Friday, November 29, 2013

I'll Know What I Want When I See It (Part IV)

After a week off to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, we are back to thin-slicing. This week we look at it from the candidate’s perspective. When should you pay attention to “thin-slices” and listen to your gut? And when does it lead you astray?

When candidates tell me that they are having “gut-tugs”, I reply that they should always listen to “their gut”. But, then I go on to recommend that they listen closely and determine if it’s a legitimate warning signal or just nerves. I also take into account how motivated the candidate is to make a job change and what is driving that motivation. My experience is that the more motivated a candidate is to make a job change the more they should stop and listen. And if they are considering a new job that specifically meets their needs, it’s time to slowdown and listen even closer. The most common mistake I see is where the candidate is unemployed and just wants to get back to work. Now I understand that when you’re unemployed, getting back to work is a priority. And sometimes you just have to do what you have to do in order to pay the bills. But, don’t ignore what your instincts are telling you about the job. And, if you can afford to turn it down and look for a better opportunity, perhaps that is the best option.

As a general rule, if a candidate’s primary motivation is fear or anger, I advise them to take a deep breath and seriously consider all of their options. (The same is true with employers when it comes to hiring decisions, but we’ll talk about that next time.) The more the candidate’s motivation is emotionally driven, the more they need to listen to their gut. When the emotions take over, the reasons for accepting a new job opportunity nearly always make sense on the surface. I’m unemployed. I need a job. This is a job. I’ll take it. I didn’t get that promotion. I’m pissed. This new job is a big step up. I’ll take it. I can’t stand my new boss. I am miserable. I really like the guy I would be working for at Brand X. I’ll take it.

Sometimes, when emotions are running high you fail to pay attention to your gut and you miss those “thin-slices”. I’m not talking about the obvious things such as the company’s financial performance or management turnover or service reputation. You might be inclined to ignore those as well if you are really motivated to take the job. But, most likely you have factored them into the decision. On the other hand, a thin-slice, intuitive issue might be something as subtle as how the executive offices look relative to the offices and work stations of the other employees. What’s the “vibe” or mood among the rank and file employees? What kind of cars are the executives driving and where do they get to park? I’m not making a judgment one way or the other about these types of observations. But, your personal experiences and “thin slicer” may subconsciously tell you something about this company that you should not ignore. And if you are caught up in the moment and just see this job as an answer to your fear or anger driven job search, you might miss some of those subtle cues which likely point to major issues.

Now the flip-side, when do thin-slices or “gut tugs” tend to work against a candidate? Usually it’s when they perceive that they can afford NOT to make a job change. They may well be motivated to make a change and would not be this far into the decision-making process otherwise. This is most often the candidate who is not all that unhappy in their current job, but simply realizes that they will eventually need to make a change in order to reach their long-term career goals. This is the candidate who will pay too much attention to the “little voices” inside their head. And what they take for “gut tugs’ are often just nerves, fear of change. They will find every excuse in the book to talk themselves out of taking a job which they absolutely should take, saying that it just “doesn’t feel right”. If you are the prospective employer (or the headhunter) who is dealing with this candidate, you have to cut through the bull---- immediately and figure out if the candidate’s “gut tugs” are legitimate red flags which say this candidate is not likely to be successful in this role with this organization; or are they just nerves and this opportunity really does make sense for the candidate; or are they a function of other factors in the candidate’s life which take precedence over their own career plan (i.e. spouse’s job, kids in school, extended family connections/commitments, etc.).

So if the job change is a good career move, and there are no significant family or personal roadblocks, and the “gut-tugs” are really just nerves; what do I tell the candidate? Honestly, I tell them that if the “gut-tugs” are that strong and they absolutely will not go away, even if we both agree it’s just nerves, then don’t do it. Here’s my logic. It may be a good career move. And there may be no good reason not to take the job. And we may agree that the nerves are just related to the normal fear of change. But if the candidate just cannot find a way to get comfortable with the decision to accept the job…there is something else going on.

From personal experience, I’ve faced decisions in my life that seemed to make total sense even though I had serious gut-tugs about them. Sometimes I was able to identify the source of those gut-tugs as legitimate red flag issues and ended up making the right decision. But, there have been situations where I dismissed the gut-tugs as “just nerves”, threw caution to the wind and charged full speed ahead. Occasionally that was the right decision and things worked out. But more often than not, it turned out badly. There were probably legitimate reasons for those nervous gut-tugs and when they would not go away, I should have paid more attention. Before you make that decision ask yourself: what answer will give you the most peace of mind and what answer makes the most sense. If they are not the same, then you need to search for more answers.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

If They Can Get Away With This….

