Competence, Character, and Curiosity

There are lots of different ways you can separate personalities and, by extension, management styles into two distinct groups. One of them is what I refer to as “process versus product.” Process means that people are invested in getting the order and structure of things set in such a way that good results are achieved. Tim Cook at Apple came to his CEO position from being unbelievably good at processes, first at Compaq and then at Apple.

His predecessor, the legendary Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was removed from Apple, a company he co-founded, largely on the basis on his shortcomings as a process manager. Steve was all product, meaning that he didn’t really care how something got done as long as it was great at the end.

But, in organizations, both sides of an enterprise's brain need to be engaged and working with each other. Together, Steve and Tim formed an absolutely unbelievable team, perhaps because they so perfectly complimented each other and were individually so uniquely exceptional in their strengths.

Process management is important, and can be hugely effective, especially when you are not dealing with people. Automation of all kinds, almost by definition, benefits immensely from thorough, thoughtful, and intelligent process design. As stated above, it’s absolutely necessary in any organization. But, it can’t be the only approach used for every problem.

A manager I used to work with absolutely believed that if you just got the process spot-on, the result would always be what you wanted. While we agreed on a lot, this is an area in which we agreed to disagree. The problem was context. We worked in a field built around human development. In my mind, the human element will break even the best-designed and best-intentioned process designed for them. People are just too different and complicated to be approached from the perspective of a “process.”

Hiring is a perfect example of an activity that is too unpredictable to be subjected to a rigid and detailed process. As I have mentioned previously, the hiring of one’s direct reports is a task that I would never delegate. It is the most impactful activity that a manager undertakes.

Despite its importance, however, hiring is generally one of the most poorly conducted tasks I have ever witnessed within an organization. I think this is because it’s at least as much art as it is science. People are complicated. Figuring them out is really, really tough and some people are better at it than others. The typical organizational hiring practices, to my eye, concede defeat immediately, albeit tacitly, and generally go through a process that looks and sounds sensible, but in reality yields far too many failures.

So, a position becomes available. The first steps are usually to polish up the job description and make sure that everything thing we didn’t like about the last incumbent is addressed. These days it may be the case that a computer does the screening of applications, or perhaps this is done as a Human Resources department function, or maybe a group is assembled to identify those candidates that are lucky enough to get an interview. Again, this is an area in which I never delegated. I have listened to multiple pitches from HR system vendors in which their AI-like screening of candidates is a feature to be cherished. No thank you.

I once hired an individual who had gone many years without holding a proper job in the field after having been through a corporate reorganization. He looked good to me on both paper and in person. But, the question of why he wasn’t working already was a mystery. I queried as to whether there was something in his past that was problematic and let him know that our organization did, by regulatory requirement, thorough background checks. He basically said that he felt his applications were being screened out for a reason he couldn’t explain. It seems to me that he faced a situation in which the people (or machines) screening applications did not see his as a “perfect fit” and therefore discarded him before he could even get an interview scheduled. Shame on them—I hired him and he was a great hire.

Hiring in technology is made more difficult by the breadth of technologies out there, the ephemeral nature of many of them, and the fact that some poor candidates have an easy time of gaming screening algorithms and snowing entry-level HR staff. If you’re hiring for anything but your immediate short term needs, you owe it to yourself to find really good people who will stay with you for the medium or long term. As someone who hired for an organization with almost universally low compensation, I had no choice but to try and find those who had been overlooked by others, but who would stay and do a great job for many years.

How does a hiring manager go about doing this? For me, the answer was to do a good job of screening applications, involvng as many people who would be directly affected by the hiring as possible, and using the interview process to separate out the wheat from the chaff. The last step is, of course, the hardest, but it’s not impossible to do well. I used a simple set of constructs when interviewing. They are dependent on the belief that most people are willing to tell you exactly who they are if you just give them the opportunity, for better or for worse.

I always conducted two interviews. The first was designed as a dialogue that religiously avoided the structure used by most interviewers; that is, a series of written questions. I’ve been pulled into those types of interviews and I find that they’re almost useless as everyone knows how to game a set of mostly predictable questions. The best "performers" were those who stood out, but those are not necessarily the best people to hire.

Alternatively, I looked to establish a dialogue. In order to schedule someone for an interview, there had to be something in their resumé that seemed interested enough to initiate a conversation. So, that’s exactly from where I would start a discussion.

The goal was never to hear the candidates’ attempts to “nail” our questions with their perfect and finely-honed answers, but rather to ascertain how well-aligned a candidate was to my goal of hiring people who were competent and capable to do the job, who had character traits that meant they could be trusted, and who were curious enough to use their talents to improve themselves and the organization. Check those three boxes accurately and you’ll always end up with a good hire.

The dialogue in the first interview, properly conducted and controlled by the interviewer, will yield pretty good answers to the question as to whether the candidate possesses the right blend of competence, character, and curiosity. These terms are never mentioned during the dialogue, but every interjection by an interviewer should have as a goal getting the candidate to offer evidence of their possessing these qualities. The candidates you want to hire will be comfortable to oblige you even if they do not know precisely what they are offering.

The second interview was always some type of presentation about a job-related task the candidate is asked to complete. I never made the tasks too specific or painfully difficult as I didn’t care as much about the task as I did about whether the candidate could simply complete it, talk intelligently about how they approached it, and why they took the approach they did. At the same time, they needed to demonstrate the ability to interact honestly and professionally with my team all the while having some level of enthusiasm for what they were doing and where they wanted their next step to be.

The investment per candidate in this process could be done in just a few hours and, when done well, yielded huge benefits and a high success rate. We very often spend a lot more time on capital investments that cost far less than the salary and benefits of many professionals. I definitely cannot pretend to be perfect in terms of hiring—I don’t think anyone is—but I would be willing to defend my estimate of an 80% rate of success, which really good in the field of technology.

Throwing out the question list can definitely be intimidating and may seem a little risky, but for me it yielded far better results. In an organization known for low salaries and high turnover in most departments, we maintained a team of technology professionals who were all competitively underpaid, but rarely left. Hiring is but part of the effort required to achieve that type of result, but it is the first step and it’s one that you absolutely have to get right. And, to my mind, this is one of those areas in which the detailed cookbook recipe will not work. You need to pay attention mostly to the product you desire and be creative with your interactions with individual people to discern the information you truly need to make a smart decision.