I’m in Transition; How Do I Choose a New Path (What is Right, Part 5)

In part four of this What is Right series (here) I mapped out a five-step decision for thinking through big, and potentially life-altering, decisions. As I start this post I am reminded of a favorite quote, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” Since some may struggle a bit when attempting to apply principles to practical situations, I thought I’d provide an example of applying this decision process to a practical situation almost any reader of this blog will face one or more times during their professional career.

Scenario: I am a professional in transition and faced with crafting a strategy to search for income. How do I apply the What Is Right decision process to my search? I don’t pretend the suggestions below cover every situation, but they will help you get started.

1. Is there a reigning principle of natural law in play? How is my search target (the business I would start or join) aligned with natural laws? Said another way, does the product or service which is the outcome of my profession have redeeming social value? Does that product or service contribute to society’s overall health and/or wealth or at least not contribute to moral decay? Does my prospective employer or partner(s) have a reputation for honesty and fairness–are they worthy of my trust?

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, effect(s) my choice or a new job or career? Have I made commitments to my family which should limit or constrain my professional alternatives? Would the job involve relocation, hours and/or travel which would preclude my follow through on existing commitments? Have I made previous financial commitments that require a certain level of income to fulfill? Have I made previous commitments in the community that should impact my decision?

3. What career path or job opportunity most aligns with my life purpose and goals? Is continuing down this professional path consistent with my life purpose or calling? Do I feel a passion for this type of work? Is my search target appropriate for my current season of life? Would this path or opportunity help me advance to or achieve certain long-term goals?

4. What Relationships could impact or be impacted by my choice? Whom do I know that could assist me in landing a desired professional opportunity? What people in my network have walked this same path and could provide me wisdom from their experience. Who is affected by my choice? What are their related desires or concerns? What people might move into or out of my circle of influence if I change companies or communities? How and where might my circle of influence expand or contract based on the professional alternatives in front of me? Whom might I teach or from whom might I learn along different professional paths?

5. What is Reality? Do external threats encourage or compel me to make a professional change? Should I change companies, functions, levels, industries, communities or careers? What are the odds for a successful transition if I change three or more of those at once? Do I have a distinctive and compelling professional story that aligns with the opportunity I’m pursuing (because the question is often not can I do the job, but will somebody hire me to do the job)? Do I have the talents and experience necessary to succeed? Is my prospective industry or employer growing, stable or declining? Turnaround specialists jump into sinking or floundering businesses all the time, but they both know what they’re getting into and how to get out of it. I may want to accept a position of lesser responsibility and compensation as a way of getting in the door, but what are the realistic odds of getting to my target compensation level in a timely manner? If I’m starting a business, do I have the financial reserves to carry my family and the business until the latter starts generating sufficient cash flow.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers your reactions to this decision-making model or ideas for other approaches you’ve found successful.

Stop Staring Out the Back of the Bus

Why don’t they position the driver’s seat facing out the back of the bus? You can see the road. You can even tell whether the bus is between the lane markers. Of course, we all know that’s silly. Seeing the past does not allow us to anticipate or respond to what is coming down the road at us. Yet, that is what most managers do when they base a hiring decision on someone’s resume and inappropriate interview questions.

This post is the last in a three-part series on Hiring for Talent. The first post (“Too Many Corners on the Box“) exposed the fallacy of over constraining a hiring search by relying on long lists of experiences and skills. The second post (“I Hired Your Resume, But Unfortunately I Got You”) revealed the pitfalls of focusing on the past and made a case for concentrating more attention on forward-looking talents. This post discusses some methods for hiring talents.

You will never find what you have not first defined. As a first step we must identify the talents we are seeking to hire. Consider first company-specific talents. Since individuals frequently change jobs or roles within the same company the vision for the organization’s culture should overwhelmingly determine the talents you seek to hire. Yes, that means you must have first reduced your vision for the culture or company values to writing and, second, take that plaque, picture, or poster off the wall and really use it. Second, consider job-specific talents with your view out the front of the bus. Think in terms of the talents needed to tackle the challenges facing the person you hire.

But, that still leaves a question of how do we uncover a candidate’s talents? Resumes may provide clues, but almost never reveal answers. Poorly written resumes compound the problem by making isolated and unsupported claims of talent (usually in an overview section); such as Creative, Highly disciplined, Responsible, High integrity, Quick learner, High achiever, etc.

