The Blogs of Dave Murphy: Giving Thanks in the Job Market
On Thanksgiving I took some time to ponder those things for which I’m thankful and it got me thinking about comments I’ve been hearing from hiring managers as they try to find people to fill openings on their team. For many employers it’s becoming less about finding specific technical skills or accomplishments in a resume and more about finding people with integrity, character and – most of all – humility. The matrixed based management structure prevalent in most organizations today requires that employees collaborate closely with their team members, and that they take time to thank and praise colleagues when appropriate as well as acknowledge their own faults and mistakes. The ability to be genuinely humble in this type of environment is a trait that is becoming harder to find.
As a candidate in a job interview it can be very tricky to express humility while also proving that you’re good at your job. An interview is a time to proactively communicate your attributes and positive qualities, which can be perceived as “bragging.” Hiring managers want to know that, although an individual has been working as part of a team, he or she can demonstrate individual contributions that have made a difference in the team achieving its goals. So candidates have to provide that evidence, but in a way that makes it clear that they value their colleagues and don’t take all of the credit for a team’s success. Team leaders don’t want to hire “Lone Wolves”, no matter how talented they may appear. Hiring managers want people who are genuinely thankful for the opportunity to be a part of a high-performing group of professionals. So as a candidate it’s important to balance “bragging” statements with humility and acknowledgement of other’s contributions.
A frequently asked question of candidates in the interview process is about perceived weaknesses or “areas for development.” Most interviewers will point out that we all have them, and will sometimes frame the question by asking what a candidate’s supervisor would say about their areas for improvement. This is another measurement of one’s humility and it is important to be truthful and genuine in your response. Hiring managers are generally not impressed when they hear something like, “sometimes I work too hard and have to take a break to achieve work-life balance.” That may be true but it’s a very predictable response and doesn’t get to the issue of whether or not you’re able to be self-critical and willing to acknowledge your faults. One candidate told me that his boss pointed out that he had a tendency to talk too much in meetings, so he deliberately set out to spend more time in active listening in order to help make the team more effective, at the expense of his own self-promotion.
Sometimes I’m asked if the trend toward individual attainment and away from humility and thanksgiving in the workplace is a by-product of our mas-and-social-media fueled culture. I think that’s true to some extent but it doesn’t automatically mean that younger Millennials are necessarily going to be less humble than Baby Boomers. I think that everyone, regardless of age and experience, must recognize the forces at work here and take steps to self-regulate themselves, whether working on cross-functional teams or answering interview questions.
Hiring managers are seeking that magic balance of skill and will. When they talk about a candidate’s lack of “personal chemistry” or “cultural fit,” they are most often referring to their perception of the candidate’s will: not just the willingness to work hard, but also the willingness to be humble and grateful for the opportunity to be part of a team. It is an increasingly important trait in the workforce and one we should all work on improving. As always I welcome your questions and comments.
The Blogs of Dave Murphy: The Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues
The old adage says “you better be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.” In many ways that captures the spirit of the new product approval process in the BioPharma and Med Tech industries. A company works for years to develop a breakthrough therapy or diagnostic test and when it finally gets approved, then what? The inventors and product developers have completed their job and now all eyes turn to the marketing department – and you better have your plan in place. Nothing is more stressful – and more rewarding – in the career of a marketing professional than the opportunity to launch a truly innovative product. After citing the opportunity for growth and advancement, it is the most common reason that marketing professionals share with me when describing their motivation to make a job change. For most people it only happens a few times in their career, and of course it’s important to make the most of it.
When everything goes smoothly and according to plan everyone celebrates a successful launch and thanks the marketers for doing a nice job. They had leading-edge technology, put together a reasonable plan, and didn’t screw things up. But what about those occasions where things don’t go so well? Sometimes launches don’t meet expectations, or they are so stressful when they are successful that the culture of the organization suffers dramatically. In those instances a marketing team can end up with the Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues.
