Recently, Tom Foster introduced me to a tool based on the research of Eliot Jacques—whose premise was that people differ in the time spans across which they can anticipate and plan for change. A good definition of leadership is managing change, so these time spans have a big impact on the type of leadership role a person can occupy.
Like a lot of business leaders, I used to think I had some kind of God-given ability to identify which individuals would do well in the organization. But even at the best of times, only about 60% of my hires really worked out like I expected them to. Looking at resumes and doing interviews just wasn’t giving me the information I needed to accurately predict how people would perform in the job.
Eventually, I looked for ways to do hiring better. One popular approach was formal assessment tools so I could get a better idea of applicants’ skill-sets. Basically, I was trying to clone people. I’d look at the attributes of a person who was doing a really good job and then look for someone else with a similar profile.
For example, I remember interviewing an individual for a comptroller position. They had years of experience with this really unusual software we were using. I thought I’d won the lottery when I saw that resume come across my desk. How could it not be a perfect fit? Fortunately, I listened to good training and policy and dug a little deeper. Based on a profile assessment, I found out that they didn’t like repetitive tasks and didn’t like working all day in an office. This was contrary to what I had thought I knew about them and contrary to the needs of the position. This information allowed me to ask some new and better questions.
As it turned out, they hadn’t been a comptroller before. Instead, they had been training other people on the use of the software, always moving from location to location. So they didn’t really have the experience I was looking for–and when I told them more about the position, they admitted it didn’t sound appealing.
Hiring the right person often depends on asking the right questions. That in turn depends on finding new and insightful ways to think about what you actually need from an employee for a given position.
For example, some people can really only think a couple of weeks ahead. It’s not that they don’t know the future is coming, it’s not that they aren’t smart; it’s that they’re focused on the immediate. They might be very talented with production or customer service, any kind of position that involves responding quickly and well to the current situation. They may not be able to do as well with management tasks, such as hiring new personnel, that have to be initiated weeks or months ahead of time. For that, you need somebody who can look farther down the road and can anticipate the need for change.
Generally, the higher up the chain of command you are, the greater the time span you need. If you’re drafting business strategy for the entire company, you really need to be thinking about ten years ahead—or more. Very few people have the ability to do that.
This kind of planning ability is not related to experience or education. It’s part of a person’s thinking style. That doesn’t mean that someone with a very short time span for planning is doomed–it is possible to improve your planning ability to some extent, or to simply learn coping skills to get around the problem. But a person is just not going to be able to move from one end of the scale to the other. If you’re hiring for a leadership position, you need to look for a candidate who can demonstrate an ability to anticipate as much of the future as the position requires.
A job applicant is not going to be able to tell you straight out what their time-span is. It’s not the type of thing people are normally aware of. And, as with all other assessment tools, this isn’t something that can make the hiring decision all by itself. You still have to look at resumes and skill-sets and expectations for work-place culture and everything else. Each aspect of the process still has to be seen in context. Time spans are simply another lens, a way of looking at the requirements of a job and the abilities of an applicant.
But it’s a powerful lens, one that you need to make the right hiring decision reliably.
Four Requirements for Hiring:
- Capability: match level of work to time span
- Skill: technical, knowledge, practice
- Interest: passion, value
- Behavior: habits, attitudes