In my country we go to prison first and then become President.
I love doing recruitment interviews. I’ve seen their benefits and found some great people along the way, some of whom have become enduring friends. However, I’ve also seen the downsides and wonder whether the interview is just an expensive method for looking at people through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s time to explore alternatives to the traditional one-to-one interview, or interview panel, so that you can consider the options.
Back in the day my employer at the time ran a one-week training course for its interviewers and the pass rate was around 50 percent, and so they clearly took it seriously and invested in it heavily. One of the techniques we used was to create fictitious challenges to test the creativity of the people we were trying to recruit. One question I enjoyed using was telling people that they were in charge of the big switchover planned in driving habits; switching from driving on the left to the right. Their challenge in the interview was to plan this out and persuade me of the merits of their approach.
One of my favorite responses came from a candidate whose idea was to do the big cities first and leave the small towns and rural areas until later. When I asked what would happen on the boundaries of the big cities he picked up a piece of paper to draw his proposed interchange with flourishing sweeps of the pen. Then he stopped just at the point where he realized that a major pileup was inevitable. Let’s be fair; the problem is probably impossible to solve, especially under interview conditions. My initial response, however, was that he should fail because of this. But we recruited him because, objectively, his marks from the panel overall showed that he deserved to pass. I admired his honesty and his reaction to spotting his mistake. And my initial “gut instinct” was wrong. I saw his work over the following couple of years and he was fine.
On another occasion, we had two people separately interview the candidates. We compared notes after both interviewing one individual. We’d gone through the objective process again and both of us scored him highly enough for a pass mark. But we both had reservations—in this case, for both of us, our gut instinct was telling us there was something “off” about the candidate. We chose not to offer him a job.
Leadership Essentials: Overcome Unconscious Bias
Over the years, I’ve been involved in different techniques that we used to recruit people, and we know from all the literature that there are flaws with many of them. And yet we still persist because it is important to get a good technical and cultural fit for new people. It’s a win–win. I’ve done interviews with people who claim they know within the first 10 seconds when a candidate walks through the door whether they are going to get the job or not. I’ve heard people say “despite all the interview training, we simply recruited the people we liked.”
I know from my own experience that, however objective I try to be, unconscious bias still comes in. I worked really hard when recruiting one person; as a white middle-aged man who knew not a lot about HR, I was proud of the fact that I’d recruited a young person of color with an HR degree. How could I have picked somebody any more different? However, in her first few weeks she did the Myers Briggs assessment and it turned out she was exactly the same as me. So much for “objectivity.” Again, the issue isn’t that “objectivity” is better than the combination of experience and knowledge that we call “instinct”; it’s that we build self-awareness, stay alert to the possibilities of bias, and work in pairs or panels to make better selection decisions.
There have also been some great improvements over the years in the way that recruitment takes place, in a desire to remove unconscious bias. In the early 1950s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra wanted to improve the ratio of women to men in the orchestra and started to do auditions with a screen between the musician and the interview panel. The theory was that by only hearing the musicians play, the panel would choose the best musicians regardless of gender. Surprisingly, at first it made no difference. Then they made a subtle change; they asked the musicians to take off their shoes before walking onto the stage; it transpired that the judges could hear the sound of the heels that the female musicians wore as they walked on stage and this had biased their judgments. After this change, recruitment to the orchestra was pretty much 50–50 male to female.
There has been much written about techniques to remove bias, such as removing names from CVs, removing the names of universities from your qualifications, and excluding addresses and dates of birth. All of these are excellent ways to maximize the possibilities of hiring a more diverse workforce.
Although all these are good steps to take, if we continue to have the interview to be the final arbiter, to carry the most weight, then we will find it harder to achieve the objective of a more balanced workforce.
We all have biases.
Unconscious Bias in Our Language
The next step in this revolution toward a more diverse workforce uses technology to address our unconscious linguistic biases. It starts with the recruitment advert and job description.1 Apparently some words bias toward attracting male candidates and some toward female. “Managing,” for example, is a “male” word; and “running” is the “female” equivalent. “Important” is “male” and “meaningful” female. Or, to put it another way if a job was described as “an important management role,” it would attract fewer women, which biases it toward male applicants.
