I first want to wish all who have taken any of my courses, read my books or blogs, a truly happy and peaceful Christmas (Chanukah, or any Holiday) and best wishes for the coming year. I am truly grateful that I have had the opportunity to be of some small service to you.
As you know I teach and write about leadership, management and organization culture. So, of course, I view events in the news with an eye to the qualities of leadership being displayed and those required in present circumstances. I would just like to share a couple thoughts for your consideration as we look forward to the New Year.
The earth is a small planet. We are one people on this small planet. In a very real sense, we are all now world citizens. When we imagine differences and threats, when we lead in a way that amplifies those differences, we are leading toward greater friction and costs. When you manage a company, the more friction there is between engineering, manufacturing and sales, for example, the greater the likelihood of failure. All friction consumes energy and produces heat. When we create unified processes, eliminate frictions between activities and people, we reduce the cost of that friction. This is a principle that applies within a company, across companies, and across countries.
The job of leaders today, at every level, is to recognize the unity of interests, the unity of people and processes, and reduce barriers that are both real and in the imagination. Leaders create common purpose, they do not simply respond to, or exploit, popular sentiments. Leaders instill greater nobility in their followers, and do not manipulate their baser instincts. The entire world is in desperate need of leaders who are uniters, and not dividers.
I hope in the coming year we will all recognize our shared interests. The history of civilizations repeatedly demonstrates that when classes of people are increasingly separated by extremes of wealth and poverty, from top to bottom, the system becomes unstable and revolution results. The greater the disparity in class, the more violent the revolution.
There is no religious tradition, not in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, that celebrates the massive accumulation of personal wealth. They all promote charity and moderation, uplifting the poor, and forgiving those who have erred. We who either control or influence the systems of society, including within our organizations, I believe have the duty to design those systems to reduce disparity, to moderate wealth, to uplift the poor. This is the lesson of every religion in which we may profess belief. And, now is the time for leaders to put these spiritual principles into practice.
These are my prayers for the coming year. I pray for your happiness and your success.
These may be the most feared words in any corporation. Unfortunately, it has become a too often used phrase in American politics, intended to impart the image of a strong and decisive leader. But, if you are a competent manager you know that these words are the opposite – they are an admission of failure to be used rarely and humility. I write the following with the concern that some aspiring managers may fail to understand the significance of these words.
Great leaders attract the best people, have trust in them and receive trust in return. They build a team of collaborators who support one another and have very low turnover as a result. The words “you’re fired” may never be heard!
A Few Truths About Firing
First, two laws of human relationships:
If you want to be a good leader, you must first be a good human being! Your behavior reflects your values. Good human beings have good values, and if you have good values you treat others with dignity and respect. You will not gain respect if you are incapable of having respect for those whom you seek to lead.
Second, loyalty, like love, is gained when it is given. If you dismiss others easily, you will also be easily dismissed by others. If you demonstrate loyalty to others, you will likely gain loyalty in return. Loyalty is never “owed”, it is always earned.
Those of us who have been in positions of responsibility for any period of time have had to confront the unfortunate act of firing an employee. It is the single most unpleasant thing you will have to do as a manager. Why is it unpleasant? Because you know that you are inflicting pain on another human being, and if that is not painful to you, then you lack empathy, which is an essential quality of any leader.
Here are some rules of firing to consider:
- Hiring is more important than firing. If you hire well, you will fire rarely. Every firing is an admission that you did not do a good job of hiring the best people. The cost of replacing an employee is generally considered 150% of their annual compensation. When you must dismiss someone, you have incurred a significant cost to your organization.
- It is your job as a manager to develop, direct and lead your employees to the right behavior and performance and likely avoid firing. If you must fire someone then you must admit that you have either failed at hiring or failed at developing and directing that individual.
- Dismissing someone from your employment should never be a surprise to that person. Letting someone go is the last act in a process that, if done well, will correct most poor performance. This is an issue of justice! Yes, I said “justice.” It is unjust to be picked up by a policeman and thrown into prison without any knowledge of the crime. Likewise, it is unjust to fire someone who has not been given every reasonable chance to correct his or her poor performance. I go into this in some length in my course on Giving and Receiving Feedback. In short, here are some keys:
- Effective correcting and development solves most problems. You must be absolutely frank and honest with the individual, sharing the exact behavior you see as problematic and instructing them in the desired behavior.
