Monday, June 22, 2009

A Few Good Managers

A friend of mine who is looking for a new manager at her company recently asked me for advice on finding a good one. Although the importance of good management is a recurring theme on this blog, it's not an easy question to answer.

First of all, what is a good manager? It's fairly subjective but I think most of us can agree that we'd rather work for someone who is honest, competent and mentoring than someone who is a self-serving suck up who spends all their time angling for the next promotion.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell in an interview whether someone is in it strictly for themselves or also has some genuine interest in the individuals they are to manage. But difficult or not, it's pretty important because you're hiring this person to lead a team of people who do paid work for your company and you'll get a better pay-to-work ratio from satisfied, well-managed employees than bitter, frustrated employees who sneak off to Starbucks to complain about their manager.

Here are several questions that can help identify whether candidates have their heart in the right place when it comes to managing people:

1. What do you think the primary job of a manger is? This question will help you get a sense for what the candiate is all about. Of course, no one will be totally honest and respond with, 'I think a manager's primary job is to pontificate at meetings, overengineer simple processes and pretend they understand what their team is working on so they can take credit for it,' but it's a start.

2. Describe projects you have worked on as a team lead and how you supported your team. This question helps uncover specific examples of how the candidate worked with people in a team lead capacity. Does the candidate focus primarily on how masterfully he presented to the project sponsors on a daily basis? Or is anything forthcoming about how she helped people meet their deadlines and/or personal objectives? This is where you may get a more honest answer to question #1 through specific examples and can start to form a picture of this person in action.

3. How do you think your colleagues and direct reports would describe you? This question forces the candidate to see him- or herself through other people's eyes. A more commonly asked question is, 'Describe your weaknesses,' which everyone is prepared for with some answer like, 'I'm just too dedicated and hard-working [heavy sigh].' I used this one myself with great success before it got published in the Dummies Guide to Job Interviews and everyone started using it. The point here is that because the stock answer won't work for this question you may be rewarded with a candid answer.

One other question worth asking if the candidate comes from a company that just went out of business. (Side note: It always amazes me how eager companies are to snap up the management teams of failed companies. I mean, think about it.)

4. Why do you think your former company was not successful? This question also forces the candidate to be introspective and again, surprise may elicit an honest response. There are limits to how much candor you can expect, of course, but this question will give you some insight into the candidate's problem analysis skills.

Important note: The interview is just one tool for vetting candidates, and not necessarily the best one since even serial killers have been known to make a great first impression. Be sure to ask the candidate to include at least one direct report on the list of references and also use your own social network. Ask colleagues if they have any contacts that have worked with the candidate. At one company I worked with we asked employees to check their LinkedIn connections on a candidate with a glowing CV and the prompt, consistent feedback was, 'Bit of a waffler, really.' We passed.

And finally, let the team members with a stake in the decision interview the candidate and have a say in the hiring decision. It's only fair, not to mention respectful.

Having said all this, the bottom line is that if you care about good management, hiring a good manager is only the opening move and won't get you very far unless you have a corporate culture that is conducive to good management. In other words, you also have to make sure you're getting good management from your managers after they are hired. This means defining what good management means to your company, monitoring that it is occuring and rewarding it where you find it.

This could be a topic for my next post so stay tuned. . .

7 comments:

  1. My husband said that his company looks for people to use the "we" word and not the "I" word. They want a team player who doesn't hog the attention.

    And... Dexter from showtime could work with me anytime as my manager. Who doesn't love a serial killer with morals?

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  2. I have had some great managers, and some horrible ones! I think there are a lot of people who look good on paper, and can interview well.

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  3. "And finally, let the team members with a stake in the decision interview the candidate and have a say in the hiring decision. It's only fair, not to mention respectful."

    I think this is brilliant. Is it the norm?

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  4. Thanks for tackling this question! We're hoping we get some good candidates -- the mistake (in retrospect) was that we had hired someone who settled for being a manager when she really had wanted another job (mine!)...

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  5. From my perspective (of only ever having been managed, not a manager) it seems to me there are two parts to being a good manager: Managing Down and Managing Up. Often the managers good at the former but not at the latter are well loved but can be ineffective in successfully advocating for the team. The managers who are good at the latter but not the former often don't earn very much respect. Finding someone who is good at both is key for the company and his/her employees. These people are rare and special. Usually they get promoted so fast that pretty soon they don't need to use either of these skills anymore, once they are at the top. Sorry, do I sound too cynical?

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  6. Well put and I agree - an issue I see, however, is that people who can manage up have an easier time getting management roles. Which is why I tend to focus on the importance of managing down.

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  7. YOu just named all the reasons I'll never be a manager!

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