done. “To hire” does not mean to acquire a worker; it means to acquire the use of (that is, pay for) certain services to get certain work done. The focus must be on the person’s services and on the work. Unfortunately, most managers have absolutely no concrete proof that a job candidate can do the necessary work until after they hire them to do it. This never comes up in the interview, because the manager is too busy trying to “assess the candidate.”
Can the person do the work you need done?
The hiring process has become warped into a personality assessment. Consider the common questions asked in interviews: What is your greatest strength? Your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Such questions are so general and meaningless that hundreds of books are available to teach you how to respond with equally trite answers. But what has any of this to do with the work a manager needs done? Next to nothing.
In what I call The New Interview, the manager and the candidate work together on a “live” problem or task. This maintains a focus on the work that needs to be done, rather than on the keywords in a job description. The best example task is one that clearly affects the profitability of the department. My guess is that, if you were to review your interviews against the success of your hires, either you’ve just gotten lucky some of the time, or your best hires actually showed you they could do the work.
In my experience, if an interviewer conducts such a working meeting with sleeves rolled up and focuses on an actual work task, the candidate will quite naturally reveal their personality, attitudes, skills, growth potential and “fit” on other scales. It comes out in the conversation and in the shared experience of working together during the meeting — just like it does at work. No clever interview questions are required. (You’ll still learn whether you like the candidate, but your opinion will be based mostly on whether they can do the job!)
What’s a manager’s job?
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve heard me say this before. A good manager should be spending 10-15% of their time every week identifying, recruiting and cultivating people to fill current or future positions. Hiring is a key management function and you need to develop your skills to do it well.
A job candidate must be able to do the work. If you don’t — or cannot — directly assess this, why are you even a manager? I mean no offense, but I suggest you think about it.
If you’re a manager, how do you hire? Do you put 10-15% of every week into hiring? Who was the best “hiring” manager you’ve ever known, and how did they do it? What are the worst hiring practices you’ve encountered?
“But, what does HR know about hiring anyone but HR staff?”
This. Right. Here.
@L.T.: It wouldn’t be so bad if HR just admitted this and conceded, and went on with its work handling payroll and benefits.
As a recovering HR Professional, i would suggest that HR is clueless when it comes to hiring HR people. Or as one former Manager of mine once said (not an HR person) ” HR people are usually C people. C people usually hire D people. ” Rather profound.
@Dave: How much does liability figure in to your decisions? For example, does the practice of ghosting candidates reduce liability? If hauled in to court, you can honestly say, “we did not communicate any form of a rejection to this person,” and it is even truthful! You didn’t communicate. Taking it one step further, you could point to the candidate tracking system and say, “we show nothing beyond the original application.” Is this what’s going on? I have been interviewed by about 5 potential employers who paid to fly me out to their location, and they never wrote back, and never responded. You would think that someone would ask, “and what about this expense? What became of the candidate?”
Truthfully I don’t believe that HR is smart enough to be that tactical. Recruiting has been so broken for so long in corporate America. This blog nails the reasons and defines the problem clearly again and again. Expectations of HR generally and of their recruitment process are low and deservedly slow within corporations. Why management allows this broken process to continue baffles me.
I guess there was an official HR description of the jobs I hired for, but I never wasted my time reading it. If I didn’t know the requirements of that job better than HR, I should have been fired. I was lucky enough to work with good HR people mostly, and they never dreamed of telling me the questions I should be asking, which were mostly heavily technical.
I hired a lot of people for research jobs where the connection to profit isn’t that clear. I looked for creativity and independence. Was their PhD research on something their adviser dictated or did they come up with new and innovative ideas?
And amen to your position that a manager should spend a lot of time cultivating potential hires. I discovered the best hire I made in my last job at a conference. His talk was highly innovative, and I knew his adviser so I could check him out. I had to hack the hiring system a bit to get him on board (his excellent university wasn’t on the official list) but he was a life saver. Better than we deserved at that point, but when you are a new graduate someone coming to talk to you about a job is very convincing.
@Scott: Conferences have always been one of my favorite places to recruit, even when I wasn’t working on a search assignment. (Keeping the larder full!) Attendees in general are not expecting to be recruited, which makes talking with them and making friends so much easier.
Formal interviews are not common in my department. I encourage staff to invite people whom they think would be good candidates in the future to department gatherings. I also spend time recruiting at industry events and professional group settings. At any given time, I have at least 3 good candidates that I could call and say I know them on a professional level.