- You must then give him or her feedback in very short order as to whether they are succeeding or failing to conform to the desired behavior. Give them the facts, the data on their performance. Give them feedback again.
- Reinforce effort and progress, not merely the final desired behavior. Human beings learn through behvior shaping, successive reinforcement of approximations toward the desired performance.
- You must go through this feedback/learning cycle several times in order to establish that the individual is either incapable or unwilling to perform. Only after repeating this cycle several times should you then warn the individual that if their behavior does not change, then you will have no choice but to terminate their employment.
- These steps of correcting, feedback, and warning must be documented in writing to both the individual and to your human resource manager. In most countries there are significant legal issues that may arise from firing.
Assuming there is still failure, consider how you go about firing someone because that act has an impact on many others in the organization.
And When You Do…
- NEVER fire someone in public or humiliate them in public in any way. If you do, you will not be trusted by others and you will lose their loyalty.
- NEVER fire someone by twitter, email or other electronic means. Let me put this in the bluntest terms I can think of: If you aren’t man enough (or woman) to sit down and confront the individual face-to-face, you do not deserve to be in any leadership position.
- When you sit down with the individual you will remind them of the previous feedback and the final warning. You will then give them the facts on their performance and why it is not acceptable.
- Now have empathy for the individual. Help him or her consider that they are still a good person, but they simply do not fit this job. Surely, there is some other job where they will be more successful and where they will be happier. Ask if they have considered a different position. You are in the power/parent position, so help them to find a path toward their own success. In the rare times I did have to fire someone, I have had them come back to me and thank me for how I let them go and how I guided them. Believe it or not, firing can be a positive experience for the individual.
I was CEO of a consulting firm for twenty years. When we hired employees I told them that no one had ever been fired for making a mistake. I made mistakes, we all made mistakes. You could only be fired for two reasons: First, outright dishonesty – dishonesty within the company or dishonesty to our clients. Second, you could be fired for your failure to learn. I did have a case in which we had given someone very explicit feedback three times in regard to the same behavior, behavior that caused our client to ask for that consultant to be removed from the assignment. Each time he blamed the client rather than accepting responsibility. He could not, or would not, learn.
If your company makes the above guidance the norm, you will have dedicated employees who are engaged in continuous self-improvement, and you will be respected as a trustworthy leader.
I am going to write a series of posts on leadership issues I consider extremely important. I would like to have your undivided attention for just a few moments. There is a dominant theme that runs through all of my online courses and writing and it is the primary task of a leader, the “one thing”, the task that is most important at this period of our history.
I am very concerned with the state of our leadership and those of us who have made a career of studying and writing about leadership have a duty to speak up.
You might remember the movie City Slickers and that wonderful character played by the great actor Jack Palance. He tells his city slickers that the secret of life is just one thing… what that is, is for them to figure out. Well, I am here to tell you the one thing, the one most important thing for you to be focused on if you want to be a successful leader, whether in business, or in any other field.
Leadership is the process of creating unity of energy and effort by instilling a devotion to a worthy purpose, a purpose that uplifts and ennobles those who will follow and sacrifice. In the end, there is no sacrifice, only the gift of worthiness.
The Unity Principle
The concept of unity is critical to understanding leadership in this age. This is true in a country, a company, or a family. Every great leader has distinguished himself (or herself), not by dividing and tearing down one group to benefit another. Rather, by creating unity out of diversity.
There is a wonderful letter from a common soldier at Valley Forge in 1777 when George Washington’s troops were cold and hungry. He wrote that he had trouble understanding what he had in common with so many of the other soldiers, some of whom only spoke German, and some Dutch, and others who spoke a dialect of English he could barely understand. They were from Pennsylvania, or Maryland, or Georgia, while he was from Connecticut. There was no “United States”, there were only diverse states, comprised of immigrants from diverse countries with diverse food, language and religions. And, it was not at all clear that they belonged together as they starved and one third went through the freezing winter without shoes. The genius of George Washington was to unite them, despite apparent differences and self-interest, into a unified force dedicated to a common and noble cause. That is what true leaders do!