Similar to a doctor routinely hearing complaints and bad news from patients, when I’m speaking with people about their interest in making a job change it’s often a bad experience in their current situation that has them talking with me. The negative experience can be driven by many things, but a common malady is DPLB. I’ve heard it said that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” and that the first six months of a launch will usually set the trajectory of the product forever. So there’s a great deal of pressure to get it right, which means long hours, frayed emotions, and the potential for dysfunction in a marketing department.
I recently placed a Marketing Manager in a company that is in the middle of launching it’s first major innovation in about 15 years. It’s a first-in-class product and expectations are running high. While colleagues in Engineering, Project Management, Accounting / Finance and other departments are going home at 5:00, the marketing team is still there at 9:00 or later each time, working frantically to resolve details about things like sales meetings, tiered-discounts, and Med Ed slide decks. Meetings are tense, Directors are yelling at each other, and senior executives are micro-managing. The stress flows down from the top and as the Marketing Manager told me, “it’s hard to find an executive who can display grace under pressure during this launch.”
Marketers choose this type of career path, of course, along with the risk / return that accompanies it. But some organizations and team leaders are more prone than others to foster disorganization and stress in their product launches. The put the FUN in dysfunction. I’ve heard stories about Chief level commercial officers in large organizations overruling decisions about the type of candy given out at trade show booths. One medical device company I work with elected to launch their product in the U.S. – including deploying a sales team – after getting CE mark approval in the EU but before getting FDA approval (it took another 18 months to get FDA clearance). Stories abound about pricing decisions that have derailed product launches, particularly in oncology and other markets that frequently introduce innovations where valid pricing models are difficult to find.
Pitfalls like these are common, of course, but how does this impact staffing and recruitment?
High-profile product launches are terrific for the recruiting process because the best way to attract great people is to offer clear opportunities for growth and development. As we know, nothing drives organizational growth like innovation and a robust product pipeline. But high-profile product launches can be very bad for long-term retention of talented employees. The build-up to a big launch often creates unreasonable expectations and if results over the first year fail to meet those expectations then the marketing team is often the first to be blamed. Depending on their personal resilience and the availability of opportunities elsewhere, these marketers may elect to jump ship rather than wait for a turn-around. The overall morale of the team drops and many people begin to believe that the grass is greener somewhere else, particularly if continued underperformance of the product is likely to result in a downsizing in the future.
Even successful launches can often breed attrition and turnover. Many marketing professionals join companies in order to get a high-profile launch on their resume. After a year or two post-launch they expect to be able to earn a promotion since they helped launch a successful product. The problem is that the company probably hired a large number of talented individuals in the run-up to the launch and people often feel resentment when they lose out to a peer on a promotional opportunity – so they leave.
The other issue that leads to high turnover rates shortly after a successful launch is good old fashioned burn-out. If the stress, frenetic pace and dysfunction of a big launch doesn’t abate within 6-12 months post-launch the marketing team is most likely going to experience turnover, even if the product is booming. Whether it’s excessive overnight travel, long hours at the office, or toxic team chemistry the talented people I know are only willing to put up with it for a limited amount of time. Most marketers understand and agree to the need for short-term pain in exchange for longer-term gain, but the pain will result in burn-out if it persists for more than a year.
In summary, big product launches are great for marketing professionals – except when they’re not. If you find yourself with a case of the Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues give me a call and we can discuss what to do about it.
The Blogs of Dave Murphy: Talk to your recruiter about RBF
Resting Bitch Face. It’s a real thing – a scourge upon the land that ruins people’s perception of each other. Google it sometime to see some examples. Male or female, all ethnicities and ages – this is a global epidemic that Wikipedia defines as follows:
“Resting bitch face, also known as RBF or bitchy resting face, is a term for a facial expression (or lack thereof) which unintentionally appears angry, annoyed, irritated, or contemptuous. The concept has been studied by psychologists and may have psychological implications related to facial biases, gender stereotypes, human judgment, and decision making. The concept has also been studied by computer experts, utilizing a type of facial recognition system; they found that the condition is as common in males as in females, despite the gendered word “bitch” that is used to name this concept.”