(The “I’ll Know What I Want” series will resume next week.)

In 1963 my mother was working as a bookkeeper for a real estate company in Fort Worth. Their office was on River Oaks Boulevard and she saw President Kennedy’s motorcade on its way back to Carswell Air Force Base. From there they made the short flight to Love Field in Dallas. JFK, Jackie, Texas Governor John Connally and his wife got in their limousine and with the top down, drove into the city.

Shortly after lunch, our elementary school principal came on the intercom and told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Classes were dismissed and we could go home. It was a beautiful day in Texas and I walked the mile and half to my house. I could have taken the bus, but preferred to walk. On that day, I walked home alone. And when I got home, I was alone. An only child, both parents working and I old enough to stay by myself. I turned on the television and Walter Cronkite told me that the President was dead. My mother called and said that she was on her way home. Dad was still on the road and would not get home until the weekend.

My folks, all of my folks, were Democrats. Back in those days, most working class people in Texas were Democrats. I think I had one great-aunt who had married into some money and another uncle who worked for an oil company. They were Republicans. Otherwise, all Democrats. Even though JFK was a Yankee and a Catholic, at least he was not a Republican. So he was our guy. The fact that he was a WWII combat veteran got him extra points with my Dad who had also fought in The War.

When Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, was sworn in as President I remember my mother commenting that it would probably be good for Texas but bad for the nation. And when dad finally got home, he speculated that Johnson was probably in on the assassination. My dad was one of the original conspiracy theorists. He could not stand Johnson and in the following years as the war in Vietnam escalated, he would say that Kennedy would not have let this happen. So when Oliver Stone’s movie JFK came out, it was like déjà vu all over again for me.

No one really knows what would have happened had Kennedy served out his term. I think it’s likely that he would have been re-elected. But, I’ve always figured that Vietnam would have turned out just about the same. I tend to think forces far above and beyond the President or even Oliver Stone’s military-industrial complex are at work when it comes to war. I’m guessing that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would still have been killed. Nixon would have gotten elected. Watergate would have happened. Oil would still play a major role in world events and the Soviet Union would have collapsed one way or the other.

But, I do think that the Kennedy assassination made the nation and certainly my generation less optimistic and more uncertain. It left behind a false dream of “what was” or “what might have been”. A dream that reality could never measure up to. For some it became an excuse and for others a warning: If “They” can get away with this “They” can get away with anything. And fifty years later, those words still echo.

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me.

-“Sympathy for The Devil”, The Rolling Stones
Songwriters: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I’ll Know What I Want When I See It (Part 3)

Now that we’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of thin-slicing, bias, intuition, gut-feelings, etc.; we must ask:

Do we know and understand how, why and when we are “thin-slicing”?

Can we tell when we are being “thin-sliced” and, if so, how do we handle it without becoming totally paranoid?

When does our own intuitive “thin-slicing” work in our best interest and when does it lead us astray?

I’ll look at these questions from the perspective of candidates, employers and headhunters. And since this is “HeadhunterPOV”, I’ll start with headhunters, more specifically this headhunter.

First of all, to a significant degree we just don’t know how, why and when we are “thin-slicing”. Intuition and gut-feel are the result of so many life experiences and so much information, that most of the time we don’t even realize how much they are impacting our thought process. Part of the battle is just knowing they are at work out there somewhere. For example, I acknowledge that a lot of factors influence how I evaluate a candidate. I do my best to focus on those which most closely relate to the candidate’s professional qualifications. I must also consider those qualifications which my client (the employer) values the most. For example, I may consider that for a certain position in sales the candidate’s most important qualification is a track-record of successfully selling complex supply chain solutions. While the client may value that as well, they may actually put more emphasis on what companies the candidate has worked for or how much experience they have selling in a specific industry vertical. So I am always shifting back and forth between how I evaluate the candidate and how I think my client will evaluate the candidate in terms of their professional qualifications and experience.

But, this is actually the easy part of the evaluation process. The hard part is figuring out what my gut is saying about this candidate and even more importantly what my client’s gut is likely to say about this candidate. And just to complicate it a bit more, how many people in the client’s organization are going to be involved in the hiring decision and what’s going on in their gut? How do their thin-slicers work?

