Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Talent Spotting

From Guy Browning’s “Great interview questions for cutting interview candidates down to size”…

1. What is the capital of the Bolivia?
2. How would you rightsize a matrix management structure while implementing TQM from an empowered stakeholder base?
3. If you were so brilliant why haven’t you got it decent job already?

“You are going to get this wrong.” That’s my advice to people choosing a new hire based on job interviews. Because of all the IBPs (that’s Important Business Principles) I’ve written about, the hardest for people to act upon is this one: “The person you interview is never the person you hire.” Oh, sure, managers will nod in agreement, all the while secretly thinking that they have The Eye, the ability to shoot lasers of truth straight through to a person’s soul. But if you want to find a great employee, SEE THE WORK, or least talk to people who have seen the candidate’s work.

What got me thinking about hiring was talking to Larry Sternberg of Talent+, a company in Lincoln, Nebraska that’s developing what they call “the science of talent.” This means that they figure out the work attitudes of first-rate employees versus their average counterparts and then hire for those distinguishing attitudes. However, instead of a multiple-choice test, they used an open-ended format. As Sternberg puts it, “If I give you five choices, what I learn is if you can pick the right one. But, if I give you open-ended questions, I can see what your brain generates. Then we can look at your answers and see if they are conceptually equivalent to the answers of the top performers in that job.”

While the exact wording of the questions is proprietary, Sternberg paraphrased for us a couple of questions from the interview for sales people:
(1) “Should you guide clients to a buying decision or wait for them to reach their own conclusions?”
(2) “Are you sometimes reluctant to pick up the phone and make a sales call?”

I asked Sternberg if he often encountered the same phenomenon I’ve seen, that of managers being overconfident in their ability to spot talent. He replied, “What I encounter are managers who believe that they can create excellence – if you get the training right and the motivation right, excellence results. I don’t believe it. Giftedness cannot be installed.”

Sternberg told me of the time when he was working in China, opening a Ritz Carlton Hotel there: “In Singapore, they have a well-known hotel school. One of the things the Chinese CEO was trying to accomplish was to get the Chinese students to smile more. It simply isn’t part of their culture to smile as often as Americans do. So he put together an elaborate program of secret shoppers and a point system for smiles. He explained the intricacies of his program and asked me what I thought of his chances of succeeding. I could only smile and say, ‘Good luck.’”

Sternberg then added, “It was Peter Drucker who pointed out that if you do a good enough job of growing strengths you make weaknesses irrelevant. Was Picasso good at math? Who cares?”

Speaking of caring, if you’re the sort to care about right answers in an interview, I leave you with two, from the sample questions mentioned earlier:

(1) Top salespeople believe in their product, and their ability to figure out what is right for customers, so they are quite willing to jump in and tell the customers what they should be buying.

(2) The best salespeople own up to occasional “call reluctance” – what makes them different from the average salesperson is that they make the calls ANYWAY.

I warned you up front that you were going to get this wrong.

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2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

The Day the Economy Didn't Die

“Death should not be seen as an end but a very effective way to cut down on expenses.”
-Woody Allen

Once upon a time there was a blithe and prosperous village. Then, one day, a butterfly flapped its wings.

When that butterfly flapped its wings, the owner of the local hardware store was sitting across from the town’s banker. He saw the butterfly out of the corner of his eye and looked over to admire it. The banker noticed that the store owner was not just looking away, but looking up and left, avoiding eye contact. Having once taken a seminar on body language, this made him nervous – wasn’t that the sign of deception? After all, this particular store owner was doing too well – too many people were building too many buildings, too many people had been getting rich too fast, and it made him nervous – this could not last. The banker spoke of bubbles and told the owner of the hardware store that he was worried.

The store owner wasn’t surprised – after all, the good times had to end sometime and, if truth be told, he’d like to take some time off and make up any lost revenue by cutting back on expenses, maybe letting one of his employees go. He said as much to the banker and left.

Later that afternoon, the town banker told the owner of the local dairy, that not only was he worried about the economy, but that the owner of the hardware store was laying off workers. The dairy farmer had been expecting this day – after all the good times couldn’t last forever – he was ready with his own contingency plan. He would get ahead of the downturn by selling some of his herd are and getting rid of the kid who he’s hired as a favor to the preacher.

So the dairy farmer sold some of his cows and called the grain company and reduced his standard order for feed. This was very bad news for the woman who ran the grain company. She decided she’d put off the improvements she was about to start. So she called the local contractor and said she wouldn’t be modernizing, after all.

