This is an extract from: The Leading-edge Managers Guide to Success

Understand That Time Spent Recruiting Is the Most Valuable Time

Far too often managers, when looking at their calendar, throw up their hands when they realize that they have another recruitment interview to do. It is the last thing they need at this point in time. Yet, recruitment should be seen as the most important thing a manager does, for the following reasons:

  • Recruiting properly is like putting a fence on the top of a cliff—it prevents causalities. As Jim Collins, of Good to Great fame, says, “You need to get the right people on the bus.”
  • You can recruit for technical skills and through training improve skill levels, but you cannot change a person’s values. If an individual’s values are different from those of the organization, you will always have conflict.
  • Better recruits will lead to more internal promotion, both saving costs and maintaining institutional knowledge.

To have a good team it is a good idea to start with the best resources available. There are still too many staff selections made via an antiquated interview process accompanied by some cursory reference checking; the result is a high failure rate among new staff. Greater effort needs to be put into the selection process through the adoption of recruiting techniques as discussed in the following.

Management guru Peter Drucker once observed General Motors’ top committee spending hours discussing the promotion of one employee. On questioning management about the effectiveness of this, the reply from the CEO was, “If we didn’t spend four hours on placing a man and placing him right, we’d spend four hundred hours on cleaning up after our mistake.”

Cathay Pacific Recruitment

Cathay Pacific constantly seeks frontline staff that were born with the desire to serve. They firmly believe you cannot train staff to be as good at serving as Cathay Pacific requires—“They have to be born that way.”

In order to sort the wheat from the chaff, all frontline applicants have to go through an arduous five-interview recruitment process that often takes about three months. Only applicants who are committed to joining Cathay Pacific get over this hurdle. During these interviews management is looking for the traits they need. The investment in the front end pays off with a quicker and more successful training process and one of the lowest staff turnover ratios in the industry. See Chapter 20 for more details about Cathay Pacific.

Peter Drucker’s Five-Step Process

Management guru Peter Drucker, on observing great leaders, noted that there were five steps to a sound recruitment:

1. Understand the job so you have a better chance of getting a good fit.

2. Consider three to five people to maximize your chances of getting the best fit.

3. Study candidates’ performance records to find their strengths so that you can ascertain whether these strengths are right for the job.

4. Talk to candidates’ previous bosses and colleagues about them.

5. Once the employment decision is made, make sure the appointee understands the assignment.

14 Great Questions to Help Get Select ‘A’ Players

Dr Richard Ford has written a good article on “how to hire the ‘A’players”.[i] The 14 great questions have been slightly altered to accommodate the thinking of Peter Drucker.

  1. Why did you leave your last job? Why do you want to leave your current job? Jack Welch says you should ask the five whys
  2. Of what achievements are you most proud?
  3. What has been your hardest decision you have had to make that may have made you unpopular?
  4. What are your strengths?
  5. What sorts of things irritate and frustrate you most, and how do you express your emotions when frustrated?
  6. When was the last time you celebrated team members?
  7. What will reference checks disclose about your personal and operating style and how will your style impact on other team members?
  8. How do you plan to grow and stretch yourself in the next five years?
  9. What would your colleagues say is the best thing about you?
  10. Give examples of your commitment to innovation?
  11. Tell me about a time when you had to persuade people to do something they did not want to do? What happened?
  12. When I call your last boss, how will he/she rate your performance on a 0-10 scale and why?
  13. How would your colleagues describe your team-playing abilities?
  14. Why do you want this job?

Involve the Human Resources Team

One of the most disconcerting departures from better practice has been the demise of the Human Resources (HR) team’s influence in organizations. Where recruitment is left to managers, chaos ensues. Jack Welch states very strongly that the HR team should have the same standing as the finance team e.g. the head of HR should have the same pay and conditions as the CFO.

Most readers can reflect back to a recruitment that they approved that did not work out. In most cases this would have been based on interviews and references. HR practitioners have found there are far more effective ways to recruit, starting by making an in-depth focus on the job requirements and followed by behavioral event interviews, simulated exercises, and assessment centers. All of this takes experienced in-house resources to manage and deliver. As we all know, the cost of appointing the wrong person can be much greater than just her salary costs. These methods are discussed in the following.

Use Simulation Exercises and Psychometric Testing

The basic interview is a totally flawed tool; we tend to warm to those candidates who are similar to us. Clever interviewees realize this and will mimic back to us what we want to hear. Situation, role-playing, or scenario exercises are thus becoming more common in the recruitment process in an effort to find out more about the candidates. It is now quite common for report writing and presentation exercises to be set during the final interview round for the more senior roles.

Many organizations that I have surveyed report that they have been burned by recruiting staff who describe themselves as competent on an important skill, only to find out otherwise.

Psychometric tests, especially arithmetical and verbal reasoning, are found to be valuable predictors and should be used when sorting out which of the short-listed candidates you will give the offer to. High scores in these two tests is seen as a sign of a high performer.

One organization comments on the usefulness of a simple scenario exercise as part of the recruitment process, with the candidate and the panel playing their respective roles. The organization says that it is not hard to set up and yet helps significantly in the selection process. Candidates are given only 15 minutes’ notice of what the scenario is going to be.