The technological approach is known as “augmented writing” and is being pioneered in the United States and the United Kingdom. According to Textio, a company providing an online augmented writing service for job roles, “high-scoring companies” attract “25% more qualified candidates, more candidates from under-represented groups, and fill jobs faster.”2 The “scoring” is on a 1–100 rating, where 90 or more is considered high scoring. It’s not just corporate clichés that drag down a job advert by appealing more to men than to women, but words like “stakeholder” are less appealing to people of color. Yet ironically, these words are trying to be inclusive. Using the Textio system, we put excerpts from this book through the system, identifying it as an “HR role for London, UK.” Some excerpts (primarily written by Bob) had a “male” bias and some (written by Helen) were more “female.” Although these technologies have the power to improve equality and diversity, they also have the power to deliberately discriminate against groups, even if this means skewing the job advert and missing out on the diversity dividend.
Leadership Essentials: Address Misperceptions
We all create impressions, and we are all influenced by them. It reminded me of a time in my earlier career as a manager when someone I knew came back to work for me. I remembered him especially from his rather drunken 21st birthday party and the image of him from there was still with me. Of course, he had by now matured into a great person, but it took me a while to reset my opinion.
I hear that Facebook has a similar impact when people post “the morning after the night before” pictures and messages today. The brain seems to store images in our long-term memory: the faces of people we’ve met along with the opinions we’ve formed of them. This includes even our opinions of people we’ve never met.
Think of a famous person—my guess is you have a view of what he or she is like, and an opinion of him or her, even without ever meeting that person. When you meet someone new, the brain flicks through its folder of images and, if it finds a match, it assigns the same characteristics from the person in memory to the person you’ve just met.
I was talking to a group recently about the importance of perceptions. As a leader, people will form opinions about you, often on the basis of the scantest of information. We can influence that perception. We always have an impact when we walk into a room, especially if we are the leader. Too often, it’s not one we have chosen. And people read things into our behavior. They extrapolate from the smallest frown and make the assumption that you are ritually bad tempered. So it’s important to choose the impact you want to have—just as true of the interviewer as the interviewee, as part of the job these days is to sell the company to the interviewee.
Author Adam Bryant talked about this in his book The Corner Of fice 3 on the basis of his interviews with CEOs for his column in the New York Times. He mentions one CEO who has a favorite interview question—“What misperceptions do people have of you?” This is interesting enough, but it is just a set up for the next question: “What is the difference between a misperception and a perception?” I want to say that a misperception is when people are wrong, but really there is no difference.
I had a great conversation with one of the leaders in an international organization we work with. He was talking about a briefing he had once on the customs and etiquette in a particular country: “They told me to be careful because in that country, people didn’t like to be seen to lose face.” I asked him who in the world actually enjoys losing face? On our leadership development programs, when we ask for volunteers to participate in a front-of-the-room exercise, in the United Kingdom, we get told that this might work in America, where they are “more forward.” My experience is that in the United States, there is just as much shuffling of feet and lack of eye contact as in the United Kingdom. The difference is that when someone does finally crack, in the United States the rest of the group applaud, whereas in the United Kingdom they wipe their brow and exclaim “Phew!”
The concept of collaborative hiring is becoming more commonplace. By engaging a wider group of people in the recruitment process, we can address unconscious bias, even if we can’t eradicate it altogether. We may also cancel out the different biases that we have. A popular sandwich shop chain in the United Kingdom, Pret a Manger, adds another step at the end of a traditional process of vetting an online application, a telephone interview, and a face-to-face meeting. It is called the “graduation day”. Here, the applicant spends a morning working alongside the team he or she hopes to join, and the final decision is made by that team. It’s still far from perfect; the team members are very likely to recruit someone in their own image but, given the small space they work in and the frantic pace of the job, perhaps the ability to get on with the rest of the team outweighs other factors.
The BBC once ran a program called Who’s the Boss?4 In this show, applicants had to carry out a number of tasks while being filmed. In one episode, a potential logistics manager had to plan a delivery route and then go out with the driver to follow that route. Although the candidates knew they were being filmed, they weren’t aware until the final day that everybody else in the company was watching. The film clips were seen by the whole company who ultimately decided who would get the job. It made for entertaining television and, like other collaborative hiring ideas, has the potential to average out individual unconscious biases.