Later that day the contractor visited the hardware store and told the owner that he had one less project. When the store owner asked what had gone wrong, the contractor told them that the grain company was cutting back because the dairy was cutting back because the town was doing too well.

This was exactly what the banker had predicted, the hardware store owner thought – the downturn had come. Instead of firing one employee, he decided to fire three, telling himself that it was better to be safe.

And the next time he visited the banker, he didn’t notice any butterflies outside the window, because the banker had just told him he was canceling his line of credit. After all, the banker explained, he had to be safe.

And so it went, each business got safer and safer till they were all in danger.

There was, however, one old farmer who had a different contingency plan. While all the other townspeople saved so much money they went out of business, he bought cheap land and equipment and his operations thrived. And that’s how it came to pass that the former owner of the hardware store went to work for the old farmer. One day he asked his new boss how come he’d done so well in a bad economy. The old farmer said, “My father lived through the Great Depression and he used to say, ‘fear is the greatest expense of all.’ He taught me to welcome the bad times as the start of good times.” The old farmer smiled and said, “It’s a good time for a bad time.” And the former store owner knew he was working for the right boss.

The moral of the story: “There is no safety in the herd that is running toward the cliff.”

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2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Old Lessons for New Problems

“The sum of intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing.”

When I studying Economics in college, we often debated these two big issues facing the future of the economy: what to do with all the leisure time people would have (thanks to the declining work week), and what to do with all the extra people created by the population explosion.

Now, three decades later, no one even uses the term “leisure time,” much less wonders what to do with all of it. Not only did the workweek not fall to 35 hours a week, then 30, but society has shown amazing creativity is filling whatever time we have. Thanks to wi-fi, the cell and the Blackberry, we can fill any spare moments with work, but also, we have managed to take the leisure out of leisure time. Think, for instance, of the working mom who is driving her kids to the Math-nasium and then retrieving the family wiener dog from “doggy’s day out.” Not exactly leisure. In fact, I think we need a new word for “leisure time” spent doing work-like activities. We could use a compressed version of leisure work – i.e., “lork” -- but I’ve been using “errk.” This is errand-work, and I like how it sounds, like the “irk” in “irksome.”

So, we have increased the workweek and added in many new errks, pretty much doing away with leisurely leisure.

But what about the other bugaboo of my econ education, overpopulation? It was in 1968 that Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb,” escalated the metaphor of a population “explosion” forward into “bomb.” This created sci-fi images of a biological weapon where babies would be sprayed into your home, screaming and angry and looking to suck down your food supply along with everyone else’s. However, while I wasn’t paying attention, the problem solved itself.

What got me thinking about the old baby bomb was reading a recent “Trends” report (trends-magazine.com) that reviewed the research on population trends. You probably heard that the Europeans were facing declining populations, but it’s not just Europe. Worldwide, there are six million fewer children under seven than there were in 1990. Six million fewer children.

Take a look at some of these birthrate numbers, and put them in context of the “replacement birthrate” of 2.1 (which is the average number of children a woman must bear to keep the population constant):

Canada: 1.55
Japan: 1.37
China: 1.39
Korea: 1.17

Even in Italy, where you’d expect those big Catholic families, the birthrate is 1.26.

In the U.S., the birthrate is 2.01. As for Mexico, I quote the “Trends” report: “It’s one of the last countries on Earth most people would expect to face a population shortage. However, its fertility rate has already fallen to 2.5. And, it’s dwindling so fast that it too will soon drop below the replacement rate.” The report adds, “This means that the flow of immigrants from Mexico, which America depends upon for cheap labor and to keep the size of its own population from falling, will soon be reduced from a torrent to a trickle.”

So there we have it, another problem blinded by science (in this case, effective birth control), and by the absence of the other problem we started with, leisure time – after all, working women want smaller families.

These days what they are worrying about in college Econ classes is how to deal with the decline in spending and tax revenue from having fewer young people. Clearly, economists need to spend more time at the mall. Just as work and the new near-work crowded out leisure, we can count on new types of spending to make up for the feared decline in consumer spending.

We can count on the ingenuity of the marketplace to create new “necessities” on which to spend money, including the endless supply of expensive new “errks” that we’ll need – if they’re good enough, they’ll keep the younger generations from dwelling on all the mistakes of my generation.

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2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Blog forthcoming...

The blog is currently under construction, but check back soon!