Here are three methods for uncovering and confirming a candidate’s talents:

  1. Trials. This method discovers talents from first-hand experiences during previous interactions. The most effective use of this method is when a manager hires someone they already know well from working together in a professional setting. However, this try-before-you-hire method is rarely suitable for hiring to fill most professional positions when the hiring manager and candidate do not know each other. Most candidates with exceptional talent will not assume the risk of a probationary hire.
  2. Testing. There exists a wide assortment of assessment tools; including instruments such as Myers-Briggs, DiSC, and Wonderlic to name a few. I have mixed opinions on assessment tools. These tools often reveal interesting and potentially helpful insights. However, they can get pricey and present logistic challenges to administer them. More importantly, the broad nature of many assessment tools can make it difficult to zero in on specific targeted talents. In my opinion, too many assessment tools attempt to provide a be all to end all solution and end up providing so much information that properly interpreting them requires a level of training and expertise that makes them impractical or unaffordable. Nonetheless, I know there are fans of various assessment methods…please feel free to share your views in the comments on assessments you’ve found effective.
  3. Talking. Not casual chatting about the candidate’s favorite food, team or vacation spot. Not surface-level conversation about where the candidate has worked and what they’ve done. Not a flag-waving recitation of the candidate’s amazing results. But rather, a structured and deep-level dialogue about what drives the candidate and fueled their accomplishments. It’s free; although it takes some work.

Using Interviews to Uncover Talents

A word of caution…Contrived or hypothetical scenarios shed less light on an individual’s talents and traits and may actually mislead the interviewer (in a hypothetical scenario I will always leave that last chocolate cookie on the plate). Google developed a reputation for off-beat interview questions, but has recently abandoned it (read more here). As a hiring manager I care little about what the candidate might do. I learn most from what they have done.

Since talents are innate or hardwired into our character as a toddler, the exercise of them rarely requires conscious thought or action. Consequently, our actions (human doing) indirectly reveal our talents (human being). In other words, a person’s behavior in real-life situations provides us a window to identify their talents. Consequently, we must use inference and pursue lines of indirect inquiry to uncover a person’s talents. Hopefully, you are now getting an appreciation for clearing understanding what you’re looking for in a new hire.

For illustration purposes, here are some behaviors for which you would listen if initiative were one of your target talents:

  • Identified a problem, trend or unexploited opportunity
  • Researched and presented potential solutions
  • Recruited an ad hoc team to pursue an opportunity
  • Got involved in a project outside their immediate work area
  • Volunteered time in nonprofit organization(s)
  • Founded a group or organization to address an unmet need in their local church, school or community

Finally, a few additional practical suggestions:

  • Use the same question set with each candidate to create a basis for meaningful comparison among the various candidates
  • The book “ Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street provides the best structured interview process guide I have ever used
  • Another great starting place is “The Most Important Interview Question of All Time” by Lou Adler

I Hired Your Resume, But Unfortunately I Got You*

In the early days of moving pictures marketers quickly discovered the power of subliminal messaging. The human mind could subconsciously register a single image embedded within a movie projecting 24 frames per second. This advertising method gained favor among marketers, because it induced higher response rates among viewers than overt advertisements. The Federal Trade Commission deemed subliminal messaging deceptive advertising and outlawed it in the USA during the 1970s.

Repeated studies suggest that hiring managers are often heavily influenced by the subliminal power of first impressions. Too many of us will unconsciously make a go / no-go hiring decision in less time than it takes to watch a Super Bowl commercial. At that point, Confirmation Bias kicks into gear, and we spend the interview looking for things to affirm our initial subconscious impression.

Of course, you are smart enough to avoid that trap, or at least that’s what you tell yourself. However, unless you have a solid plan, you will end up looking at all the wrong things in all the wrong places when the time arrives to make your next hire.

Over the years I have often joked that a hiring interview is like a first date. We instinctively know that first impressions are important. We stand in front of the mirror to make sure we have the look just right. We apply extra diligence to observing social courtesies. We tell stories about our respective pasts with a focus on the positive. We talk about people we know, places we’ve been and events we’ve experienced. These fact-oriented discussions often do not tread into more sensitive topics; such as, why we act the way we do and what drives us.

Resumes reinforce this backward-looking, surface-level focus. In fact, the Latin root of resume means “to summarize” and “take back.” In other words, a resume summarizes the “what” of my past. When and where I worked. What I accomplished. A typical resume provides no sense of context; i.e. the external business environment, internal culture or surrounding talents and resources in which the candidate worked. The resume also gives no insights into the innate talents the candidate may have leveraged to deliver the results.

Granted, it’s important to understand the external/internal environments in which the candidate formerly worked, if for no other reason than establishing context for evaluating past accomplishments, but your environment is different to some extent than the candidate has previously experienced and changing all the time. However, the constant in this equation is the candidate’s talents. These raw abilities follow the candidate everywhere. When you hire a candidate you don’t get their past. Rather, you get their talents.