What has this got to do with staffing decisions and career planning? Plenty. All day long I hear things like “not a fit,” “bad chemistry,” “didn’t click with him/her,” “don’t think I’d fit well in their culture.” It’s certainly true that behavioral traits like work ethic, prior performance results, and the words people use to ask or answer interview questions do matter. But there is a reason why we insist on live interviews rather than simply matching job descriptions to resumes, sending emails, or holding phone calls or Skype conferences. We want to see people, shake their hand and – often unknowingly – evaluate body language. And nothing drives body language more than facial expressions, so we must get educated about RBF and it’s ramifications throughout the job market and global economy. Let’s look at this plague in two ways: why candidate’s often don’t get job offers, and why they often don’t want to accept them.
First, on the candidate side of the equation: interviewees know they only have somewhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours of “face time” to make a good impression, and they can’t blow it. Successful candidates understand that the most important thing they need to communicate, in whatever way possible, is trust. “Trust me, Ms. Hiring Manager, that I will get the job done and exceed your expectations. I will view the problems that need solving through your eyes and take accountability to solve them, freeing you up for other things.” It’s very hard for an interviewer to trust someone who, when they are not speaking, has a facial expression that communicates that they are “angry, annoyed, irritated, or contemptuous.” Live interviews typically begin with the interviewer providing some background about the company, the job or themselves, giving the candidate the opportunity to listen and communicate with non-verbal cues. If the message being sent back is coming from a RBF then there’s going to be a problem.
Regarding the interviewer who suffers from RBF – the problem is more insidious. The reality is that many hiring managers WANT to project resting bitch face because their interview style is to screen out “unworthy” candidates. They believe they hold all the cards and that the candidates have to do all the selling in order to prove they deserve the opportunity to take the job, forgetting that the best candidates have many, many great opportunities in front of them to consider. The interrogation-style interviewer rarely gets the A Player on their team, but they generally don’t care because the company culture is fine with that. But what about the sincere manager striving to build and lead a world-class team? The most important thing they need to communicate is that they care about people on a personal level. The old leadership adage is that “nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.” Since the majority of time in a live, face-to-face interview is spent with the candidate answering questions and the interviewer listening, there is ample opportunity for RBF to creep out and cause the candidate to lose the sense that the person sitting there could possibly care about their personal goals, dreams and ambitions.
So what can be done?
Like any good 12-step program the first and most important action is to recognize and accept that there is problem. The first phase after RBF diagnosis is always the toughest. It usually includes shock, anger, denial, introspection, research and grudging acceptance. Then comes the hard work of prescriptive action, including many hours logged in front of the mirror conditioning those facial muscles so they can unconsciously communicate Resting Happy Face. On the other hand, you can simply forget about allowing the face to rest at all in an interview. Experts agree that the easiest technique is eyebrow control – if you want to convey a sense of trust or caring you may want to furrow the brow when you hear a particularly sensitive comment. Of course, high eyebrows along with an easy smile will endear the other person to you, provided it is not overdone. The bottom line is that those who suffer from RBF must work during the interview to keep that face moving!
There are countless remedies and techniques for treating RBF available online. Given the huge market potential I can foresee the day where a new wonder-drug is approved for the condition – perhaps a next-gen Botox or something similar. My own prediction is that RBF will become much more apparent and recognized as the scourge that it is, particularly when our very own President suffers from it. Perhaps Patient Advocacy Groups will be formed. I’m optimistic that the higher profile of the disease will increase research and funding for treatment options, and those of us suffering quietly will no longer live in the shadows. As always I welcome your comments and questions.
The Blogs of Dave Murphy: The Cost of Bad Writing
From the dawn of human commerce the livelihood of marketing professionals has been built on clear communication, and with the growing importance of electronic messaging the need for effective writing skills has never been greater. Technology driven industries, including Biopharma and Medical Device, are particularly reliant on clear, concise writing because of the complex nature of the information being communicated. Yet many industry executives and students of organizational communication lament the reality that writing proficiency is in decline.
