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May 2013: Selecting by Connecting: A Leg Up for Choosing Leaders and Lovers

My clients report that they sometimes make bad hiring decisions for key leadership positions. They tell me their selection processes don’t help them make accurate predictions about who is most likely to work out and who is most likely to fall short. This also frequently happens with potential merger partners.

Hiring for a particular competence is easy; finding a leader or partner with maturity and poise who fits your culture presents a higher-magnitude challenge.

There’s no magic formula for choosing relationships, but leadership selection deserves more than one or two superficial conversations, passed off as “interviews.” It’s a process that begs for connection and deeper dialogue.

Selecting for a Leader

This might sound strange, but people who make hiring decisions are often more wishful than careful. The perils of making important decisions based on weak data or the feelings of the moment tend to escape them.

Three pitfalls – based on faulty assumptions – seem to show up consistently in top-level hiring processes:

Pitfall #1: “I know how to interview!“

It’s great that you’ve been coached by pros on how to interview. The problem is that the pros who have instructed you have also coached applicants on how to respond to those same questions. The result is a carefully choreographed process where each knows what he/she will ask and how he/she will respond to “the usual questions.”

Actions taken to correct for this predictable game usually include psychological testing, and techniques such as behavioral interviewing. Testing is far from foolproof. Behavioral interviewing – where more probing and pointed questions are asked based on specific desired qualities and skills – are improvements over traditional interviewing, but still can be manipulated by artful senior-level job candidates.

The best way to evaluate the maturity, character and temperament of applicants is to observe them in a wide variety of real-life situations for which rehearsal would be improbable: Introduce them to other key leaders and perhaps to your own family members. Take them on a tour of your city or town. Meander through the local cemetery, where a discussion about “desired legacy” could easily evolve.

Cemeteries, like shopping, walking or attending a provocative play, might seem like odd tag-ons in a selection process. That “odd” informality is precisely why unrehearsed (yet well-planned) interactions add value.

I have taken executives on walks, canoe paddles, mountain hikes, golf outings and into inner-city slums. More than 60 clients have accompanied me into Attica Prison for conversations with inmates. I have observed smart, accomplished leaders in situations where they are outside their zone of familiarity. In that different light, I have found, they are likely to reveal a more genuine self, for better and worse.

Pitfall #2: I’m in a hurry!”

The more important the selection decision is, the more patience is required to make it.

Taking more time for important decisions affords practical opportunities to experience a candidate in a variety of settings. For key positions, consider multiple interactions with a cross-section of future peers, direct reports and superiors.

Note that I call the contact points “interactions,” not “interviews.” Interviews are what people prepare for, a limiting factor. Informal interactions, on the other hand, mirror real-time relationships, and are more likely to shed light on the big-ticket concerns of culture fit, maturity and integrity.

When you slow the pace of the process, a message is sent to all candidates: “This position is important to our organization, and we will do all in our power to make the best choice.”

Pitfall #3: “I discuss my observations with others, after the candidate leaves.”

In high-level leadership hiring processes, golden opportunities are missed by not openly discussing interactions as they occur.

Providing feedback to job candidates during the interactions/interviews affords a useful window to observe how candidates handle feedback and self-reflection. For example, if you notice that a particular candidate ignored a receptionist, you might think: “I now have a single piece of data about this candidate’s response to a receptionist. That, in itself doesn’t tell me much, but it gets me wondering. I’m going to keep my eyes open to how they interact with other ‘lower level’ staff. I’m also going to engage them in conversation ABOUT their response to our receptionist.”

Sometimes, an off-handed comment can supply more important conversation material than a slew of tests and prepared questions. The key is paying attention.

Selecting a Life Partner

The same selection pitfalls and opportunities confronting organizations face young adults who wonder: “How do I choose a life companion? What cues, besides my feelings, can I pay attention to?”

How often have you dated someone who looked great from a distance (the equivalent of a “resume”) but turned out to have unacceptable flaws?

Here are four ideas for persons in search of life partners, corresponding with the above comments:

  1. Pay attention to behaviors more than to words. In life, as in leadership, actions really do speak louder than claims and promises.

  2. Observe your prospective partner in a wide variety of settings that include conflicts, values clashes, situations requiring quick, accurate decisions, lots of different social settings and one-on-one time with each significant family member and friend.

  3. Take your time – for most individuals, the selection of a mate is likely their single most important life decision.

  4. Notice how your partner responds to candid, even difficult dialogue. Pre-commitment functioning is usually a good indicator of post-commitment functioning.

Acceptance based on a single asset or rejection based on a single flaw typically reveals reactive decision-making. Candidates for leadership or life companionship should be evaluated based on a “total package,” which has been deliberated after a variety of interactions.

Finally, ask yourself, “What about us (or me) would likely interest the kind of leader (or partner) I seek?”

4 Responses to “May 2013: Selecting by Connecting: A Leg Up for Choosing Leaders and Lovers”

  1. May 01, 2013 at 1:42 pm, Jerry said:

Though I don’t believe hiring for competency is “easy”, I agree finding true leadership characteristics in an individual requires the type of effort and approach you describe. I do think, though, that key employee selection occurs on a vastly reduced timeline than the search for a life partner generally. Poor selection (in either, though) as you say is often a result of hoping the “bad” things are not so significant, and the “good” things are far more important than they actually might be. An emotional suspension of rationale thought. As always – thanks!

  1. May 02, 2013 at 12:20 am, Barry Melancon said:

A prison visit with John is on my to do list. I love the reflective idea of the cemetery walk … I do wonder in a competitive world for talent how that plays out when/if you extend an offer?

  1. May 06, 2013 at 12:50 pm, Stephanie Ferrera said:

These very useful ideas get me thinking about how much emotional process enters into selecting a candidate for the workplace…as well as for a life partner. Dr. Bowen defined “observational blindness” as not seeing what is right in front of us. It’s easy to see what one wants to see, and dismiss all the clues and evidence that don’t fit one’s biases. If only one could know ahead of time as much as one learns in the first week of a new job.

  1. May 10, 2013 at 4:37 am, Lorna Hecht-Zablow, MFT said:

‘Take your time – for most individuals, the selection of a mate is likely their single most important life decision.” This is such a logical point to make, yet many people seem to believe that a desire to rush into a ‘permanent’ commitment is proof of a superior love. That’s the cover for the reactivity, anyway.

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