Hiring by Interview and Resume: A Recipe for Failure

I know of a university that looked for a new president for several years, and within weeks of hiring, the trustees knew they had made a mistake.  The sad part is that they wouldn’t admit their mistake publicly, as they would appear incompetent at making hiring decisions.

My reaction was, “What did they look at that led them to such a wrong decision?” I think they looked at a resume and listened to responses to questions like, “What would you do if …?” “What is your position on …?” “How have you handled X in the past?” Whatever they looked at and listened to were obviously the wrong things. This outcome is not unusual. In the book Measure of A Leader, my co-author James Daniels and I quote specific studies that show that leaders at the executive level have an extremely high failure rate (40 to 60 percent). Such a failure rate in any other part of a business would not be tolerated. What could be the cause of such a dismal record?

In the movie “Working Girl,” the character played by Sigourney Weaver would no doubt have an impressive resume. If you remember the movie, she stole the idea of Tess, Melanie Griffith’s character.  Weaver’s character would no doubt have given a good interview but she had fatal flaws that were eventually her undoing. How could you see this behavior with limited time with a candidate? I believe that someone who takes credit for the work of others would be a poor manager or employee at any level of a business. How could you learn this about someone by just a resume or even a series of interviews?

Business leaders are slowly realizing that at the level of manager, people skills are more valuable than technical skills. John Kello, a professor at Davidson College, says it well: “I have never seen an engineering manager fail because he/she was a bad engineer; I have seen some fail because they were ‘bad’ at dealing with people and inspiring followership.”

The question this raises is:  “What are people skills and how do you test them?” Because of the litigious society in which we live, people will not be honest about issues of character when checking references. It is unlikely that a reference would say, “He is a hard worker, but he takes credit for the work of others.”

It is clear to me that it is best to promote from within, as you can see real behavior as opposed to unreliable reports of behavior. However, at some point you need to bring in people from the outside. What do you do if interviews, resumes and references cannot be trusted?

  1. Personal reference of a current employee is best. You can have a high level of confidence in someone who has been referred by an employee who is a solid performer. In addition to a reliable assessment of the person’s work habits and character, the referring employee also has a stake in the success of the new employee.
  2. For entry-level employees, it is possible to have them produce real work samples — compose a letter, do something on the computer, analyze a problem, critique a plan, etc. Give them a task to perform that closely resembles something they would be expected to do on the job, and you will most assuredly find a diamond in the rough by observing their output.
  3. In working with students, I suggest that they create a portfolio of their work and accomplishments much as an artist does. All students can do this regardless of major. Students write papers, read books, participate in projects and social activities that give the prospective employer samples that can show creativity, quality and initiative. When students show these portfolios, the prospective employers are always impressed.
  4. Since it is risky, in my opinion, to hire supervisors, managers and executives from the outside, it is important to question them in detail about any accomplishments listed on their resume to understand if the result claimed is due to the applicant’s behavior or that of someone else. It is also important to understand specifically how the results were achieved. Give the person real, current problems for his or her analysis and solutions. Make sure to include problems of people and performance rather than problems involving strategy.

In today’s poor job market, job applicants are being taught how to present themselves and how to prepare a resume. That makes it difficult to know from people’s appearance and the written record of their lives what the person is really like, and more importantly, how they perform. However, the more real knowledge of a person’s actual behavior that you have, the more confident you can be of the person’s eventual success on the job.