In a recent survey published by Harvard Business Review, 81% of business people who spend more than 20 hours per week reading for their job said that poor writing skills cause a significant amount of wasted time for them, and over half said that what they read is frequently ineffective because it is too long, poorly organized, unclear or filled with jargon. Employees get little training in how to write in a brief, clear manner and the result is a profound lack of impact in what they are trying to communicate. And the problem is not just in junior level cubicle dwellers – senior managers struggle to communicate exactly what they want within the subject line / title and first few sentences of what they write. As the HBR story points out, when executives are clear and direct in their business writing they will develop a reputation for candor and truthfulness, and employees will get to work accomplishing the goals that are set out for them.
In the context of the marketing profession, the need for effective writing is not confined to customer engagements or promotional material. The long term planning process, built in part on reporting the “voice of the customer,” is driven by clear, concise communication of strategies that are based on extensive analyses and in some cases massive amounts of data. The magic happens when a marketer can identify patterns in customer’s voices and articulate them clearly in written form. A Vice President of Marketing at a high-growth surgical instrument company told me that one of the most important drivers of their success is the ability of upstream marketing personnel to bring clarity to product development needs. The success of his organization, like most companies operating in a dynamic, fast-paced environment, depends on efficiency in the written word.
So why does this matter in the world of filling jobs and obtaining jobs?
On the employee side of the table it’s more important than ever to be clear and concise when writing a resume, a cover note that describes motivation, and the follow-up correspondence after interviews. Managers place a premium on finding candidates who can write efficiently, communicating the most important points in as few words as possible. Hiring authorities are most impressed by resumes that begin with a maximum of two to three sentences of “overview” statements describing key attributes and qualifications. They want to get to the point about where someone has worked, the kind of problems they were asked to solve, and the results of their efforts.
From the employers’ perspective, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s being written in job descriptions and online job postings. It’s remarkable to me that some of the largest, most prestigious organizations in the world create job descriptions that fail to convey the specifics of what an employee will do on the job. Here is some language from two job descriptions different clients of mine have written for current marketing openings:
“Responsible for the development of specific marketing plans and activities for specific product(s)/project(s)/product line(s) to establish, enhance or distinguish placement within the competitive arena. Activities may include tactics, tools, logistics, campaigns, basic messaging and positioning. Leads cross-functional teams/groups, (i.e., launch teams); to develop new products or enhance existing product(s) or product line(s). Understands business environment and relates extensive knowledge of internal and external activities to trends. Interfaces with a variety of management levels on significant matters, often requiring the coordination of activity across organizational units.”
“Responsible for the design, development, implementation and coordination of marketing plans for specific product, product line or product areas. Design, develop and implement deliverables such as product specifications, branding and launch strategies per New Product Development procedures and Launch Excellence guidelines.
• Core team representation as commercial and customer VOC on internal product development teams, also responsible for launch planning.
• Commercial Integration – partnering cross-regionally to identify best commercial practices to accelerate penetration.
• Executes marketing plans and programs, both short and long range, to ensure profitable growth and expansion of company products and/or services
• Researches, analyzes, and monitors financial, technological, and demographic factors so that market opportunities may be capitalized on and the effects of competitive activity may be minimized”
The problem with this unclear, subjective style of writing is that it not only fails to inspire talented prospects to want to pursue a job opportunity, it also leaves the description wide open for unqualified individuals to assume they can perform various functions because of lack of clarity that they cannot. I can’t complain too much about this problem, however, because candidates rely on me to explain what the job actually entails.
It’s clear that bad writing leads to wasted time and ineffectiveness in the corporate world. It’s possible that texting has led to a dumbing-down of writing skills in all forms, but I think the cause is more complicated than that. It’s incumbent upon senior leadership to insist on improvement in employee and candidate writing, and as a start they should work to enhance their own skills, setting a high bar for others to follow. As always, I welcome any comments or questions.
The Blogs of Dave Murphy: Cost of Living Adjustments?
I fill a lot of jobs in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Boston and New York. As compared to other locations in the U.S. it is rather expensive to live in those cities. People who are considering moving to expensive locations in order to take a new job will often ask if the employer will adjust their salary upward to account for the higher cost of living. The answer? It depends, but generally no.