Alexander the Great was a Macedonian who united the Greek cities as one state and led them on a march that conquered what was at that time, all the known world. When Alexander conquered Persia, he wore Persian dress and made the leading Persian generals, once commanders of a great and proud Persian Empire, generals in his own army. He conducted a marriage of one thousand Greek soldiers to one thousand Persian women to symbolize the unity of his Empire. His genius was not only as a battlefield commander, and he was that, but to create unity among diverse and ancient enemies. Unfortunately, on his death there was no system or structure to maintain that unity, only the personality of Alexander. It quickly disintegrated.
Abraham Lincoln’s first and primary mission on election to the presidency was to maintain the unity of his Nation that was rapidly disintegrating. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful book, A Team of Rivals, chronicles his cabinet comprised, not of those who most agreed with him. Rather his cabinet was formed of rivals who would disagree and inform his own views. It was the creation of unity of those around him, those who would disagree, that informed his decision making.
A strong leader is not one who enforces conformity and loyalty to his personality. A strong leader instills loyalty to principles, not personality. A strong leader is strong enough within, to allow the clash of differing opinions around her.
The history of the human race is the history of ever expanding circles of complexity, diversity, and collaboration. It is the expansion of commerce and influence based on trust. Building walls to keep out those who are different or those who are in need is not only contrary to the American tradition, it contradicts the inevitable march of human history. No matter what any individual or politician thinks or fears, we are moving toward an age in which national borders have little meaning as our economies merge into one global economy. This leader recognizes that the game of commerce is nonzero-sum, not a zero-sum game. Global collaboration has not weakened any country. It has led to an increase in aggregate wealth and reduction of conflicts.
During our last elections both candidates campaigned against the Trans Pacific Partnership trying to appeal to those who fear globalization. That partnership would have opened markets to U.S. farmers and manufacturers that until now have been closed. Having withdrawn from that, Japan has led the renegotiation among the remaining eleven countries and this partnership will be signed in March, leaving the United States to be excluded. Today Japan signed a trade agreement with the European Union. The United States is being left out in the cold, by our own ill conceived choice. Our withdrawal has been a gift to competitors as we have disadvantaged ourselves. At the same time our farmers have seen a collapse of soy bean and other commodity futures as we have created a tariff war that will inevitably damage our own economy by increasing costs and reducing opportunities for expansion.
The imperative of unity is not only in international affairs. It equally true within companies. Some years ago, I was conducting a workshop at Intel with the senior management team. I watched as Any Grove, the legendary founder and CEO made a statement, to be followed by a young manager who raised his hand and said “Andy, you keep saying that, and it keeps being wrong”, an astonishing statement by an audacious young manager to a legendary and powerful CEO. I watched as Andy turned around in his seat and said “OK, what do the rest of you think”, and for twenty minutes I lost control of my workshop.
I stood there in awe of the frankness and honesty of the conversation, true dialogue, and I realized that this young and audacious manager must have known that he was not ruining his career by challenging Andy Grove in an open forum. Why? Andy Grove was a scientist, a physicist, and the company had been built on science, intellectual inquiry, and this is what Andy Grove valued most. He didn’t value subservience or obedience, the certain signs of a weak and fearful leader. He valued the pursuit of truth that comes from intellectual challenge! This is leadership in the knowledge age.
The ability to lead frank and honest dialogue leads to unity of understanding, unity of thought, unity of energy and effort. This is the task of the leader and it is what is needed most in our companies, our country, and our world. We need to find and elect leaders who are devoted to principles, not promoting their personality. We need leaders strong enough to listen and learn, to engage in the nonzero game of world commerce and culture.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is undeniably one of the great entreprenuers of our age and is rightfully in the same league as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others. He is a pioneer in solar energy, launching rockets into space and returning them in a remarkable display of engineering, and is set on upending the automotive business with this all electric Teslas. Recently, however, he has been struggling to meet production goals for his mass market Model 3. This may turn out to be a significant lesson in corporate culture and leadership.