@Jonathan: Cool! Nothing tells a person you already think highly of them when you invite them to a department gathering. If you later invite them for an interview, half your job of recruiting is already done! I’m guessing your success rate with offers is pretty high.
Please help me with “hiring people we like” vs. “is that person a good fit with the existing culture”. I think personality may affect profitability to a greater or lesser degree depending on a number of factors.
@Tony: I agree with your point that personality can affect profitability. I can’t prove it, but I believe ability to do the job can be assessed pretty directly and pretty objectively — and pretty quickly. Personality, not so much. A person’s social behavior can vary depending on context. I’ve interviewed really nice people I liked. But put them in with the existing group, and they’re somebody else. Likewise, I’ve gotten references on highly talented candidates where I was told they were psychos. Turned out they had some issues, but in a new setting they became quite sociable and friendly. My point is, judging personality is a crap-shoot, even if you administer personality tests.
Unscientific as it is, on personality and cultural fit, I trust my gut most of the time. (If I’m still not sure, I may try to get the candidate into one or two more “live work” settings to watch them interact with other team members.)
In my experience, when a manager turns the interview into a hands-on working meeting, good candidates relax because now they’re talking shop — something they know about, are comfortable with and are confident about. The Q&A nature of interviews can be stressful. You don’t see the real person. Working together is a disarming experience. I think an observant manager will see most of what they need to know in such an interaction.
If there’s a good comfort level in that admittedly limited interaction, and skills and compatibility look good, I think profitable work is very likely — if the manager is also good at mentoring, guiding and developing the new hire.
I find that with managers that overall job satisfaction is low. (This applies to engineering mainly – I’ll comment in a moment on work in the world of being a music director and organist in a church – my other career area.)
Most engineering managers consider themselves overworked, and they miss the actual technical work. Their days are filled with meetings. Hiring is one of these things they don’t do too often, and when that is scheduled, they just need to hurry up and get through it.
My current manager, in spite of his own low job satisfaction, does make it pleasant to work for our company. I told him that. Also, I had first been interviewed by him nearly 2 years ago. Yes, he liked me, but he said from day one that I was one of these people who could obviously do the work. Right now, we are doing some critical testing of high reliability equipment, and it requires us engineers to do the hands on work.
A few months ago I had my second and final interview with my current company. My manager’s manager asked a technical question that I had a hard time answering. Bad interview! A week later the headhunter said that I came across as very nervous and that they really weren’t interested. She was offering to work on interview skills with me.
One Friday early in the morning I got a call that I was being offered the job. Before I accepted, I insisted on talking to the manager. The following Monday, we had a frank discussion. He told me straight out what the concerns had been and about discussions that ensued.
I may not known a certain answer, but my manager felt I could do the work. He said that I am doing well.
Most engineers don’t want to be managers. So how can we make for more job satisfaction with managers?
Let’s talk religion. I am a veteran church organist and music director (while my undergraduate degree is in engineering, my graduate degree is in organ performance and church music). By definition, this is a management position. Where I was working as a full time director and organist, I had 2 or 3 staff members and managed several volunteers. In addition, I was responsible for music for weddings and funerals. As you can imagine, there would be moments of tense discussion. At the time I worked in a denomination that is very hierarchical and patriarchal. Likewise, I sometimes had to make decisions that I knew would disappoint people. In addition, I once had to ask someone to leave the choir (that decision was a real heartbreaker).
So what worked? First, I was in a position which was de facto management. I prepared for it. Second, I had people I could lean on when I had a tough situation. Third, I had a mentor outside of my job.
Clergy persons (my boss would always be a clergy person) are under enormous stress these days as well. It’s so bad that with one denomination the church liability insurance company stepped in and said clergy were required to keep their total hours under a certain number per week (I think it was 55 hours.). Misconduct tends to occur when one works extensive overtime.
In religious work, the hours are long and the pay is low. You are held to a high standard. Another stress with clergy persons: What happens if you no longer believe the tenets of your faith?
A Unitarian Universalist minister who had attended a Christian seminary said that many of her classmates lost their faith while in school but were continuing on anyway because they had gone too far and didn’t have any other skills (the Unitarian Universalist Association is a liberal religious organization that does not require you to believe a certain way – you do need to subscribe to a set of principles such as respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person – definitely a virtue I agree with). So there is further stress. At least the UU minister will not be required to prove a certain belief! (In UU congregations, one minister may be Buddhist, another a Christian, and another an atheist – and they work together.)
I think in both of my fields that managers do not know how to delegate responsibilities. As an employee I try to think of how to make my manager’s job easier.