There are a few select organizations – typically large, well-capitalized multinationals – that will include a modest Cost of Living Adjustment in the job offer, and most often it appears as a one-time lump sum built into the relocation package. But in the vast majority of cases the employer doesn’t provide a COLA, and it’s often surprising for many to learn that the wages for Med Tech marketing jobs in expensive cities are only marginally higher than those in less expensive places.
The best evidence of this is the case of relatively large corporations that have offices and employees doing nearly identical jobs in different cities (think places like J&J, Medtronic, Abbott, Roche, Novartis). To be sure, there are some differences in salaries paid to employees working in different locations, but generally speaking a Marketing Manager at a given organization who is based in San Francisco is earning no more than 5-10% more doing the same job as his/her counterpart in, say, Minneapolis. That “COLA” comes nowhere close to off-setting the difference in cost of housing in most cases.
This explains why employers located in pricey cities try their hardest to fill job openings with candidates who are already living in the local area and who don’t have to relocate. Employers are fully aware of the difficulty in convincing someone to relocate and take a financial hit in the process – even though they are almost always getting some sort of increase in their pay. As in taxes, it’s not what you earn that is important – it’s what you keep.
All employers in expensive locations have been burned multiple times by courting candidates who need to relocate only to find out at offer time that they will not move. Or they will move only if they are made “an offer they can’t refuse.” Often the candidate will not do the math and actually research the rent or home prices in the new area until the end of the process, wasting everyone’s time and burning bridges along the way. We also frequently see the situation where the candidate doesn’t engage the spouse or partner in the arithmetic of the move until after an offer has been extended, which is a recipe for disaster. Finally there’s the worst case scenario where a candidate accepts a job, begins employment and then decides after six months or so that they’re not going through with the relocation. Now the employer is faced with an “effective” vacancy of a year or more because they have to re-start the search from scratch.
For these and other reasons hiring managers always prefer a local candidate who is already used to paying the cost of admission in the expensive but very lucrative job market. They can fill a job faster, cheaper, and easier, and the “flight risk” factor is reduced.
Why does this matter?
Why would a sane person consider relocating to take a new job in a significantly more expensive area, assuming there are no personal or family reasons driving the decision?
As it turns out, there are several reasons.
The most common is the opportunity for growth and development within an employee’s own company. By moving to the headquarters location from a regional office, a sales position, or a manufacturing plant, an employee can generally improve their career development options significantly. The other frequently cited justification for an expensive relo is based on the fact that the employee’s industry is likely concentrated in that new area, so that if there is a layoff or something goes wrong with the new job or employer, there are many other viable options nearby and the employee will not have to keep relocating to build their career.
There are valid reasons why those cities are so expensive – the best jobs are often based there, in a concentrated geographic area, limiting career risk for people in those industries. And the situation is self-perpetuating: an employee with a great idea leaves his or her company to go across the street and build a start-up in the same industry. They’re unlikely to build that new company in a remote, inexpensive place because the most important resource – human capital – is right there nearby.
So some bold, adventurous souls are willing to pay the cost and move to Cambridge, Manhattan or Palo Alto so they can be either in – or at least near – “the game.” They want to be in places where career opportunities abound and make the risk-return tradeoff that we often have to make in managing our careers, and in living our lives for that matter. Maybe someday geographic COLA’s will be a staple of the American workforce, but until then we’ll have to do the analyses and the make the tradeoffs about relocation, knowing that the immediate take home pay may not go as far as we hope.
The Blogs of Dave Murphy: Consolidation & Contraction
Usually these blogs provide commentary on the different elements of the recruiting and staffing process, but this one focuses on changes in the Med Tech and BioPharma business. I first got into the industry in 1985 with a small, family owned drug company called Carter-Wallace. Back then there were over 100 different commercial stage, branded pharma companies including at least 25 that we would refer to as Big Pharma (I later went to work for Merck which at the time was the biggest of the Big Pharmas). Little did we know at the time what “Big” really means.