Elon Musk has a vision of a highly automated factory, dominated by robots and artificial intelligence, reducing to near zero the human factor. He believes that his vision of the factory will be his competitive advantage. Musk took over the manufacturing plant that had been NUMMI, the joint venture between GM and Toyota and was the great experiment in taking an older unionized workforce and transforming them into the most productive auto assembly plant in the United States. It proved the application of lean manufacturing in the United States and that it was not dependent on a Japanese workforce or a workforce that was indoctrinated in a greenfield operation. But, Musk has essentially tossed aside the lessons of NUMMI in his belief that he has a superior idea. He recently said…
“The competitive strength of Tesla long-term is not going to be the car: It’s going to be the factory. We are going to productize the factory…
I am, of course, biased. Virtually all of my consulting and training, particularly my new Lean Leadership and Lean Culture course, are all about the human side of lean management which is entirely derived from the lessons of Toyota. My “House of Lean” is designed to reflect the belief that successful organizations are about equal parts technical systems and social systems. The core lean principles of Respect for People and Continuous Improvement are all about people, the social system. If Elon Musk is right about his future factory, the significance of the people side will be minimalized. I doubt it, and so far, the stumbling of his manufacturing facility is not supporting his hypothesis.
John Shook of Lean Enterprise Institute recently said the following:
“The tools required to run a great factory aren’t merely math and engineering, but psychology and sociology. Social psychology and neuroscience. Organizational development and system dynamics – with “system” referring to not only the technical side, which Elon and team will figure out, but also the much more complex social side. The social side is difficult in its own right – add the technical complexity of orchestrating the operational execution and timing involved in gathering and assembly thousands of parts that arrive at exactly the right place at the right time in perfect (down to the minute) precision for thousands of humans to choreograph themselves to the precise (down to the second) rhythm and you’ve got a social-technical challenge of epic proportions.”
Jeffrey Liker, author of the Toyota Way and other essential books on lean recently wrote…
“In my view Elon Musk has adopted an untenable mechanistic philosophy that will need to change if Tesla is to be successful as a mass producer of vehicles, no matter how well designed. He will need to discover basic values that underlie operational excellence like developing people, building culture, continuous improvement, visual management, and work teams owning their processes. In short, he will need to learn about, perhaps the hard way, lean management. Sitting back and counting your money while marveling at digital systems humming along sounds like a dream vision, but it is not reality. Mass production is hard work.”
It should be remembered that Roger Smith at General Motors invested billions of dollars in the dream of a highly automated plant and it resulted in failure. Until Musk or someone else demonstrates the viability of super automated plants, the people skills, the knowledge of lean management, team leadership, problem-solving, and continuous improvement, will remain the proven basis for success.
Lean Leadership – A Response to Challenge
Leadership is the courageous and creative response to challenge. Lean leadership is no different. No significant change happens in the absence of challenge. There is no Martin Luther King in the absence of racism; no Churchill absent fascism; and, no Lincoln absent slavery. One could argue that all progress is in the dance to the rhythm of challenge-and-response.
In business the challenge is different. It is the challenge of innovation – new technologies, new markets, and new economic conditions. There is no Henry Ford absent the challenge presented by the internal combustion engine; no Bill Gates absent the microprocessor; and no Mark Zuckerberg absent the internet. Lean leadership is the response to the challenge of innovative methods and the potential of human creativity. The task of the lean leader is to define the strategic challenge for his or her organization and present that challenge in a way that creates a response that results in significant change and continuous improvement.
It would be wonderful to believe that simply sharing knowledge of a better way would result in the adoption of that better way. If only we were rational beings. But after assisting dozens of companies with their efforts to institute a lean culture, it is very obvious that the success of those efforts is directly linked to the quality and constancy of lean leadership. Lean Leadership and Lean Culture require very specific actions on the part of leaders and I do not think those actions of been well articulated in previous books and articles. I have attempted to define these actions in my new course on Lean Leadership and Lean Culture and I want to summarize them here.
To Challenge and to Serve
Leaders define the mountain to be climbed, the worthy purpose that will motivate followers to sacrifice. They then recognize the task to serve the needs of their followers by enabling them, providing the tools, the guidance, the skills, the path toward success, and finally, celebrating that success. Challenging employees and then serving them may seem to be almost contradictory functions, but they are both necessary sides to the same coin.
The Challenge is Strategy
The challenge is strategy… it is where we are going and why we are going there, and it is only the leaders of the organization who can set that strategy and establish the challenge. It is the primary function of leadership in every organization, whether an army or an entrepreneurial start-up company. Too many leaders set their sights too low. They are too practical. They establish a target, a challenge, of improving operating efficiency by ten percent. Or, reducing cycle time by twenty percent. Do those goals inspire you? Do you seriously think they inspire employees to sacrifice for “the cause?” I doubt it. Because we are too often punished for the failure to achieve goals we reduce our vision to that which is easily understood and achieved. Toyota’s global vision states:
“Toyota will lead the way to the future of mobility, enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people.
