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.

* *

2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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