Now, the top 10 drug companies account for over one-third of industry sales. Those super-companies represent the sum total over 50 other organizations that were merged / acquired / aligned into each other. Consider the case of a friend of mine who began his career at Marion Labs. They became part of Hoechst Marion Roussel, which was merged into Rhone Poulenc Rorer to become Aventis, which became Sanofi-Aventis, and recently acquired Genzyme. The rate of contraction in the industry is accelerating at a rate we’ve never seen before, and a similar trend can be seen in the Medical Device space as well. Organizations seek to optimize efficiency and economies of scale – particularly those that have invested in building huge commercial teams and are constantly in need of new products to sell. In our industry it’s often much easier to buy intellectual property than develop it organically, and that trend is not likely to change.
So what does this mean for employment and career development opportunities? For those among us in Corporate or Business Development activities, it’s a huge opportunity to push for M&A and licensing deals, and to create a secure employment path. And for risk-taking founders and early employees of start-up companies with unique IP this is a trend that will continue to provide significant wealth-building opportunities. For most marketing personnel (about 80% of the jobs I fill) there is real risk in the trend toward consolidation. While it’s true that HQ-based marketing teams that are acquired are needed in the short-term to maintain revenue growth and help build a bridge to the future, combined organization, more often than not we see duplicity in certain functions that usually results in jobs being eliminated. A combined company only needs so many mid-level managers and executives in functions like brand marketing, market research, sales operations, communications and other related areas.
Another source of post-acquisition layoffs in marketing functions is logistical: most organizations want to consolidate employees in the same location to reduce overhead and improve communication. That means relocation of employees, and the reality is that few Gen Xers and Millennials are willing to relocate for their employment. When M&A deals are struck the terms include analysis of the costs of severance packages that will be offered to employees who won’t relocate. While it’s true that the acquiring company generally has a few vacancies to backfill due to non-relocation of marketing staff, it’s rarely one-for-one. In the majority of cases we see that the post-acquisition “whole” is lesser than the sum of it’s parts as it relates to the workforce.
So how best to prepare for the new reality of permanent mergers and acquisitions? There are several strategies one can consider, and they each have advantages and disadvantages, of course. Some marketers choose to develop new skills in BD and deal-making in order to capitalize on the trend. My thought there is that it’s always best to make that shift early in your career when you can still afford it, and to do it with your current employer since a new employer will require established BD experience and an existing Deal Sheet to consider someone as a viable candidate.
Others anticipate the need to expect frequent job changes throughout their career, and they will sometimes move to a region or city where the industry is heavily concentrated in order to limit further relocation (PA, NJ/NY/CT, Boston/Cambridge, California, and – in Med Tech – the Twin Cities. And an extremely common strategy we see among Marketing VP’s and senior execs is to build a solo career in contract based consulting, forgoing so-called “job security” and benefits for lucrative contract work that is project based. That obviously requires a level or risk tolerance that’s not for everyone, but it has become a very viable long-term career option.
It’s not just the Med Tech and BioPharma industries that are evolving in this way, of course. Employees in all sectors of the global economy have been pinched by consolidation and contraction, and it will continue to accelerate. In the end each of us has to manager our careers proactively, anticipating and embracing change, so that we can minimize the occasions where we have to react to adverse situations. Sometimes that means a job change ahead of looming trouble, sometimes not. The days of getting a gold watch after 30 years with a company may be gone, but there will always be a need for innovative, ambitious marketers in our industry in one form or another. I look forward to adapting as our industry changes, and continuing to serve as a resource for my client companies and marketing professionals.
The Blogs of Dave Murphy: Fantasy Football for Recruiters
This time of year many of us are busy crafting our strategy for upcoming Fantasy Football drafts, combing through magazines or reading websites. Particularly in those early draft rounds we only get a few chances to get it right, and those choices make or break our entire season. It occurred to me that as I help my client companies recruit candidates to fill key positions, we often go through the same process: understanding the position (a Job Description), developing a targeted search plan, interviewing, vetting, and selecting. All hiring managers want to get Tom Brady, Calvin Johnson, or (pick-your-favorite-player) on the team. The key difference, of course, is that candidates for employment often choose not to go, or they don’t return a call because there is no reason to make a job change, or they have three job offers to choose from at the same time. So to operate under the assumption that as a hiring manager with an “opening” we should be able to expect the most talented person in the workforce to join our team is, indeed, a fantasy.