Through our commitment to quality, constant innovation and respect for the planet, we aim to exceed expectations and be rewarded with a smile.”
That’s big! Toyota isn’t in the car business, they are in the mobility business, and their job is to enrich lives around the world! From that challenge may flow ten thousand more specific challenges, targets or goals, that lead to the fulfillment of the big vision. But, you must start with a motivating challenge that gives people dignity and purpose. That is the root cause of motivation and change.
Lean Leaders are “Servant Leaders”
I have identified six specific functions of lean leaders, each of which are essential to implementing lean principles in an organization. Here is a quick overview of those six functions. (These are explained in some detail in my course.)
1. Develop External/Business Strategy
Business strategy is a response to external threats and opportunities, both employing and then developing internal capabilities. Lean leadership and culture is not divorced from business strategy, but is rather a means of developing the internal capabilities that will enable the organization to execute business strategy.
2. Develop Internal Culture Strategy
External strategy defines where we are going. Internal strategy defines what we need to get there. Strategy is only achieved if there is alignment of internal culture and capabilities to the strategy. Peter Drucker is reported to have said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The point is that you can’t achieve a business strategy if you don’t have the necessary culture and capabilities. The absence of this alignment creates friction, and friction is waste… not lean!
3. Lead System Design
Too many lean consultants think you can simply go into an organization and start doing PDCA problem solving at the first level and create a lean culture. This is too easy! Too often the barriers that create interruptions and waste in the process are determined at a higher level. They are both social and technical. They are the relationships with suppliers, the layout of the plant, the existence of warehouses and staffs. They are layers of management that suck decision up and rob employees of dignity and the ability to solve problems. In short, they are system problems that require design thinking! The lean leader recognizes the need for systems and structure to align with strategy and creates a process of redesign.
4. Be the Model
Leadership is modeling the behavior desired of others. If you have sat in a meeting of senior managers at Honda or Toyota, as I have, you would witness the practice of effective team management, problem-solving and consensus reaching. You would also witness leaders asking if they have “been on the spot” (the Gemba) to directly observe the work and listen to the “world’s greatest experts.” In other words, they are practicing Respect for People and Continuous Improvement, the two core principles of lean culture. Your ability to institute culture change is directly related to your ability to be a model of that culture.
5. Coach & Develop Others
A leader is a coach. A leader knows that his or her job is to develop the capacity of others. The greater the capacity of others the easier is the job of the leader. At Toyota every manager has a coach, an internal coach, a peer. I developed my course on Coaching Leaders for Continuous Improvement to aid in the development of this internal capacity. Continuous improvement is not only about the production line. It is about personal development, the desire to personally improve our own skills. This is the job of a coach and we need to develop a culture of coaching others, which is a form of service to others.
6. Motivation and Accountability
In our desire to develop a positive culture it may be easy to put aside the reality that it is the manager’s job to hold others accountable. Even in an environment of self-directed teams, the manager is responsible for assuring that those teams are accountable for performance. Toyota practices “Four-to-One” which is the practice of four positive comments to one negative. Research in the 1960’s by Dr. Ogden Lindsley demonstrated that the optimum learning environment sees more positive than negative interactions. The actual ratio he found was 3.57 to one. While the exact number is not important, it is important that we recognize that motivation to continuously improve must be reinforced positively.
Each of these six components of lean leadership deserve serious study and practice by the leader or manager wishing to implement lean management and culture. I have tried to aid that study with my Udemy course on Lean Leadership and Lean Culture.
High Value Lean Leadership Training
For the past several months I have been working to fill what I believe has been a gap in the available training in Lean Culture, Lean Leadership and Change Management. I have covered some aspects of lean in my Team Leadership course, but not provided a thorough description of lean culture or the critical role of leaders in leading a change process. There has also not been a course priced economically enough to enable companies to provide the training to large numbers of employees. This is the purpose of my latest course on Lean Culture, Lean Leadership and Change Management, priced at only $12.99 for six and a half hours of training that includes two complete books (each worth more than that price), thirteen activities and case studies.
