What is the biggest hiring mistake you have ever made?
—Stephan Klapproth, Zurich, Switzerland
Would you believe that with about 60 years of combined experience, we have made too many hiring mistakes to name just one? It is true. Now, many occurred when we were newer at this game, but picking the right people never gets easy. Just last month, we almost blew it twice, saved only by a last-minute eureka in both cases.
Incidentally, even as we were in the midst of making these almost-mistakes, we were cringing a bit, concerned we were off-track. And yet we forged ahead, feeling simultaneously hopeful and helpless. Our candidates seemed bright and shiny enough, and we were just so tired of interviewing when there was real work to be done.
Of course, hiring is real work. Given the central importance of your people, it is as fundamental as work gets. Yet, too often, we rush headlong into its painfully common pitfalls.
Take our first near-miss last month, when we almost gave into the universal impulse to hire a person who looked too good to be true. There she was with an Ivy League degree, several technology jobs at solid companies and exactly the skills we needed. Well dressed, well spoken, charming, eager—the works. Even her salary requirement was in the low range. But she couldn’t tell us why she hadn’t held a job for the last six months.
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint)
“She plugs our hole perfectly,” we actually said to each other, and, “Maybe the job market is tighter than we thought.” Finally, we were brought to our senses when her references, despite repeated requests, would not call us back, forcing us to remember that anyone who looks too good to be true invariably turns out to have something not-so-good they are trying to keep you from noticing.
A related hiring mistake is the rush to hire a person because he possesses your missing pieces—the Wharton MBA, the way with words, the “prestige” experience. Back when one of us (Jack) was a new graduate of the University of Illinois trying to build a plastics business, he leapt at every candidate whose résumé listed Dupont. Some of those hires turned out fine; others were duds. In the end, the “pedigree” they brought to the table was less important than the entrepreneurial nerve and sales savvy they actually needed.
Flip the coin and you will find another common hiring slip-up, going for the familiar—same college, social background, favourite baseball team, and so on. This dynamic crops up especially in global hiring, where managers seem irresistibly drawn to hiring the candidate who literally speaks their language. Familiarity hiring can work. But, too often, once the new employee settles in, you begin to discover the shortcomings you should have dug for earlier but didn’t because you “knew” the candidate. You knew only what he seemed like—you.
Another mistake is hiring a candidate who has too much experience for the job, or more aptly, too little runway. It can feel reassuring to bring aboard a person who has seen it all. But, eventually, these individuals can grow bored of seeing it all again, and if there is no upward route, they become a managerial problem without an easy solution. You have hired someone into a dead end.
Finally, a misstep we have both taken is hiring a candidate who is smart and capable but just too lacking in emotional intelligence, or EQ, the term popularized by the researcher Daniel Goleman to describe the combination of self-awareness, realness, compassion and resilience that helps make people great teammates and leaders.
Luckily, most people develop EQ as they mature, through work and life experiences, both good and bad, and many others can be coached to develop latent EQ within. But, occasionally, you bump into a talented and competent candidate, as we did last month, who is so lacking in the EQ components of humility and authenticity that you can’t take a chance. Again, this young man had a lot of the right stuff, but when he started telling us he had never made a mistake in his life and didn’t expect to, we knew we had heard enough.
The happy ending to this story is that we eventually ended up with great people, but we would have to predict that our hiring travails will never end. As long as “real work” beckons, time is tight and hope springs eternal, the science of hiring will be imperfect. Just like all the people doing it.
©2008/BY NYT SYNDICATE
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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.