Unless you recognize this crucial distinction you may risk repeating the mistake of the hiring manager who lamented, “I hired your resume, but unfortunately what I got was you.”*

So, what talents are important? Most unique hiring factors are usually acquired skills (software coding) or related experiences (startups, R&D, finance, consumer goods, etc.). Talents typically have more universal applicability across projects, jobs and time. To illustrate the point, here’s a list of targeted talents I developed during my last startup:

1. Integrity. Managing becomes easy when I can count on people to say what they mean and follow through on their commitments. You don’t need lots of policies and rules if you hire people with integrity. You can trust them to do the right thing.

2. Intelligence. Experience is a weak substitute for raw intellectual horsepower. The business environment is constantly changing, and we wanted people with the smarts to solve the problems we don’t even know about yet.

3. Initiative. It is always easier to guide something in motion. Organizations waste tremendous amounts of energy just overcoming static inertia and moving into action. Besides, it is just plainly more fun to work with people who are willing to pitch in to solve problems.

4. Inquisitiveness. It is the best “I” word I identified to describe people who are curious about life and constantly looking for better ways to do things. Without people like this on the team, continuous improvement remains a theoretical concept.

In closing, here are some tips for integrating “hiring for talent” into your own culture:

  • Identifying the core talents and traits most important to your business culture takes time and careful thought; This may require researching the traits of successful people who have done similar work
  • Describe your target talents in writing–make your target hiring profile tangible; if not, we subject every hiring decision to the vague and subconscious biases of individual hiring managers
  • Develop methods for identifying and hiring people with your target talents…that’s the topic of the last blog post in this three-part “Hiring for Talent” series.
  • Talk about your target talents often; make them a visible part of your culture
  • Publicize and celebrate the linkage between those talents and the extraordinary results they produce
  • Align your reward system with your target talents

* Source, Jay Jordan in “Who” by Geoff Smart and Brad Street, pg 6

Too Many Corners on the Box

Corners on a box define its outer limits and provide stability. However, if we continue adding “corners”, we eventually end up with a shape that approximates a soccer ball and which is both smaller than the original box and highly unstable. In the same manner, over constraining any problem-solving effort shrinks the potential solution set and yields unstable solutions prone to bouncing around from even the slightest external pressure.

I don’t have any empirical evidence to define a percentage effect, but my business experience informs me that once a manager has selected their team they have pretty well determined their fate. There is no other variable that comes remotely close to impacting performance as much as hiring the right team. Yet, there are few other management activities where the typical manager is less equipped to succeed.

The irregular nature of hiring means most managers practice this skill with insufficient frequency to remain sharp. Even managers (including me) who know some of the practices that will improve the odds of making an excellent hire are at times caught unprepared. Since we don’t have an existing funnel of candidates when an opening occurs without warning, we find ourselves in a reactive mode and compelled to publicly post a job description.

Since this Information Age vastly broadens the field of prospective candidates who learn of any job opening, any public job posting leads to a deluge of resume submittals. One common mechanized method for filtering this vast amount of input uses keyword search technology to winnow the stack of resumes to a more manageable size. Therefore, in order to feed the keyword search app, hiring managers develop a long shopping list of required skills and experiences. This check-the-box approach almost guarantees the hiring manager will receive a stack of resumes that tell him/her where a candidate has been (i.e. experiences) but will shed no light on the talents (core capabilities) that produced the results on that resume.

Candidates know the keyword game, too, and fill their resumes with buzz words. When you add our natural human tendency to assign failures to external causes and take excessive or even unwarranted credit for successes, you end up with experience statements on a resume that can mask a candidate’s contribution. An anecdotal example in the Atlanta market surrounds numerous claims by people supposedly involved in developing the Fridge Pack introduced by Coca-Cola around 2001. It’s important to understand whether someone got wet, because they made it rain or were merely around when it started raining.

If that’s not complicated enough, our dynamic marketplace guarantees that the challenges of today will change tomorrow. Consequently, the requirements for the job you fill today will change tomorrow. So when we hire on historical experiences alone we risk hiring built-in obsolescence. So, what’s a hiring manager to do?

A hiring manager must get beyond the numbers (results) to understand how the candidate achieved those results. A hiring manager must arm themselves to pierce the information fog by understanding the talents necessary to succeed in their market, firm and job and then make purposeful steps to discover candidates with those talents (sometimes called traits). Why concentrate on talents? The timeless nature of talents makes them applicable in changing circumstances. The portability of talents allows people to leverage them in any situation. Candidates who possess the desired attributes will bring them to the job just by walking in the door. Talents cannot be acquired via training. We must hire them.

In the next post, I’ll identify four inherent talents that I use to identify and hire exceptional people. The third post of this series will discuss how to discover talents undetectable using assessment tools.