Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Confidential to Management-Level Job Seekers: How to Join the 60% Club

Unless you’re one of those people who enjoy beating their heads against a wall, it’s rarely any fun to be in the job market. But if you’re looking for a job in the leadership levels, it’s even worse. Reason: Chances are almost 50/50 that you’ll be looking for another job before the year is out. For some reason, new hires in leadership roles have an abysmal success record. And, even though the cost of recruiting, hiring, losing people of your level – and starting the cycle all over again – is the most expensive of all the open positions, employers seem to take this hard knock as a cost of doing business.

What a terrible waste of money, resources, precious time for all concerned. Especially you, if you’re the one out on the street in a few months’ time. The good news is that the power is in your hands. You can say, “This cycle of frustration stops with me.” But that means that you have to take control of the interview (hey! Your first leadership assignment in this organization) and be willing to be the one to decide whether you might not be the best culture match (hey! Your second leadership assignment in this organization).

Here’s the problem: Even though companies are becoming increasingly aware of the real importance and impact their culture and values have on engaging the discretionary effort of all their employees, for most companies that awareness isn’t showing up in the kind of leaders they hire from the outside. When it comes to hiring people leaders, employers can be like fish. They’ll leap out of the water for anything bright and shiny, without first taking into very serious consideration what lurks between the feathers and twirly, swirly, glittering things. For fish, of course, the bad news is that there’s usually a sharp hook buried inside all that attraction. But for employers, they don’t discover that buried inside that bright and shiny resume is a set of behaviors that could destroy their carefully cultivated culture.

I’m not implying, of course, that you’ve got a sharp hook imbedded in your resume or personality, but let’s face it, we’ve all got hooks – a branded story of who we are, what we can offer the employer, our set of leadership beliefs, the market performance of our previous employer while we were at the helm. The problem is that if you are luring the wrong employers, there’s going to be a lot of pain, and actually you’re going to be among the 40%+ of new management candidates who lose their jobs before they’ve really had the chance to prove themselves.

I’m torturing this metaphor; I guess it’s time to get on with my point.

The more successful you were at your previous company or the greater the cachet of your company (especially as regards its reputation for an engaged culture), the greater the likelihood that you’re going to land in a new job that could make you miserable. Like it or not, your new employer isn’t just hiring you, they’re hiring where you’ve been. If you’ve been with a successful company that performed supremely in your marketplace and enjoyed a cadre of over-the-top dedicated employees, your new employer is going to want to have some of that mojo. And, because you’ve seen it first-hand and from within, they reason, you’re just the one to give it to them. They’re so invested in asking the questions that will result in a job offer and acceptance that they tend to avoid those questions that could reveal you to be a bad culture fit.

You’ve got to do that piece of the dirty work. Sorry to have to break it to you, but that’s just the way it is. The truth will come out eventually, and believe me, you’re being back out on the street is going to be a lot more painful for you than it will be for them.

During the job interview itself, go deep into questions about the company culture. This is the first place where a big mismatch can be revealed. For instance, it’s not enough to simply know what the company’s values are. (You can find them on their website and after a while they all look the same…integrity; service; servant leadership, performance; collegial; collaborative; people-first…they very quickly appear to be the workplace versions of personal ads. Replace them with “candlelight dinners,” “puppies,” “walks on the beach,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

The trick is to ask your interviews how those values have been demonstrated by decisions and choices in recent years. If the company really takes its values seriously, your interviewers will have plenty of stories at their fingertips. A few good questions to ask, for instance, are:

1.Can you tell me of a time when you hired a star candidate who turned out to be a culture mismatch (if you’re really brave, say, “toxic manager”)? How did you handle that situation?

2.Can you think of a time when you were able to save a new hire who got off on the wrong foot culturally? What happened with that person? Can I talk with him or her?

3. Do you have any mentorship or culturalization onboarding programs in place, so I can be sure to hit the ground running?

4. What exactly does servant leadership look like here in terms of behaviors and expectations? Could you introduce me to someone who is known to represent the best leadership qualities that work in this culture?

Sure. You’ll take your interviewers by surprise with these questions (unless they’ve read this blog as well…in which case they’ll recognize immediately how brilliant you are!). Most interviewers are accustomed to asking behavioral interview questions, not having to answer them. If they draw a blank on these questions, and can’t tell you stories to support their cultural ideals, that’s your first big sign that there could be a culture mismatch here. And that you would get zero support while trying to integrate yourself into your new team.

But others will be so relieved to discover that you recognize the importance of a culture fit for managers, that – assuming everything else is in place – they’ll be falling all over themselves to hand you the keys to the 60% Club. That’s the club you’ll want to join. There’s staying power there.


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catherine said...

Great post!

Few candidates think enough about good interview questions to ask.

They ask the usual ones of "when will I hear?", and "how can I get promoted" etc but that's it.

You are talking about a career here, possibly spanning many years and taking up a third of your life, so make sure you're in the right place.

Another Creation Myth said...

I really like this point you make "Like it or not, your new employer isn’t just hiring you, they’re hiring where you’ve been." Boy, if that isn't the truth. I'm currently in a co-position of hiring at the company I toil for and I was shocked to discover after on taking this duty that my predecessor had been instructing all our recruiters to only look for candidates from big websites (especially google, yahoo, etc). Any resume that didn't contain these keywords immediately got canned. How intelligent is that?Luckily I've managed to renovate the hiring process a little bit. We're primarily using online recruiting sites like Dayak now, not just to cut costs through the marketplace model but also because we needed some fresh eyes; ie, recruiters we hadn't worked with before during "the google era". I'll tell you, a recruiter who knows what to look for in an executive can make a world of difference.

But, I was surprised that you didn't mention another side of the executive hiring issue: many times outsiders in a place of leadership face competition from within, too. Most intelligent folks these days don't want to take a serious job unless there's room for promotion to the top, and I don't blame them. In some cases I think outside execs with primary experience are the way to go, but in others who knows the business better than a standout mid-level employee?