When hiring, are you asking questions that really matter?

May 2, 2004

It seemed such an obvious question. "How do you want your rank and file employees to see your new executive vice president?"

The president of a very successful institution was creating his succession plan and wanted to hire a replacement over the next decade. He was wise to begin the process of securing his company against a leadership vacuum at his expected or unexpected departure (he had had health problems in the recent past).

But what he wanted to do beyond that was more nebulous. Was he looking for someone to be an assistant until his retirement? Or was he looking to actually name the successor from the outset? Was he willing to begin turning over the reins of the company during the process, or was he retaining sole senior authority until his departure?

The right questions in the right areas

In over 20 years of leadership development and training, I have discovered that one of the most overlooked aspects of hiring is asking questions in key areas regarding the organization's needs and objectives. So often, whether I'm helping a company incorporate an employee evaluation program or develop a long-range strategy, the process spins, evolves and develops around answering key questions.

Many companies have an ability to create job descriptions, form minimum requirements for consideration, and create a traffic flow of resumes. But they often fail to formulate questions that examine the deeper aspects of the person they are interviewing. The best leaders know how to ask the right questions that lead to right answers.

Assuming that most companies have some process for hiring, I will not touch on the basics of hiring in this article. My desire is to help you move beyond your competitors to achieve success in securing better employees--whether cashiers or vice presidents.

A case study

"We need to hire another secretary," my associate told me one afternoon.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I'm overwhelmed. I need some help."

"What do you want this person to do?"

"Take weight off of me!" he exclaimed.

What he did not realize was that the need for relief does not a good hire make! Rather, he needed to define his goals and what another person would do to help him attain those goals. Otherwise, he might find himself spending money for someone that actually created more work in the form of oversight, or restraint, or morale loss. As it turned out, we hired a personal executive assistant, who, though the cost was higher, the returns were even higher. My colleague didn't need help in tasks; he needed partnership toward his goals.

When hiring, developing questions related to the various jobs is essential. And while standard job descriptions are helpful, every organization has culture, goals, styles and objectives that are unique.

Hire to fulfill a vision, not simply to alleviate a need

Part of defining a job is to know the need as defined by the vision. The vision of where you are going as an organization is a stronger motivation for determining success than satiating a short-term need.

Some questions to ask:

* What is the end product of the position you are trying to fill? If you hire this person:

* What problem will be solved, what need will be filled, or what goal will be accomplished?

* What value does this position, if accomplished properly, add to the company, and how?

* How does this position reduce the immediate responsibilities of one or more persons?

* What does success look like in this position?

While the answers create a general job description that could be filed in a drawer somewhere, efficacy demands we go deeper than that. It needs the personal touch of vision, passion and personality to effectively fill out the team.

The author, Dan Hall, is the president of On Course Solutions, a business-consulting firm based in New Albany, Ind. Dan assists companies in soft skills training, employee evaluation programs and motivational speaking. He also works extensively as an executive coach with CEOs, owners and upper-level leaders seeking to balance personal and professional life.

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