Picking People. Lessons from Peter Drucker Part 3 of 3.

I've selected three of my favorite Peter Drucker reads that I feel have great relevance to this blog's readership of human resource vendors and HR professionals. My first two postings included:

- Entrepreneurial Strategies
- Leadership / Management

Today I will focus on Drucker's basic rules for picking people. This topic is quite timely considering many of the current economic issues our country is dealing with are a direct result of picking the wrong people to assume various leadership positions.

Technology has given us plenty of new ways to identify, manage and select candidates. We have Internet job boards, video resumes, sophisticated job matching technologies, assessments, applicant tracking systems, talent management software, social networking tools. The list goes on. There is no debate that the Internet and related technologies have made it easier for managers to find a pool of qualified candidates from which to make hiring decisions. But I'm going to argue (and I know many of you will disagree) that the basics of how to pick people have not changed over the years and that technology plays a limited role. Including Numerati (I love the concept but we're not there yet).

What are the basics of picking people?

Peter Drucker discussed them in his essay Picking People - The Basic Rules. As with the other Drucker articles I've discussed, I am summarizing so please refer to The Essential Drucker for all the details.

Executives spend more time on managing people and making people decisions than on anything else. And Peter Drucker says "they should" because "no other decisions are as long lasting in their consequences or so difficult to unmake."

So when it comes to hiring making hiring and staffing decisions, here are Drucker's recommended decision steps:

1. Think Through the Assignment: Drucker tells the story of how during WW2, George Marshall would study the nature of the assignment before hiring division commanders. The reason? The tasks of raising a division and training it for combat were far different than repairing the morale of a battered division. It is critical to understand the assignment of the person you are hiring. Hiring a VP of Sales? Will their role be to recruit and train new sales people? Open up new markets? These are vastly different assignments and require vastly different skill sets.

2. Look at Three to Five Qualified Candidates: Drucker believes this is the optimum number of "qualified" candidates you need to evaluate to make good hiring decisions.

3. Think Hard About How You Will Look at These Candidates: According to Drucker the question is not what can this candidate do or not do but rather what are the candidate's strengths and are they right for the assignment (remember, you've already thought through the assignment). Surprisingly, Drucker emphasizes not to start out by focusing on the candidate's weaknesses. This differs greatly from one executive I recently spoke with who says "When I interview candidates I'm looking for reasons not to hire them". Drucker uses Harry Truman as an example - considered by historians to have assembled one of the greatest Cabinets in U.S. history. When making Cabinet decisions Truman would say in effect never mind personal weaknesses, tell me what they can do. When selecting executives, Warren Buffet looks for a great track record and great human qualities (ability and integrity). But he also wants people with the ability to "contemplate problems that have not cropped up before" (a very intelligent and prophetic statement considering what's happening on Wall Street at the moment).

4. Discuss Each Candidate With Several People Who have Worked with Them: In my personal experience, this is critical. It is human nature to hire people we like or who are like us. And during interviews hiring managers often ask questions that validate their already established biases (this is the reason the executive mentioned above "finds reasons not to hire" a candidate when interviewing them). Drucker highly recommends talking with the candidate's former bosses and colleagues. Granted, this is more difficult in today's litigious world but it is still doable - just not as easy as it once was (there are actually some cool technologies that can help such as SkillSurvey's online reference checking product but nothing beats a live conversation).

5. Make Sure the Candidate Understands the Job: Drucker says that the things a candidate did to get a promotion to a new assignment are almost certainly the wrong things to do in the new assignment. A new position means different behavior, different focus and different relationships. And it is the hiring manager's responsibility to make sure the candidate knows what their "new" responsibilities are and what the candidate needs to do to be successful in their new job. Drucker suggests giving the candidate several months in their new position and phase out their preceding assignments before requiring the candidate to put to writing what they believe their new role is and what it will take to succeed. BTW - Drucker said the greatest reason for failed promotions is the failure to think through, and have others thing through, what the job requires.

And what if a hiring manager does the above brilliantly and the candidate still fails. Drucker says "remove the misfit, and fast!". Hire slow and fire fast.

One final thought from Drucker. Whenever a job defeats two people in a row, who earlier in their careers had performed well, a company has what Drucker calls a "widow-maker" job and it is the responsibility of management to abolish the job or change the position's responsibilities (IOW, internal or external forces may have made the job's responsibilities obsolete or impossible to execute).

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