Another technique used to narrow down the field is the use of psychometrics. When used correctly, these can prove to be hugely valuable.
It’s Not Only Humans Who Are Biased
An airline client, who is one of the fastest growing airlines in the world, started to use psychometrics when recruiting for cabin staff around 10 years ago. It first analyzed the factors that it believed would be most important in the personality characteristics of those staff. One of the key elements was flexible thinking—both the belief that there could be an alternative and then the ability to craft those alternatives. It used a self-report personality test called 16 PF as one of those factors pointed to this quality of flexible thinking.
A safety culture is vital in the airline industry and having a plan B in the event of a crisis is seen as critical. However, one area where it doesn’t work so well is when we use tools to profile successful people in the role and then recruit against that profile. This technique is increasingly used not just with psychometrics but also with leadership competence frameworks. The flaw I see here is the assumption that just because one person operates in a particular way and is successful, then the route to success is to emulate that person’s approach.
A coaching client aspired to a particular managerial role. In that organization, there were about 40 similar roles. She confessed to being reluctant to even think about taking on the role because she couldn’t see how she could behave and lead in the same way as the incumbents. As we moved through the coaching, she noticed three things: the majority of the incumbents were male; the majority of the people they managed were male; and most of those 40 managers were leading and managing in a similar way. They managed in ways not just similar to each other, but also similar to the layer of management above them. As we talked it through, she outlined what her approach would be, how she would deal with the teams, and how she might manage upward differently. When she realized she didn’t have to manage in the same style as the incumbents, she became quite liberated and animated about new ways of fulfilling those duties.
If the organization had profiled those 40 managers and looked at the ones who were more successful versus the less successful, and had then tried to recruit to that profile, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. I’m not saying that those successful men were doing a bad job—far from it. The point is that she and they can successfully do that same job, but in very different ways. And the profiling approach would have mitigated against her. This is a fundamental principle inherent in our thinking around leadership. The debate about whether leaders are born or made is the wrong debate. We believe that most people can lead. They do so much better when they understand and develop their leadership behaviors and their style, and it’s certainly true that some leaders will be more appropriate than others depending on the context. But they have to lead from their beliefs and values. This is about authenticity and integrity—leading from who they already are, rather than pretending to be, or trying to be, someone else.
What Do We Mean by “Authentic” Leadership?
One of the enduring hero myths is that of hiding their true identity—usually with a mask. Revealing that identity is usually kept to a very small circle of people—think Superman’s girlfriend—which tends to be a life-threatening role in fiction! Hiding your identity in superhero films is usually a metaphor for not showing your “weaker” emotional side (notice that it’s usually the girlfriend who gets to find out the “truth”).
When we talk about authentic leadership, we are normally talking about character: ethical and moral approaches based on genuine relationships; about being open and positive. Our definition would extend this to include being authentically themselves: our whole, emotional, ragged, flawed selves. So, although there are approaches you can take to improve the interview process, and to more accurately select the people you interview in the first place, the concept itself is flawed. There are better, more effective, and more efficient ways to find the right person for the job. It is still in essence a beauty parade. In the same way as examinations in the educational system lead us to raise up people who are good at exams into elite status, the interview process will lead us to select people who are good at interviews. These are not necessarily the people who are best for the job.
When presented with two candidates, one internal and one external, we tend to favor the external candidate because all we have seen of that person is the 1 hour when they are on show. We already know a lot about the internal candidate and yet, surprisingly, this often weighs against them. It’s not logical, especially if that internal candidate has been doing the job and is already delivering well. One solution is to find more ways to observe how that person would actually perform in the job. There are various ways we can do this.
One way is to use development or assessment centers. We design a day in a fictitious company where participants operate at a higher level than at which they are currently working. They face a number of challenges that enable us to observe the leadership behaviors they exhibit in this artificial environment. There are other variants on this, such as the Situational Judgment Tool, where theoretical examples are presented and multiple-choice options are given to the candidate. This has merit but is not as rigorous as the development center. Some of our clients use it as a filter to determine who they send to the development or assessment centers.