For me personally, I acknowledge that a lot of non-job related factors can influence how I view a candidate. And, we all let “personal” factors influence us to some degree. The key is knowing what those are and guarding against them. I know that a candidate’s age, ethnicity, gender, where they went to school, where they are from, accent, appearance, personality, marital status and special interests all influence my opinion. And, yes I know that most of these are things you can’t ask about. But, 99.9% of the time the information is there or just comes out in conversation. I also know that many of my clients are influenced by these factors and ultimately these are the things that will lead them to pick one candidate over another. We may all like to think that we are selecting the most qualified person for the position, but that’s just not how it works in the real world.

So we are juggling the candidate’s professional qualifications, the candidate’s personal characteristics, my biases and preferences and even more importantly the client’s biases and preferences. Forget about making the best decision. You’re never going to know it even if you do. THE REASONABLE GOAL HERE IS TO MAKE A GOOD DECISION AND, AT MINIMUM AVOID MAKING A REALLY POOR DECISION. FOR ME THAT MEANS FOCUSING ON THE CANDIDATE’S PROFESSIONAL QUALIFICATIONS. You have to keep going back to the most critical factors which will determine the candidate’s likelihood of success. And the foundation for success is always the candidate’s professional qualifications. In most cases, when a candidate’s hiring is based more on “personal characteristics” than “professional qualifications”, it turns out badly for the client and the candidate.

Does this mean that the best hiring decision is based entirely on the candidate’s professional qualifications? Of course not. As noted above, that’s just not how it works in the real world. This is where thin-slicing, intuition and gut-feel intersect with what you actually know about the candidate, client company, their culture and the hiring authority. At some point, you have to ask THE BIG QUESTION: Is this candidate going to be successful in this position in this organization?

Once upon a time, an old headhunter gave me this piece of really good advice: “Don’t play God.” For the headhunter it is a balancing act between evaluating candidates based on professional qualifications and still making allowance for the “personal” factors while not pushing the client or the candidate too far in either direction. The hiring decision is not mine. The decision to accept the job offer is not mine. I have a responsibility to inquire, inform and guide. That includes making sure that the client and the candidate are both asking THE BIG QUESTION: Is this candidate going to be successful in this position in this organization?

Next time, the candidate and thin-slicing.

Friday, November 8, 2013

I'll Know What I Want When I See It (Part 2)

Bias: having or showing a bias : having or showing an unfair tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Last week I introduced the concept of “thin-slicing” and suggested that it plays a significant role in the hiring process. We described “thin-slicing” as the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices," or narrow windows, of experience. What we end up calling intuition or gut-feeling is a product of thin-slicing. Sometimes we know exactly where it’s coming from and sometimes it’s a mystery. Sometimes we don’t even realize that our intuition or gut is actually tipping the scales in the decision-making process. And, contrary to the advice of “just go with your gut”, we are often wrong when we allow our intuition to determine the outcome, especially when we confuse it with bias.

In Part One of this series I referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink”. One classic example he gives where “thin-slicing” fails is the history of hiring musicians for orchestras. For many years orchestras were made up mostly of men. Few women ever got in and then it would only be as second chair in certain sections. Men were assumed to be more physically able to handle the rigors of playing musical instruments at a high level; especially where a measure of strength and breath was deemed particularly critical for success. Read the book if you want the full story, but essentially what has happened is that now musicians audition behind a screen. The decision-makers have no idea if it’s a man or a woman. Great pains are taken to make sure that even the sounds of their footsteps are muffled so as not to tip off the gender of the candidate. Turns out that female musicians play better behind the screen. The truth is that they don’t play any better, but they sound better. There was such an age old built-in bias in this profession that the primary decision maker (the maestro) could not really hear the music over the subconscious noise created by the gender of the musician. Take away that noise and you can actually hear the music. Nowadays when you go to a concert, you see a lot of females in the orchestra. The screen has made all the difference.

So how much bias do we see in our industry? Frankly, a lot. Is it always bad? Well, that depends. If all you want is the best music, then biases about gender, appearance, age, race, etc. will get in the way of hiring the best musicians. If all that really matters is the music, hire the best musician. But, if you are hiring someone to lead a team or a sell something, it can be a little more complicated. Now you’ve got to deal with the biases and preferences of other people. Will the team accept a leader who looks or talks a certain way? Will a buyer do business with a sales person who is perceived to be too young or too pretty or too old or too fat or “too” whatever?

The politically correct answer and legal requirement is just don’t allow bias into the equation directly or indirectly. Have a very specific job description and hire the best person for the job. But how does that decision get made and how do we know that our “hidden” thin-slicer isn’t working overtime as we interview and evaluate candidates. How many of us are willing to hire the person behind the screen? And should we even consider doing such a thing? Perhaps. More to come next time.