Since I was involved at Honda when they first came to the U.S., I have been engaged with dozens of clients implementing lean or Toyota Production System. For me, lean is not an academic exercise. I have been hands on in both manufacturing and health care creating significant change in the work processes and the culture. I have the published case studies to prove it. I know what it takes because I have done it, repeatedly! I also know the important role that leaders must play for change to succeed. I have spelled that out in this course.
The House of Lean
To illustrate what I believe are the critical components of lean, both the social and technical systems, I have created this “house of lean” and the course covers each of these components. If you take this course you will know lean culture and leadership.
There are six major sections of the course.
- The first section covers the process of knowledge integration upon which lean is founded; the work of Shigeo Shingo and the die press, quick change over process, a trip to Honda to understand the basic components of both social and technical systems.
- The second section covers an overview of the components of lean.
- The third section covers the principles and practices of lean culture (elimination of waste, the scientific method, kaizen, heijunka, etc.)
- The fourth section is focused on lean leadership and describes what lean leaders do to model the behavior that reinforces continuous improvement. I have framed this in terms of the leadership responsibility to define the strategic challenge toward which everyone should be working, and to serve the needs of employees in achieving continuous improvement toward that strategy.
- The fifth section describes the process of designing the house of lean in your organization, the systems and structures upon which a lean culture can be built.
- And, the final section describes the habits of daily management and continuous improvement, what I have called the Team Kata.
I am confident that this is my best course yet and will serve as a good introduction to lean for all of your employees. Just click on this link and it will take you to the course.
The Challenge of Virtual Teams
“Of 1,700 knowledge workers surveyed, 79% reported working always or frequently in dispersed teams. Armed with laptops, Wi-Fi, and mobile phones, most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere.” Harvard Business Review, Dec 2014
As someone who does much of his consulting and training in virtual space, the issue of how best to manage virtual teams has become a significant issue for many organizations. It was one of the topics that Udemy for Business customers indicated was a high priority. You may have received a request to participate in an online survey on your experience with virtual teams a couple months back. I promised to share the results of that survey and I have developed an online course to train managers and facilitators to manage virtual or dispersed teams.
Here is a coupon for the course, Leading Virtual Teams, for a cheap $9.99 ;-).
You can see the complete results of the survey here: Virtual Team Survey
Here are some of the highlights from the survey:
The survey asked “What one piece of advice do you have for others leading virtual teams?”
- Make sure the team has a clear charter.
- The agenda is key
- Send agenda, send reminders, send action plans before and after meetings.
- Rotate facilitation
- Ensure engagement and ownership of tasks
- Pause and wait for others to respond
- Spell out the guidelines and enforce them
- Distinguish between “review/update” meetings vs. “problem solving.”
- Be as inclusive as possible.
- Make sure you can SEE each other.
- Keep and publish attendance record.
Somewhat to my surprise, those responding indicated that the technology was more problematic than the behavior of members.
I also asked about the software they were using and how satisfied they were with that software. The software that received the highest satisfaction was Zoom.
By far the biggest problem reported by those leading virtual meetings is simply keeping participants focused and engaged, rather than multi-tasking and distracted. In my course I recommend a number of strategies to maintain engagement of those participating in virtual team meetings.
“Also make it clear that multitasking on calls isn’t OK. According to a recent study,82% of people admit to doing other things—from surfing the web to using the bathroom—during team calls. But virtual collaboration requires that everyone be mentally present and engaged. Explain your policy, and when the group has a virtual meeting, regularly call on people to share their thoughts. Better yet, switch to video, which can essentially eliminate multitasking.” HBR Dec 2014
Many of the issues faced by leaders of virtual teams are the same as those facilitating in-person meetings. I have tried to address the key facilitaton skills that apply to both virtual and non-virtual meetings in my online course.
You might find this interesting:
In a traditional job interview, the interviewer is in the driver’s seat, controlling the questions, pace, and format of the meeting. This may be standard operating procedure, but it’s the worst possible way of identifying a good fit, says Udemy leadership coach Lawrence Miller.
“That’s a terrible environment and exercise for making judgments about people,” he says. “The interviewer is a poor observer because he or she is performing at the same time. You are a much better observer of behavior when you can sit back and watch the candidates perform in a simulation that calls on the same skills required in the job.”
Miller found the best employees for his Maryland-based management-consulting firm when he turned the interview process upside down, bringing in candidates in small groups, and asking them to interview him and his team and then each other.