The problem is we don’t teach management skills. By the way, every employee should be concerned about profitability.
@Kevin: “The problem is we don’t teach management skills.”
It’s a rare company that does. And hiring is a management skill.
I don’t think I’d have the views I do today if I had not started my headhunting career working with EEs (electronics engineers). Many times I saw EEs promoted to management jobs they did not want, because it was the only way up the salary ladder. The best companies I dealt with had divergent tracks. Engineers who preferred to remain individual contributors and wanted nothing to do with being managers could advance and earn more up the engineering branch. Those who wanted to be managers could give it a try and move along another path. Many were the ones that chose management only to go back down and move back up the technical side. At least these companies made the distinction.
Management can be learned in school or on the job with good mentors, as long as the former get on-the-job training as well. There’s a quote from Richard Farson I love: Management is not about planning. It’s about coping. That takes long experience.
I really don’t put 10-15% of my time into hiring practices. Instead I spend 25% of my time on average assessing the marketplace and what consumers are doing and how our competition is dealing with various developments and issues. Once a week I analyze my findings to determine if or what adjustments we should make. Once this is concluded, I review my current staff and determine who can best handle whatever changes or innovations need to be done. This usually takes place once per month because I don’t want to make knee jerk reaction decisions. The focus is on determining developing trends and not abberations.
Part of my regular routine is making sure my people are involved with changes to the marketplace. We have periodic skull sessions whereby I present an issue and garner their feedback. If a suggestion has merit, I make the necessary change. My focus is always on retaining qualified staff rather than seeking new hires. I’ve found that via discussion, my staff not only has pertinent insight, but the qualifications to adjust to marketplace developments. Many times individuals want to stretch their wings and take on new challenges. When given the opportunity, they respond well. We haven’t had to hire anyone new in 5 years and the profitability remains such we not only are sustainable but have a steady influx of people wanting to work for us.
The best manager I’ve ever had treated me with respect, sought out my thoughts on certain issues and allowed me to utilize my skills and also to develop my skill level. The result was I also found ways to develop new skills that benefited the company. Needless to say, I’ve incorporated some of his methods into my current position.
The worst manager I’ve ever had was a two-faced, glad-hander who had the Crest smile but the mind of a jerk. He was not honest, was a back stabber and created an environment whereby no one stayed more than one year. Get the picture here?
What companies are lacking today are true leaders. Too many so-called managers are mere lackeys looking to build their resume or placed in positions they really are qualified for. My reaction to the “manager” who posed today’s question is the type that could be out on the street as companies re-assess their infrastructure due to the pandemic virus. My belief is that certain companies that are struggling, as well as those seeking to capitalize on opportunities available due to the virus situation, will make changes across the board in every department. Some will be good and some bad, the marketplace will give the final grade.
@Da Manager: You’re a rare bird. I’d love to hear what others think of your position that existing employees can usually handle whatever new work comes up. I agree with you. Good employees are virtually unlimited (and untapped) resources to a good manager that respects and rewards them appropriately.
Think about this scenario: A talented, successful employee decides it’s time to move on and gets another job at another company that recognizes the person’s acumen and abilities.
Why does this happen? Because the employee’s manager is not you.
The new company offers the person new stuff to do and maybe more money, so they move. If the person had a really good manager, the manager would find and give them more new stuff to do — to everyone’s benefit. In this scenario, the existing employer and the employee both win. The employer doesn’t need to hire another employee and the employee doesn’t have to go looking for a better job.
This is really a profound message you’ve shared. If a manager knows how to handle and exploit all the work that needs to be done, and all the talent already on hand, employees will happily work close to their capacity, which most of the time is hardly approached. Keep them engaged and keep them paid well, and you save tons of money while growing your people as well as your business.
You don’t need to spend 15% of your time recruiting if you spend it identifying profitable work your employees can do, and helping them do it.
Thanks for that eye-opener.
I can say point blank, my last job(I changed careers), didn’t exist until I was hired, I worked as a temp for a couple months. The job evolved due to the business analyst quitting. I literally took over. For a little context, I worked for a medical funding company. They introduced a new web-based portal; I became the front-end developer. I worked with the back-end team, I wrote the manuals, set up user accounts, and troubleshooted tech problems, and held training sessions.
That was the best experience I could ask for, without dealing with ATS or HR valley girls. My concern now is with this Wuhan Virus, networking has been upended, events are not being held. I have had interviews with companies that have hiring freezes.