The trap I see many managers fall into is that initial candidates who are early in an interview process are “put on the backburner” while we search, and wait, for better people. And we search, and we interview, and we wait, and at some point along the way we have a choice to make: is it better to have a vacancy on the field (for example, no Tight End) and go with fewer players than your competitor? Or does it make more sense to get someone in there who is competent and willing to play for your team? I suspect the answer is that it depends on the position and what time it is in the game. If it’s an important job, and it’s crunch time – maybe a product launch, or an IPO or merger, or a new technology platform being implemented – it may make sense to hire someone who is over-the-bar in terms of qualifications and cultural fit, yet perhaps not the envisioned perfect-candidate profile.
Just as no football coach, fantasy or otherwise, would enter a game under-staffed, no hiring manager should carry a vacancy for a prolonged period. Winning companies have a clear process for recruiting and selection, identifying a short-list of candidates who are hirable and interested, and setting a general deadline for making a decision. One of the hardest skills for new managers to develop is attracting and then vetting new members for their team (particularly when they were recently promoted and are now backfilling their old position). But an even more important skill to develop is overcoming the fear of making a mistake or bringing on someone who is high-maintenance and a management challenge.
From my seat it is interesting to observe the differences in hiring behavior between brand new managers of people and those with several years of experience supervising others. Many new managers are very hesitant to make a decision and fill an opening. Almost as if it were a marriage proposal, the fear of making a mistake will sometimes drive them to consider dozens of qualified candidates over several months, and many are willing to do 2-3 jobs at once while waiting for Joe Montana to show up and interview. The strain on the rest of the team members, who typically have to help cover the vacancy, begins to wear on them, often leading to further turnover. If left to fester, vacancies – whether backfills or newly created jobs – become a cancer that can drag an organization down. In this white-hot job market for executives in the medical industry all candidates want to know why a job is open, and how long it’s been vacant. Prolonged vacancies, particularly those that have been advertised for more than six weeks or so, create fear and uncertainty. I hear things like “why can’t they fill it?” or “why won’t people go work there?”
As with everything this is a balancing act – nobody is suggesting that we hire the first or second warm body who interviews, knowing that they are unlikely to meet expectations. But just as great coaches in sports can identify budding talent and help make them great when put into the proper system (Bill Belichick comes to mind), leaders in the workforce must be willing to make hiring decisions when they are asked to manage a team. Beyond staffing, successful management is about training, inspiring, motivating, and – when necessary – coaching and counseling underperformers, including those you may inherit. Yes, sometimes that even means replacing people, a difficult task that good managers must embrace.
It it’s any consolation, one of the most common qualities that my client’s seek when filling a supervisory role is the experience of dealing with a “management challenge.” They want to know about situations where you’ve been able to turn around underperformers and get them moving in the right direction, and they want to know about situations where you’ve had to move someone out of the organization. Candidates who don’t have those experiences are viewed as being untested and less attractive, particularly given the trend toward permanent reorganizations where managers are assigned new subordinates rather than being allowed to select their own people.
One of the great tenets of leadership, among coaches or managers of any group, is “when in command, take charge.” In other words, make a decision and own it. Monitor it, and if you determine later on that it needs to be corrected, then admit the mistake and fix it. All noteworthy books on leadership cite indecision as having a crippling effect on organizations. When it comes to competing in the marketplace, we must stop carrying prolonged, expensive vacancies and losing good employees to other teams. We can go on and on with sports analogies here (“you miss every shot you don’t take”), but it’s fair to say that having somebody in a crucial job – even if it’s on a short-term, contract-to-perm basis, is better than having nobody. If we’re doing our jobs as managers that means keeping all parts of the machine operating smoothly.