Another option is work shadowing, where a trained assessor will observe the individual in a range of activities in his or her current job. Then there’s a behavioral event interview, where we talk through experiences that the person has already had and see how he or she approaches them. Work shadowing and behavioral event interviews are both useful in that we can see the leadership behaviors they are displaying. The obvious downside is that it takes place in the familiar environment of their current job. Another option is to find ways to try them out in the more senior role in a way that is both supportive to them and with minimal risk to the organization. Simple approaches include temporary cover for a senior vacancy or standing in for the manager while they are on holiday.
Although these things happen regularly, it is less common for them to be actively used as a way of assessing the person in that role. Most people “acting up” or providing holiday cover tend to have a natural fear of doing anything other than keeping things ticking over for that short period of absence. However, where clear agreements between the incumbent and the stand-in happen, for example, with decision-making boundaries, their role in meetings, and so forth, this task can turn into a real developmental opportunity.
One organization I worked with had a talent pool of 100 people. We decided to accelerate their promotion, as waiting for opportunities to arise was not moving them on fast enough. We set out a challenge. We asked them to come to us with an idea for a role, either an existing or new one they felt should be created, that was two levels further up the hierarchy than where they currently were. (This was an organization that still had quite a few levels of management before delayering became popular.) Where the proposal was plausible, we formally promoted them one grade up, then monitored their performance closely over the next 6 months. We put support mechanisms in place, such as a mentor and a coach, with the potential to promote them to the grade two levels up on the basis of their performance in that role. Our belief was that this would have a number of benefits: It would encourage the talent pool, which was not moving very quickly, to believe that they truly were being thought of as talent.
The second advantage was that they may find some new and different way of approaching the work that hadn’t been thought of. In practice, it proved quite daunting and, despite encouragement, only one person out of the 100 took up this challenge. Yes, they struggled for 6 months but they persevered and, by the end of that time, were doing a great job and were fully deserving of their promotion. One out of a hundred doesn’t sound much; but we deemed it a success for more reasons than just one person’s experience. An unexpected side effect was that we were able to critically review the other 99 people in the talent pool.
We concluded that many were there for the wrong reasons. Some were the blue-eyed boys of their managers (they were mainly “boys”). Some were the truly valuable technical experts, and their manager thought that by “rewarding” them with a place in the talent pool, they might stay a little longer working for them. It led to a wholesale review of how we selected people for the talent pool.
One organization that we work with has strict rules about how long people can stay in a particular post and so they rotate people, even to the point that you may take over your boss’s position and they may revert to being one of your staff. They are fully trained and prepared for the role. And they have the great asset of somebody who has done the job before.
In some organizational cultures, this may challenge some peoples’ egos to accept this rotation. And it may take time to see this as both a usual step, and the normal way to distribute leadership and create a more abundant leadership capability in the organization.
No interview or recruitment process is ever perfect. Some people say that automated recruitment is one way forward as it is less subjective. Until you read about all the ways that applicants are being “guided” to beat the system, my recommendations are that you recruit as a team, rely on your experience and a diversity of recruitment methods (not just the “beauty parade”), and keep up to date with new ways of thinking about leadership and new ways that people will game whatever system you use.
Worksheet: Stimulus Questions
This chapter explores the way we recruit and interview people. We question whether interviews are just an expensive method for looking at people through rose-tinted spectacles. So here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- •Where have I shown unconscious bias or inherent prejudice in my hiring process?
- •What might we do to reduce the bias in the advert or role description?
- •How can we improve selection beyond the classic interview?
- •What is a safe, but still challenging, way to try people out in high-level jobs?
- •How can I support people to break out of the traditional molds of leadership that they see around them?
- •What needs to change in the organization for people to feel safe to try out the new, more engaging leadership approaches?
- •How might we build a coaching and mentoring culture in our organization?
3.A Bryant. 2011. The Corner Office (New York, NY: HarperPress).
4.BBC. 2016. “Who’s the Boss?”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0725xkj/episodes/guide, (accessed May 2, 2018).