Selecting Senior Leaders: Is “Good Enough” good enough?

April has been a discouraging month. You would think that is would be different. Spring is finally here. Flowers are coming up in the yard. The grass has turned from brown to green. But … …

Anyone who has been listening to the news in North America is likely to share this feeling. This is especially true as the month ends off with the consistent news attention to the H1N1 (or swine flu) virus.

However, that is not what is discouraging me. During the month, I read two excellent reports published in Ontario. The first was the “Ontario Clean Technology Report”. I had a chance to listen to John Mertl, one of the co-authors of the report, speak at Guelph Partnership for Innovation monthly breakfast (Ontario, Canada), and then meet with John. It’s an impressive piece of work.

As well, I read the “Ontario in the Creative Age” report published by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the School of Management at the University of Toronto. Another impressive piece of work. (The Institute has a really innovative web site as well.)

All of this first class thinking should be inspiring. It is. But I was discouraged by it. Both reports commented on the lack of needed top management talent, and the risks that it created for Ontario’s future economic prosperity.

While I have been doing this reading, I have attending a lot of executive networking sessions. I have been visiting a number of the local college campuses. I have been learning more about Health Care Informatics, a topic that I have long been interested in. (See the COACH web site for some insight what’s happening there.) Talent, creativity and the willingness to learn at all ages were ever present in the time I spent in these activities.

What I am left with an impression that we as a society do not really know how to operationally step up to the challenges which face us. We do not know how to get the right people in the right top management spots to allow us to innovate in a risk managed way. As a result, we end up moving from economic crisis to societal crisis. Some part of this cycle is fueled by an inability of our top managers to see further than next quarter’s P & L or next year’s operating budget.

We are bound by the tribal nature of our social psychology. Our approach to leadership and top management is deeply conditioned by the genetics underlying our brain’s functioning. We depend more on implicit, emotional processes in these activities, than on rationally chosen ones.

The dialog at the executive networking sessions consistently comments on the fact that the executive search industry almost never present candidates who are not “true to type”. Executive recruiters who attend these sessions comment that their clients insist on “exact fit”, especially in these times, when there are so many candidates on the job market. The people who sponsor the networking sessions point out time and time again that the majority of executive jobs are filled through through networking, not the executive search industry or media advertising.

All of this sounds and feels like “a lot more of the same”, at the exact time when we need “different results and visions”. As an individual who has benefited from leading truly innovative, high performing management teams, and coaching superb individual managers, I find this discouraging.

Maybe it just the fact that it is a late spring. Maybe it is the fact that the world remains a very competitive and unpredictable place. Maybe it is the fact that we seem better at “commenting on” our social situation than at doing things which produce lasting and effective change. But all and all, April has been a month which has left me wondering if we are really ready as a society to tackle the massive amount of day to day concrete change that we must undertake to leave the world a better place for future generations. It has to start with doing a better job of aligning innovative proven performers with the change work that needs to be done in our institutions and enterprises. We will not face our challenges with “more of the same”.

Decades of leadership research, emotional intelligence work, competency modeling and employment interviewing research do not seem to have altered our fundamental commitment as a species to informal social processes for placing individuals into the majority of the leadership jobs in our society. We continue to do so even while we talk about more effective hiring processes. Something deep in our tribally based social psychology seems to lie behind these facts. Our rational fore minds cannot seem to get beyond the guidance of the more emotional parts of our brains.

We know that interview results are not an effective predictor of on-the-job performance. We know that hiring mistakes are costly in both real dollar and lost opportunity terms. We know that the “the tough interview questions” and the ways of preparing for them, have not changed in decades (see this link from January 1983). We know that on-the-job performance and peer ratings of past on-the-job performance are among the best, most consistent indicators of future on-the-job performance. (Ever since the OSS – Office of Strategic Services – conducted research on this during the Second World war). Yet we continue to use social networking and face-to-face conversations for selecting and placing people into most leadership jobs.

Are better ways? Yes. I attend networking sessions to watch people interact with other people, not to experience them interacting with me. The people with the capacity to listen accurately and to integrate what they hear into their interaction with others stand out. The ones who can present ideas clearly and persuasively stand out. The ones who can truly facilitate the interaction of the others there stand out.

Observation turns out to be a better tool than interviewing for me. It was in my own past recruitment practice as an executive. Watching a candidate interact with other people in the organization, especially if I could arrange short working sessions for them, turned out to be a very effective way of picking top flight candidates. It beat my recruitment interview ratings of candidates hands down.

Assessment center techniques, role play techniques and group interviewing techniques, coupled with structured ratings from with trained observers, do a better job than interviewing at identifying top performers and fit to an organization. Short on-the-job assignments followed by systematic data collection from those folks who worked with the candidate, work better than one-on-one interviewing too. Yet the people who seem to have least understanding of this are recruiters, both in HR departments and in search firms. By and large, they just offer us more of the same when it comes to recruiting and hiring.


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2 Responses to “Selecting Senior Leaders: Is “Good Enough” good enough?”

  1. George L. Says:

    Very stimulating blog. I like especially the first sentence in the last paragraph. The mixed method hiring approach is the most promising approach. However, a hiring managers often make a decision in the first several seconds. Obviously, no guarantees. Looking back to my past experiences, you can correlate success of organization of the hiring process to success of the company.
    However, no complaints about the recruiters or HR from me. I feel in every company that is responsibility on me. At the end really sr. leaders who are hiring have a final responsibility for the hiring process.

  2. Jack B Says:

    Roelf, this is a very insightful and well-written article which truly captures the ‘state of hiring’ we are seeing today in my chosen field.

    While I can understand the desire for companies to stay within their comfort zone I’m not sure how anyone who is outside this environment can get an audience on these opportunities.

    Quite often they get exactly what they had before (if that is indeed what they want). I believe they might be missing out on the ability to have strategic and creative thinking from a very strong vantage point which may in fact be understanding of their customers and create the ability to actually make them and their clients better in the process. What a concept!

    Thanks for sharing Roelf.


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