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How to Improve the Hiring Process

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Last weekend I was struck by an interview on leadership lessons in The New York Times.  It appeared in the “Corner Office” column of the Sunday Business section.  The interview was conducted with Tracy Matura, general manager of the Smart car division of Mercedes-Benz USA.  During the interview, Tracy was asked a question about what she asks prospective candidates whom she is seeking to hire.  Here is what she said.

“Tell me who your favorite boss was and why, and tell me who your least-favorite boss was and why.” Tracy commented that this gives you a sense of what leadership style works best for this individual.  “I would also then ask them about a time they took a risk and failed.  I have never hired people who have told me they’ve never failed.  You don’t learn if you don’t fail.” 

The interviewer then challenged her on the issue of whether anyone ever admits that they have never failed.  Tracy responded by saying that people might say, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever really had a complete failure.  Really.  I don’t even ask the question in terms of just business.  Everybody has had some failure in their life.”

This led the interviewer to try to understand the underlying rationale for the question.  This was her response.  “Here’s what I want:  My leadership style is to be transparent and authentic, so if you’re going to tell me you’ve never failed, then it makes me wonder if you always hide your failures.  I don’t like that - - surprises are bad for everybody.  I can’t fix or try to fix something I don’t know about.  Some people have that fear factor if they admit to failure, as if they say to themselves, “If I say I failed, she’s going  to think I’m a loser and not hire me.  Quite the opposite.”

While Ms. Matura’s comments reflect what she is looking for in a prospective employee, the person being interviewed has an obligation to try to determine the management style of the prospective boss.  In order to make this assessment, the interviewee needs to ask a similar set of questions.  “Tell me about the employees you hire with whom you have had the most successful relationship and why, and tell me about the employees you hired that were the least successful and why.  How would you describe your leadership style?  Please share with me some of your teams’ successes and failures.  How do you describe your goal-setting process, how do you measure results, how do you communicate those results and what is the performance review process?  Also, please describe the work environment that you try to create.”

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