Assessment Centers

First used in the British army, assessment centers have long been recognized as a thorough way to recruit staff. They work particularly well when you are recruiting a group of staff or when you are looking to select senior and middle-management internally.

One manufacturing organization has a substantial investment in assessment centers for graduate recruitment. At their initial expression of interest, the graduates complete a comprehensive self-assessment questionnaire. From these returns, preselection of possible candidates is made and interviews carried out at the universities. Up to 24 graduates are selected to take part in the assessment centers. Two assessment centers are then run, each one day in duration, with 12 graduates plus up to 24 managers from the organization. Activities include an impromptu oral presentation, group work exercises, plus rigorous interviews. Usually about 50% of the graduates assessed are chosen.

One finance organization has been using assessment centers successfully to identify their best staff candidates for branch manager positions. Two years on from the first assessments and placements, they have experienced 60% success in the selections made. The core competencies in these generic positions have been clearly identified and are reflected in the assessment center tasks and activities. They have continuously modified and refined their assessment centers with input from outside consultants.

Involve Your Team in the Final Selection Process

Far too often a new staff member is soon found to be deficient in a key process he claimed expertise in. This is a shame, as a brief exposure to the team during a casual walk could have exposed a potentially serious weakness in the candidate’s skill base.

It is a good idea to have staff on the team somehow involved in the final selection from the short list of candidates. This need not be too complex. A meeting over an afternoon cup of coffee can give the staff a chance to subtly quiz candidates on their “expert knowledge.”

One technology team had interviewed an impressive candidate and duly short-listed him. In the second round of interviews, they found that the candidate, albeit a certified Microsoft engineer, had little or no practical experience. This was discovered by the team members when they gave him a tour of the team’s IT equipment.

Ask Your Top Employees for Referrals

One high-performance manager asks the team members if they know a person who would fit in the team before she advertises a position. Often this has proved successful in saving hours of sifting through the great unknown.

Google is famous for its referral recruiting. Staff members who recommend candidates are rewarded for their efforts if and when their contact becomes an employee.

Reference Checks: The Do’s and Don’ts

A reference check has little or no validity unless it is from a person known to your organization or a past employer whom you can rely on. Random references, especially if they are received attached to the resume, should be treated with caution. At the very least you should phone and ask questions about the candidate’s skill base, such as:

  • “Can you give me some instances where Pat has shown her ability to complete what she has started?”
  • “Can you give me some instances where Pat has shown initiative?”
  • “Can you give me some instances where Pat has shown her ability to handle pressure?”

One important government organization asks all short-listed candidates to find a referee who is known by the organization. If none can be found, they ignore this step. Naturally, this would count against an applicant. They believe a reference is worth getting only if it can be relied upon. They know that a referee who is aware of the organization, how it operates, and its values and staff would be unlikely to give an unreliable reference if he wants to retain his relationship with the organization.

A common mistake is not to verify the academic record. Papers are littered with cases where high-profile appointments have been made where the individual has claimed a masters or Ph.D. degree, only to be found out when poor performance brings his claims into question. Always check against the university records where the appointments are very important to the organization.

Selecting an Executive Assistant to Be Your Co-pilot

Behind all great managers and leaders is a great executive assistant. The question is, do you want to find one by chance or be proactive about it? Here are some steps to select one that will fit:

  • Find an assistant with similar interests as you; you will spend a lot of time together, so it is important that you have something in common.
  • Undertake simulation tests on the candidate’s ability to take dictation, handle difficult callers, and write a few letters covering a visit to a branch or a staff announcement.
  • A tertiary education is a must.
  • Interview at least two previous bosses the assistant has worked for to find out about her interpersonal skills.
  • Ensure you perform psychometric tests, especially for arithmetical and verbal reasoning, as high scores in these two tests are a good sign of a high performer.
  • Find an assistant who has the same mental horsepower as the senior team members, exceptional organizational capability, and ability to grasp complex issues and to work well under pressure, and who demonstrates a strategic focus, an eye for detail when required, and so forth.
  • Ensure there has been adequate testing of spelling, grammar, and coherency of speech.
  • Offer conditions of employment that are so good that the candidate will not be tempted by another position.

The passenger next to me on a flight happened to be an entrepreneurial CEO. Among the many things we discussed was the importance of the executive assistant. He stated that he has done whatever it takes to keep his even though she has a young family. He treats her as a member of the senior management team. She is paid a six-figure sum and has whatever time off she needs for her children.

They have worked together for over ten years and are the perfect team. He has the big ideas and she is the implementer! He said that even if she works two days a week she is worth the salary she is paid. With his travels there is plenty of downtime potential for her to manage her children. He says they have an arrangement that assures her longevity with him. “The SMT [senior management team] can come and go, but losing my executive assistant would be catastrophic because she has much institutional knowledge as well as the ability to make the two of us work so effectively.”

If you find this of interest, acquire The Leading-Edge Managers Guide to Success.


[i] Dr Richard G Ford “How to hire the ‘A’players” Finance & Management ICAEW March 2010