SAG, I humbly suggest that if you could offer to companies what DM MGR talked about in (his) last paragraph, you will find work.
Most companies right now are in chicken-with-head-cut-off mode. They are really wondering if they are going to make it. If you can put together a package for a few companies in your industry to show them how they can first survive and then prosper, the smart one will hire you before their competition does.
I’m doing that within my company right now. The head of InfoSec sent out an email recently, warning us of a phishing scam. I sent him a direct reply, explaining that I have recently earned education in InfoSec, myself. He called me later and explained his need, and I told him why I was the guy to help him. He is now “grooming” me to move over to his department by paying for my training and tests for the necessary certifications.
Ironically, and as a testament to what Nick teaches, the company I am working for now is the first one I got hired into after I learned how to be the profitable hire, and especially how to network with the people who do the hiring. I had moved away from this company for a while, but back in February, got a call from my old manager, who was wondering if I knew anybody who was looking. I was looking, so now I’m back with this company again. (Just in time, too, because I started just as many other companies were laying people off.)
That is DA MGR …
What I’ve found, in addition to all of the points/problems Nick discusses in his answer, is that too many managers are doing “just in time” hiring, as in, they need someone yesterday, or someone leaves, and they don’t consider filling the vacancy until the remaining employees start quitting because they can’t do their jobs plus the extra duties or because suddenly it becomes apparent that the vacant job is causing problems–projects aren’t getting done, revenue is down, etc. Then there’s a mad scramble.
And yes, there are far too many managers who defer/cave to HR. I’m in agreement with Nick and L.T. re limiting HR’s role in hiring in non-HR jobs to on-boarding (making sure that taxes are deducted and benefits accrue and that the new hire gets paid on time). A smart HR dept. would let non-HR depts. do their own hiring and interviewing. But too many don’t, and there are too many managers who are happy to let HR handle hiring, then they can complain about the talent shortage or other such nonsense without taking any responsibility or blame.
Thank you for such a thoughtful reply to the OP’s question, as it reminds me that there is a commonsense solution. The challenge is finding commonsense managers. I know they exist, but they hide very well. I’ve learned to walk away from those who will talk to me, but then tell me I have to go through HR.
The writer seems to be searching for the Holy Grail of a perfect hiring track record. It’s not there. Hiring’s a risk. Best you can shoot for, is reducing the risk. The same is true for applicants searching for the perfect job..
I became a manager in the computer industry (R&D) about 6 years after I re-entered the work force after a tour in the Marines. I didn’t even ask myself if I wanted to be a manager. It offered more money, I thought it was my due. Nor did anyone ask me if I viewed management as a career, just if I wanted the job. Not the same thing. When you came down to it, I was the only one conveniently located available.Zero training. OJT.
And over the years I can’t recall any manager peers who said they became a manager because they saw management as their core career. They pretty much took it on for the same reasons I did. What didn’t help was the tendency in IT to make their best techies managers, often resulting in a crappy manager & the loss of their best technicians. As Nick says, eventually smart companies offered a dual path with tech jobs equal in pay to managers. And I noted in earlier discussions I never ran across any in depth & mostly, no interviewing interest in management skills, just their techie know how. The idea that one could be a professional manager and manage people with missions & skill sets outside your own..say for example a software manager managing EE’s. Horrors!
As Nick noted, I never stopped recruiting for a # of reasons. Mainly being I learned the hard way via strict feast or famine budgets. There were periods of famine you may only get permission to hire (aka hiring requisition REQ) with the life of a quark. It’s here. It’s gone. If you were wise you’d be able to immediately pick up the phone and call someone condense it to “I can hire..you still interested?” Someone you’ve already personally vetted and with whom you’ve kept in contact. ditto for contractual
My personal recruiting style is time consuming. I don’t agree in not talking. I want a conversation with you. Admittedly, back in my hiring manager days, most of my talking was tutorial & sales. A good
part of my career was in the Software Development world of Computer Companies, founded by those EE’s mentioned by Nick. Real men developed hardware and/or manufactured it. Software was an abstract to the execs with a background rooted in the tangibility of hardware. Software? Necessary evil. I lived & worked in a software island in a hardware sea. And I managed the QA side, Software QA, an abstract of an abstract. So what I wanted most, was people who understood it, and once understanding it, wanted to do it. So I invested my time explaining what SQA was to me, and selling them on the idea of giving it a shot. And I was competing from the same pool as the developers, who borrowing from their hardware peers, believed real men and women developed, inferior beings tested which is what they thought QA was.