The first step—allowing candidates to interview you—is a good indicator of fit, says Miller. “It helps them decide whether they want to work for us; a job is, after all, a marriage,” he says. “They could ask absolutely any question that they felt was important to their decision.”
The most common questions were about finances, management practices, work methods, and expectations, and Miller looked for honesty behind their questions. “We most appreciated when they asked questions like, ‘What happens when a client is unhappy with your performance?’ Or, ‘How do we know that you are financially secure?’ If they’re not curious about anything, it’s not a good sign.”
The next step was having the candidates interview each other. “I told them, ‘You’re probably as qualified as we are to do this interview, so we are going to ask you to interview each other and then recommend to us who we should hire—somebody other than yourself,” he says. “I deliberately folded my arms and pushed my chair away from the table, clearly indicating that the ball was now in their court.”
In each group, Miller says someone would always start a conversation, asking the others what they thought would be the best way to proceed. “One candidate, a former Army captain, immediately tried to take charge and plan how they would proceed. It didn’t go over well,” says Miller. “The candidate who listened well, made suggestions, and brought the group gently to a consensus was the most likely to be selected.”
When they completed their interviews, Miller gave each person a piece of paper that had these four questions:
- Who would you hire and why?
- Who do you think is most technically competent to do this job?
- Who has the best skills?
- Who would you choose to be stranded with in an airport during a snowstorm?
“The last question was a good indicator of likeability,” says Miller. “We found that question to be the most reliable, because in the kind of consulting we did, it was a really good predictor of who would succeed.”
WOULD THIS WORK FOR YOU?
Having candidates interview each other in a group setting is a method that should be used strategically, recommends Bert Miller, CEO of Protis Global, an executive recruitment firm. “Not as a standard of process, but only when it’s conducive to the particular functionality and role,” he says. “For example, [it would work in a] sales or a product-development dynamic where both collaboration and competitiveness are essential to being successful.”
Candidates also get insight into the team dynamic among the hiring team, says Monster’s career expert Vicki Salemi. “Typically when there’s a panel interview with several candidates, there’s not only one interviewer, there are several,” she says. “[Candidates should] pay attention to camaraderie, and how respectful they are to one another. [They’ll] gain more insight into the organization and prospective team you’ll be working with than if everyone interviewed you separately and barely had any interaction.”
But this type of interview strategy has drawbacks, adds Salemi. “Introvert candidates may be at a disadvantage,” she says. “Extroverts may capitalize on the spotlight, and introverts may not be as vocal, even though they may be a valuable asset.”
A group situation can affect a candidate’s ability to answer thoughtfully. “Instead of a typical interview situation where they can pause before they speak to craft an articulate answer, they now have the additional responsibility of, ‘Okay, I need to jump in quickly before someone else does,’” says Salemi.
A group interview also limits the opportunity for candidates to engage organically with the hiring authority, says Bert Miller. “When dealing with top talent, they want the interview process to reflect a genuine look into an organization, and that may not be facilitated when grouped around other potential candidates,” he says.
And it puts candidates in a pressure cooker, adding unnecessary stress, says Salemi. “If they normally get nervous for one interview, imagine that magnified when they’re literally sitting among their competition,” she says.
Lawrence Miller says using this interview structure helped him make good hiring choices. “It was a good indication on how the candidates would handle real-life situations,” he says. “I’ll admit that it was anxiety provoking for the candidates, but that’s our world where you go into a conference room with five clients. You need to respond in a healthy way, and we got to see how they handle a challenge firsthand.”
Over the past year I have had increasing concern in regard to what I must call a crisis in leadership. It is not only in the U.S., but a global crisis. We desperately need to raise a generation of ethical, principled and positive leaders to move our institutions, corporate and governments, into the twenty-first century. I think it is time that we all examine our principles and call upon managers and aspiring managers and entrepreneurs to think deeply about those principles that will unite and not divide, that will uplift and not tear down, and that will energize the members of their organizations toward a worthy purpose.
For this reason I have created a new course, Leadership: The Transforming Power of Principle, to help leaders think about their own principles and to develop plans of action to institute a course of principled leadership in their organization. I would like you to have this course for the lowest possible price of $10.
I hope you will find this to be a helpful contribution toward what I believe is a critical need. I would love hear your thoughts about these principles or others that you feel are important.
I would love to hear your thoughts on both this course and the larger issue of the crisis in leadership that we are facing.