Some years ago we needed a new part-time administrator. As soon as the paper hit the streets an enthusiastic young woman I’ll call Sue was on the phone. My retiring administrator and I were so impressed with her apparent skills, CV and attitude we didn’t even bother to interview any others, and engaged her with no hesitation.
Within 48 hours it was clear we’d made a serious mistake! There was a huge mismatch between the skills Sue had and what the job required. The wasted time just about drove me nuts. It also had a serious impact on my productivity, for as well as training her I also had all my normal work – speeches to give and courses to run.
Feeling seriously frustrated and beaten up round the edges, I was indulging in a pity party over drinks a few days later with my friend Christine.
‘You should have used a profiling tool,’ she said. ‘You’ve clearly hired on liking, rather than who’s the best for that specific work. You tried to put a square peg in a round hole!’
Within a couple of weeks, to my relief, Sue found she couldn’t manage work, study and child and left – leaving heaps of messy incomplete work.
Within seconds, I was on the phone to Christine, whose company used a profiling tool based on the DISC system.
‘I’m sending you two questionnaires. You score one, not as yourself, but as if you were the job that needs filling. This highlights the behavioural demands of the job itself – not the behavior of the person doing the job. Then, when a candidate looks promising, based on their CV and preliminary phone interview, ask them to fill in the other questionnaire. It’s similar. It helps them identify their ideal work environment. If there’s a reasonable match, only then take the time to interview them and do reference checks. There’s a more comprehensive questionnaire, but for many situations this simple and inexpensive 2-pager will do.’
I’d always been slightly disbelieving about the value of these selection tools: however, my ‘gut feeling’ method had brought terrible results this time, so I was prepared to give it a shot.
The ad was placed and the phone started to ring again. It’s very hard to choose when you’ve got a bunch of equally good-sounding people, but I ended up with three who presented very well. Following Christine’s instructions, I asked each of them to fill in the questionnaire before we met.
One lady sounded fabulous over the phone – I was really looking forward to meeting her. But Christine came back with: ‘Don’t go there. You’ll waste her time and yours. There’s too much of a mismatch. She shows up as needing constant reassurance, but the job shows as needing a lot of independent thinking – an ability to make autonomous decisions without constant reference to you. You know you’re out of the office a lot, and travel extensively. If you hire this lady you’ll put quite unfair stress on her. She’ll be excellent for someone else, but not for you.’
And so I hired Jill, a wonderful office administrator, perfect for the job, and still with us six years later. What did we learn? If we can tap into our people’s strengths instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes, we give them room to shine.
How can we get the right people?
Of course you may not have been involved with the selection process, and find yourself suffering the consequences of some else’s mistake. That’s another story. But let’s suppose you are the hirer. What do you look for? How do you make the selection? There’s a whole industry and science around personnel selection, but as we discovered, probably the least accurate method is to get someone you have an instant liking for, especially if you need them to do a job different from your own. The likelihood of achieving the correct combination of skills, personality, attitude, and knowledge with that yardstick is pretty slim. Why, you ask?Because they’re almost always doing different work from you.
Once you’re down to the short list, here are some general questions that could be helpful for your interviews. (You probably won’t need them all to get a sense of the candidate’s working style, the way they handle situations and choices, and the way they think.)
- Can you tell me about a time, in any job you’ve done, when you were under stress.
- Can you tell me about any incident when you made a mistake on something.
- How did you handle the stress?
- What strategies did you use to overcome it?
- Think back to a time when you were working on an activity requiring a fair degree of detail. Deadlines on another important task were rapidly approaching. How did you handle the situation?
- How would you describe your ideal working environment?
- How do you like it to look or feel?
Also, consider what you can’t live with and craft questions that hopefully will show up a tendency to that type of behavior.