As to coding or technical expertise…I directed them to my leads. If an applicant had the time I liked to let them spend the day with us, and shadow a programmer, or one of the leads, including meetings etc. So they knew what a day in the life in the group was like, Including the “culture”, the plusses & minuses, including the shortcomings (and hopefully my plusses) of working for me. To the chagrin of my development competitors I held my own & then some.
Hiring discussions rarely bring up the context. in slow or no growth, usually hiring is minimal. Few applicants, lots of time. Which generates bad hiring habits actually. Picky requirements looking for the perfect candidate, indecisiveness. Which give managers bad habits they never seem to drop. As if there’s no competition for the best talent & an attitude that you’re doing someone a favor to hire them. Try that in a hot fast growth job market with a shortage of talent. I’ve been through that a couple of times. and learned to focus on spotting potential, take risks, hire fast. If you Hire a lot of people, you will make mistakes. Most of which are correctable in a positive way.
I’ve not been that wrong. I believed and was correct most of the time, that if you find someone(s) with a passion to work on what you do, are reasonably intelligent, and are energetic and enthusiastic they will ramp up quickly. That the “hit the ground running” goal is mostly a BS goal that delays hiring mired down in hunting for perfection. Managers and their teams have a good feel for how long it takes to become productive. And if your search is taking longer than it takes for someone with the potential to quickly ramp up, you’re doing something wrong.
“If your search is taking longer than it takes for someone with the potential to quickly ramp up, you’re doing something wrong.”
Reading all this, I don’t know if I was very good at hiring.
I at least had the advantage of knowing I didn’t want to hire people just like me. My goal in interviews was to try to figure how people think in a few hours. So I’d give a candidate a sample programming project – about something simple they must have learned in school, not something to try to get free work out of them. They would have as much time as they liked, then we’d go over what they had written. Maybe this led to bad hiring based on my biases, but the one time I can remember putting a candidate into the definite “no” category happened when reading through their work I saw some errors and when I demonstrated that the code would crash, the reply I got was “Well, these things never work correctly the first time”. I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to cope with that person as an employee.
The best hire I ever made was purely an accident, and reflects no credit on me. She was a recent graduate, and this was her first interview for a real job. (She was still working retail as she had while in school.) The interview crashed and burned, mostly because she was so nervous. At the very end, to try to retrieve things she said she was a fast learner. I thought about it for a day or so, then sent her an email. “You said you are a fast learner. Here are three technical topics from the interview that could have gone better. Here is a web site that I think has good articles about them. Do some studying, and when you are ready, get in touch with Julia [our HR person] for another interview.” Well, she did all that, and I decided to give her a chance.
She turned out to be excellent. Smart and got things done, asked for help when she needed it, but didn’t bother me when she didn’t. An early memory that stands out: One of my responsibilities was for the internationalization of our software. It turns out that doing a good job of getting the user interface of software into other languages involves a ton of details. For example, fill-in-the-blank word order – “Hello ___, I am ___” in one language might be “I ___, greet you ___” in another. Anyway, there was a Joel Spolsky article related to this, and when I went talk to her about it, she had already started doing some learning about internationalization and had already read that article.
Now, if I were able to hire the way I want, I think I would place a touch more emphasis on learning about the candidate’s character (a la Jane Austen), because that’s what I would have to live with. But at my current company, they have been formalizing the hiring process to treat all candidates objectively. Since I have no skill at turning human beings into objects, my goal now is to not be a hiring manager.
By the way, I also commented about how I hired (and diversity) in one of Nick’s previous columns:
People lying to me: working for 40 years myself and conducting recruiting during lots of that time, (I am NOT HR), I am in rather technical quantitative research space, I can think of a good number of times where the interviewee just plain lied to me, to my face. About their intent and motivation, their skills, their degrees, and so forth. That always lead to their failure in their role and my having to take a negative staff action. It is often very difficult to protect against their lying when recruiting.
Good morning Nick.
Love this weeks article. I have never been a manager, but at a young age of 65 I may become one yet.
I cannot count how many times my latest employer has hired someone based on credentials, only to find out they could not do the job they were hired to. I would like to say I was not one of them.
I then asked our current HR manager how they go about hiring. Give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. In fact the current hiring manager has loaded the staff with people from a company he recently left (it closed its doors). I have yet to see any of the new hires be profitable.
Well if I ever become a manager, even if not I will challenge for a working interview.
Thanks for all you have done over the years I have been a follower, and now a user of your wisdom.