One of the most key of all the key skills of a top manager is the ability to choose and keep good support staff.
No manager runs a department or an organisation alone. The secret is to do it through other people.
The most skilful manager I ever knew was an expert in his field, but having become an expert, he stopped doing and started mentoring and then delegating. Obviously he did the mentoring at which he was also an expert so that he could delegate and delegate successfully.
Within a few years he was able to have a “ round table” every Monday morning , listen to the heads of each of the units he managed report about the previous week, hear what they had to say or ask about each of the others’ reports, agree on projects for the coming week, delegate authority and take everyone out to lunch. They had one of the closest knit and most effective teams in their field in the country.
For the rest of the week he met with the heads of other departments in his own company, heads of those in other companies, members of various government functions (never with ministers), competitors and what would now be described as “stakeholders” and did the policy planning for future possible scenarios that might arise.
The secret, of course, was in the choice of people he hired to be on his team. He was a skilful and perceptive judge of people and chose only the ones most suited to a particular role. Not the ones with the highest university marks or the best “connections.” Not even the ones who had held a senior position elsewhere.
As a trainee, I sat quietly in a corner taking notes watching while he interviewed.
There was no “sizing up people in five minutes” that lesser interviewers boasted about. He gave everyone a chance and listened to what they said with more than his ears.
One applicant for an engineering supervision position on an oil rig came in with experience and excellent training and qualifications, but I knew immediately that he wouldn’t get the job. As soon as he opened his mouth, out jumped a Yankee accent. He had been born and grew up in Sangre Grande, for goodness’ sake! It sounded phony, like an actor in a Hollywod western.
It was a PMSL-organised panel interview and when the applicant left, everyone on the panel agreed with me. “Those roughnecks on the rig will make mincemeat of him,” one said.
But in the interview we had learned that working in Texas, in the oilfields there, he had become fluent in Spanish, and working in Louisiana, he had become fluent in French. He was one of those people who learned languages easily, apparently.
I thought, “So what? He won’t need those languages in Galeota.”
But then the chairman patiently pointed out to the panel that he had probably just naturally picked up the accent of the community he worked in and would soon revert to his Trini drawl when he had been home for a few weeks.
So said, so done. He was hired and became one of their most valuable team leads, and I learned never to judge simply on the basis of an accent.
Another interview I never forgot was for a very senior marketing position. The applicant, another returnee, had excellent qualifications on paper, but I had learned by then that resumes can be downloaded and drafted for you online and are the worst way to judge someone’s ability.
Another panel interview. The applicant was well dressed and articulate, spoke authoritatively and easily about the marketing process and potentialities. He ticked all the boxes and impressed us all.
I was uneasy, because he was too good to be true, but I could not find any reason to pass him over, and I did not tell my fellow panellists about my unease. The results of the security check we had done on him had not been returned, but the company was in a hurry, so we went ahead.He was hired.
Three months later, he was found to have embezzled a considerable sum from his new company, and when his wife threatened to leave him, he killed her and committed suicide. I was devastated.
That was before we had learned how to do psychometric testing. I learned not to rush the results of background checks: when his finally came in from New York, confidential evidence indicated that he was being investigated for fraud just before he skipped town.
We learn by our mistakes, so I reviewed our interviewing process, then went abroad and studied psychometric testing.
Clever conmen rehearse answers for standard questions such as:
Tell me about a time when you dealt with a conflict of interest.
Tell me about a time you accomplished something you are proud of.
Tell me about a time when you made a mistake or failed to meet a target.
Tell me about a time when you had to handle pressure.
Tell me about a time when you had to persuade someone to do something they didn’t want to do.
Describe your most challenging project.
These typical interview questions can be downloaded from the internet alongside equally clever answers.
But nowadays, two can play that game and professional interviewers have access to computers as well, and know how to use them. Like the judges in court who, with experience, can spot an unreliable witness, experienced interviewers can spot an exaggerating interviewee.
Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).