What Makes A Leader Great to Work For?
Updated: Feb 13
A colleague recently related a story that happened when he was an upstart at a large corporate firm.
His firm hired a batch of bright, young associates from several top-tier universities. On paper, they all had outstanding credentials. They underwent pre-qualifying interviews and got hired after clearing another round of meetings with senior management.
Sounds good, so far, right?
After a few weeks, three of the new hires flamed out for differing reasons and was fired by the firm. My colleague overheard a conversation between a senior manager and the head of the hiring committee, who had initially recruited the candidates and made the final hiring decision.
When the senior manager drilled the hiring manager as to how the firm could have been so wrong about those candidates, the hiring manager recited a litany of the candidates' qualifications.
He swore that the firm had thoroughly verified, fact-checked and looked into each and every credential set forth on paper.
The senior manager took in the lengthy explanation, then paused and asked, "But, after you looked down at the resumes, did you look up?"
It sounds like an odd question, but this is what he meant. Beyond the excellent, written credentials, had the hiring manager really looked at these candidates?
Had he endeavored to see the people behind the crisp, linen paper?
The hiring manager had no answer. He could only nervously laugh off the question. His counterpart did not return his merriment, as he calculated the loss the firm would absorb by the bad hiring decisions.
Results matter to true leaders. So, our tendency is to focus on bottom-line outcomes. In this example, business boomed and new blood was needed. The team went out and found the best candidates available, on paper. Done! Check that box!
But leadership is neither formulaic nor paper-driven. Leaders lead (wait for it) people. Leaders must develop what it takes to lead the persons beyond the paper. The individuals we lead and the organizations we serve are owed as much.
A resume is one indicator of competence, but it's deceptive because it can be a poor predictor of success. There are other criteria that factor more deeply, soft skills, like character, empathy and the individual's chemistry with team members and clients. That cannot be successfully discerned from words on a page.
It is the leader's job to do as that senior manager suggested: look down at the resume, but then have a long look up at the candidate's unwritten skills, qualities and cues.
This principle is not limited to the realm of hiring and firing. It applies any time there's a temptation to lead by paper such as following reports, graphs and calculations without properly factoring in the human element. That is a fact of life in our data-driven business culture.
And our reliance on data will not decrease, it will only increase. Which means you will soon confront the temptation to lead by paper if you haven't already.
When it happens, remind yourself to look up (from whatever paper you're staring at) and to look beyond the data.
You lead people, and it's the people who matter.
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