How to Really Get to Know Managerial Candidates

By Bill Sitter

The theme of this article follows that of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s popular hit from the musical “The King and I”, “Getting to Know You…Getting to Know All About You”.

There seems to be powerful agreement from AED member executives that they would like to get to know potential managers much better than is typically the case. Ninety percent of those surveyed responded: “Yes, management level hiring decisions can be improved by getting to know the candidate better”. It’s equally true for an inside promotion situation as well as an outside hire.

Today’s construction equipment industry executive must count on future managers to be reliable and to be significant contributors to the growth, profitability and longevity of their companies. Following are typical questions facing AED members who are evaluating internal or external candidates for management: Who is this individual really? What are his/her values and motives? Am I seeing the inner self or being influenced by a well polished veneer? Will this candidate produce as needed? Will there be a “fit”?

How to solve this dilemma? Good news! Several senior managers at distributors and respected AED manufacturer/suppliers have graciously provided significant input that can contribute to your success in this important decision making process.

These qualified executives, despite their busy year-end schedules, responded to a Jordan-Sitter survey at an outstanding 63% level and many added very helpful suggestions regarding tactics they have used to improve their odds and hopefully, their input will enhance your chances for success.

The survey asked respondents to evaluate in importance level five topics they would like to understand better, prior to selecting and/or promoting managers. Let’s scope-out the survey results. The lead in question was “If you could spend enough time with potential manager hires, what among the following would you like to learn more about?”

Topics Importance Level
Very Moderate Low
Personality 77% 23% 0%
Goals-Personal & Business 84% 16% 0%
Personal Values 87% 13% 0%
Issues of Importance to the Candidate 71% 29% 0%
Spouse & family issues of importance 52% 42% 6%

It is obvious that all these topics are important to AED executives. In fact, all but the spouse and family issues rated over 70% in the “very important” category. Our experience, coupled with several conversations with firms surveyed, indicates that spouse and family issues would have rated at least as high if the question focused only on managerial candidates who would be asked to relocate for the new opportunity.

AED executives are certainly not alone in stressing the tremendous importance of hiring and/or promoting excellent managers. The following John Rutledge quote from the 9-8-97 issue of Forbes Magazine, pertains to all key managerial positions, not just CEO’s.

“Hiring the people to lead and manage a company is the second most important thing an owner ever gets to do. (The first is establishing the principles the people in the company will live by.) Hiring chief executives is like getting married; if you do it right, you don’t have to do it often. Picking a wife may be fun, but picking a chief executive is hard work. However, getting this one decision right can make all the others easier for the next five to ten years. Getting it wrong can be a disaster.”

Okay, it is clear that hiring authorities would “really like to get to know management candidates much better”. We explored ways to accomplish this, using a combination of survey responses, several survey follow-up telephone discussions, and spiced by 20 years of Jordan-Sitter Associate’s experience.

EXPLAINING THE POSITION, THE COMPANY AND THE CULTURE

One CEO advised that he likes to brief each managerial candidate as to “what it is like to work here”. He presents a positive, but very objective, picture of the company, the mission and the cultural style.

The survey did not explore the subject of job descriptions. However, from specific survey contacts we know that a thorough position spec is considered to be the critical starting point for all hiring. Position descriptions are so important that they are frequently the subject of complete articles, seminars and books. It’s agreed that a comprehensive position spec should. “tell it like it is”, and “eliminate surprises as to what’s expected”.

INTERVIEW TIPS

Interviewing is a vital element of all hiring decisions. We’ve experienced excellent techniques as well as many examples of flawed methods.

The October issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine featured an article on “Updating Your Search Skills”. This is just one of thousands of articles and books which strive to give managerial candidates an edge in the interview process. Hiring authorities, especially in today’s flatter organizations, often have less time to prepare for the interview, than the well coached applicant.

As expected, the AED survey panel provided suggestions as to interview approaches they’ve found productive.

  • Create a relaxed environment for the first interview. A second meeting might be “much more intense, focusing on what are you made of topics”.
  • One-on-one or two-on-one sessions were preferred over subjecting the candidate to a round table full of questioners. Most respondents strive for 4 or 5 interviews with key managers. Then, they put the results together to see if the pieces solve the puzzle of determining if this is Mr. or Ms. Right. Consensus of the hiring panel also creates buy-in and a support network for the new manager.
  • Behavioral or Situational interview methods are popular. The focus is on how a candidate has handled specific situations and may call for candid examples. Role playing is another way of prying candidates out of canned responses.
  • Third party advisors are often used to provide objective opinions. This should be someone who cares about and knows the company and its culture well. An advisory board member, a key stockholder, the company’s banker or CPA…are some examples:

REFERENCING

There seems to be wide agreement on the importance of in-depth referencing as part of the hiring process. There is also frustration at the difficulty in obtaining meaningful information regarding: performance, behavior, dealing with stress, interpersonal and team skills, etc. Survey panelists cited network referencing, with trusted contacts, as key methods. Checking with customers, co-workers and subordinates were all mentioned as beneficial. However, confidentiality issues often make open referencing impossible. It was very refreshing to see that one distributor, when evaluating an internal candidate for promotion, makes a concerted effort to get feedback from customers and co-workers.

Our observations suggest that companies now average only about two reference checks, and that many of these are “surface” checks. Five or six meaningful references should be considered minimal.

INCLUDING POTENTIAL MANAGERS IN COMPANY EVENTS

It is exciting to see how AED hiring authorities include potential management hires in various company activities. The goal is to expose him/her to as much of the company as possible, in advance. Comprehensive facility tours and company briefings are the norm. However, several of our survey panel are far more creative:

  • Inviting a serious candidate to sit in on an actual management meeting.
  • Traveling with the hiring authority to trade shows, association events, or to visit other company locations, even suppliers… all this provides ample 1-on-1 time for discussion of many topics. One President takes candidates to inspect a piece of equipment, for the same reason.
  • Giving a candidate the opportunity to actually spend a couple hours in various departments; not just to meet people, but to see how things really get done.
  • Open houses, customer appreciation days, and equipment rodeos, also provide managerial candidates the opportunity to meet a wide cross section of folks who hold the keys to future success: employees, peers, suppliers and customers.

FUN ACTIVITIES – SPORTS, MEALS AND TRIPS

Since 90% of the survey panel would like to “really get to know potential managers better”, it is not surprising to note that these successful executives often use outside activities to get more time with future managers. Their actions are in synch with these words from Lee Iacocca: “The most important thing any manager can do is hire the right people.”

  • Dinners in a relaxed environment are the most common off-site activity. Many execs strive for very informal settings and use picnics, barbecues, or a casual at-home meal. Viewing photographs, meeting the kids and the family pet may lead to heart-to-heart sharing of values.
  • Golf outings are very popular because they provide a lot of time in a sporting environment. Several executives feel they also learn a great deal by observing how candidates handle themselves on the course. Hunting trips and professional or college athletic contests are popular outing formats. These also show the candidate the personal side of the hiring authority and/or another member of management. Over time, the greater number of different senior managers or stakeholders who spend time with this person, the better.

SPOUSES AND FAMILY… THEIR ADAPTABILITY IS OFTEN A KEY TO SUCCESS.

If the hiring or promotion of a manager involves a family relocation, then it is essential that extra steps are taken to evaluate the likelihood of a successful move. The survey panelists expend considerable time and resources to involve the spouse, and often the family, in the pre-hiring process.

Second, or third visits to the company and the area often take place over a long weekend and the spouse is included. The objectives include helping the family decide if they can find acceptable schools, an affordable home, a good neighborhood, etc. However, it also provides the opportunity for the company to gauge spousal support for the candidate’s new duties, including travel and work schedule. This is an excellent opportunity for the hiring authority to brief the spouse and to assess his/her level of interest and commitment.

  • Meals provide relaxed opportunities for discussion of a wide range of topics… the more casual the better, in most instances. Many AED execs invite families to their homes for beverages or for a meal. However, there may be times when it is important to see how more formal entertainment settings are handled.
  • Children, especially pre-teens, are going to be more comfortable at picnics or sports events, than at country clubs. They’ll want to see potential schools, recreation facilities; and to know about extra-curricular opportunities…music, clubs, etc.
  • A professional Realtor, who knows the company and the area well, can play a vital role. Ideally, the Realtor is well known to the hiring authority. An advance telephone discussion with the spouse will help the Realtor zero in on affordable homes which meet the family’s needs. The Realtor might be advised as to compensation ranges so home visits are properly targeted. The objective is to get a feel for potential neighborhoods and not to select a specific house. The Realtor should spend one or two half-days with the candidate and spouse. Feedback from the Realtor was sited as “vital” by one of our respondents. Realtors should be debriefed; they are trained to pick up vibes that will help the company to facilitate relocation and/or remove concerns.

TESTING, PERSONALITY EVALUATIONS, HANDWRITING ANALYSIS AND INDUSTRIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS

Most managers agree with JSA that past performance is the number one key indicator of future performance. However, many AED executives also use an array of alternative techniques to optimize their decision making effectiveness:

  • Caliper profiles (AED endorsed) are effectively used by many AED distributors as one tool in the evaluation process.
  • Personalysis is extensively used by one survey respondent who employs the results to facilitate team building. Handwriting analysis is used by two very large distributors who also find it enhances team building.
  • Industrial psychologists, especially those who regularly work with a company and get to know their culture, are used by several of the distributors and manufacturers surveyed.

THIRD PARTY OBJECTIVITY

Objectivity is an important element for many hiring authorities. Advisory board members, bankers, and CPA’s were mentioned earlier. Personal contacts with many of the AED executives surveyed, indicate that executive search firms often play a key role in the managerial selection process. This includes evaluation of internal candidates as well as those from outside the company. Regardless of the methods used, it is important not to hire too fast, or for the wrong reasons. Seeking an objective, third party opinion is very important to many AED hiring authorities.

CONCLUSION

For the January, 1992 issue of CED Magazine, JSA wrote an article entitled “Bad Hires: Learning From a Costly Mistake”. A comprehensive AED survey provided excellent insights into mistakes made, and how to avoid them. It was learned that, at that time, senior management level hiring mistakes could cost up to $500,000, $750,000 or more. OUCH!

Thanks go out to this year’s AED survey panel for the excellent suggestions on how to learn as much as possible before hiring or promoting a key manager. It is unlikely that we can ever learn too much about future managers. It is hoped that one or more of these tactics will greatly help improve your likelihood of making an excellent management hiring or promotion decision.