I once served as president and board chairman of a nonprofit organization. We needed to hire a full-time executive director. I put together a committee and commenced a nationwide search, winnowing applicants to a group of finalists we planned to fly in for interviews.
The first finalist to visit, Roger, had an impressive resume and a powerhouse personality. He seemed to have the right answer to every question. He made us feel good about our “wonderful volunteer efforts that serve your community so well.” He expressed admiration of what we’d “accomplished for such an important and worthy cause.”
Personally, Roger stroked my ego with comments such as, “Jathan, I can tell your heart is in this organization. Whoever ends up being executive director will be fortunate to have you as board president.”
“You know Jathan, I understand you’re beginning ‘flybacks’ of finalists. Well I’m at the beginning of ‘fly-tos’ with other organizations interested in making me their executive director. However, I feel so good about you, your organization and your community that if you feel the same way about me, I’m prepared to end my search now.”
I ran this opportunity by the other search committee members. Apparently, they were as impressed with Roger as I was. Excited at what we thought was a historic opportunity and fearful we’d lose Roger to another organization, we decided to make him an offer without interviewing the other finalists.
After I presented Roger with our proposal, he said:
“Jathan, I’m touched by your quick action and confidence in me. However, and I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but the economic terms are less than what I expected. Please understand me. This isn’t about money. But based on my knowledge of what other organizations pay, I don’t think I can accept this offer and feel responsible to my family. Can you do better?”
I again consulted with my committee. We recrunched numbers and budget projections. I went back to Roger with a revised proposal, which he accepted. Like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I felt like saying, “Roger, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Shortly after his arrival, Roger made his first executive decision. He had a yellow line painted around the parking space closest to the building. He had a sign put up next to it that read, “Reserved: Executive Director.”
Roger’s next executive decision was to have his office enlarged. I didn’t learn about this project until I observed construction under way. When I questioned him about it, Roger said, “This is necessary. It’s beneath the dignity and stature of an executive director of an organization of this magnitude to work in an office that’s a glorified broom closet.”
Things went downhill from there. Roger effectively rewrote his job description, eliminating duties “that aren’t the sorts of things an executive director does; they’re for subordinates.”
The other organization employees soon began complaining about their new boss. They used words like self-absorbed, aloof, and imperious. One employee quit. Others said they were back in the job market.
Over the next few months, additional issues arose. Finally, we decided to fire Roger. We negotiated a contractual buyout, which wasn’t cheap. And we started all over again.
Not one of my better moments as president.
When I tell this story to audiences, I ask them if their “Stupid Switch” has ever been flipped: “Have any of you ever conflated the ability of a candidate to get a job with the candidate’s ability to do it?” I typically see lots of hands go up, along with groans and sour looks as if to say, “Gee, Jathan, thanks for reminding me of that ‘happy’ experience.”
Bear in mind that job candidates are looking to sell themselves. Some are quite good at it. They overrepresent their skills, experiences, qualifications, and job fitness. They ingratiate themselves by pushing buttons we like having pushed. What the behavioral economists call confirmation bias kicks in. Subconsciously, we start screening information and interpreting it in ways that confirm our initial impression.
Conversely, there are candidates who are a lot better at doing jobs than selling themselves. They may be overly cautious, humble, shy, or seem uncomfortable. As a result, your initial impression may not be favorable. Confirmation bias kicks in again, only this time to screen and interpret information in ways that confirm in your mind that this candidate is not a good choice.
The problem is compounded by the fact that candidates aren’t just trying to sell themselves to us; we’re looking to be sold. We’ve got lots of other pressing things to do with our time besides spend it on hiring. We can’t wait to fill the position so we can get back to our regular jobs. This makes us highly susceptible to confirmation bias and to cutting corners, such as failing to conduct thorough due diligence to make sure we don’t hire people who overpromise and underdeliver.
So the next time you have a hiring decision to make, place your left thumb just below your left earlobe and press. That’s to disconnect your Stupid Switch, Part One.
Morris worked as a technician for a company that manufactured devices used by military and law enforcement. In a group of 15 technicians, Morris was the only African American.
The company’s practice was to promote from within. Management typically selected the best workers for promotion to supervisor.
In terms of productivity, quality, and safety, Morris was an outstanding employee. Jim, the department head, designated him acting supervisor, the first step in the promotion process. This meant that when the regular supervisor, Sandra, was away, Morris became acting supervisor of his group.
At the time of the announcement that Morris would become the acting supervisor, several coworkers congratulated him. However, the good feeling soon changed.
During Morris’s first stint as acting supervisor, he interacted with the other technicians in a way that was markedly different from Sandra. Sandra had a low-key, easygoing management style, whereas Morris was more demanding. This contrast resulted in two technicians complaining to Jim about how Morris treated them.
After Sandra’s return, Jim sat down with Morris. “While you were acting supervisor, we received complaints about how you were treating employees. Words like harsh and mean were used.”
Morris said, “I wasn’t harsh or mean to anyone who did their job. I learned in the military that there’s got to be accountability. If people aren’t doing their jobs, you’ve got to let them know in no uncertain terms.”
“I agree to a point,” Jim said, “but we have a fairly easygoing culture here, and Sandra’s style is pretty laid back.
“I’m not saying you should look the other way when employees don’t perform, but I think your approach needs to be lower key. Otherwise, the contrast between you and Sandra will be too much for people to accept.”
Morris was silent.
Jim continued, “I still think you’re a terrific employee and have excellent leadership potential. In fact, I’m prepared to send you to a management-training program at company expense and on company time. It will improve your communication skills and better prepare you for a supervisory position.”
Morris replied, “I don’t need to take a class! The military taught me what I needed to know about management. If you ask me, the person who needs to take the class is Sandra.”
“Thanks for the suggestion,” Jim said. “But Sandra’s style is more in line with our philosophy and culture. If you want to move into management here Morris, you’re going to have to change your approach.”
The meeting ended. Morris did not pursue the training opportunity.
A few weeks later, Sandra left for a week’s vacation. Despite some misgivings, Jim put Morris in charge. The week did not go well.
Jim sat down with Morris and heard a familiar response.
“I know what I’m doing,” Morris said. “I learned how to manage people in the military. You don’t coddle people, that’s all.”
Jim repeated the offer of management training. Morris again declined.
“Well then Morris, we can’t let this continue. You’ve given me no choice. We’re going to select another technician to be acting supervisor.”
“I don’t think the problem is the way I manage people,” Morris said. “I think it may be because white employees aren’t used to being supervised by a black man.”
“No one brought up race,” Jim said.
“I wouldn’t expect them to. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a factor.”
Morris subsequently filed a claim of race discrimination with the local antidiscrimination agency and the company retained me as legal counsel to represent it in defending the claim. At a mediation session, my client proposed that if Morris withdrew his claim, they would work with him on a customized management-skills program in which he’d receive training and coaching. It would be designed to enable him to set expectations and hold people accountable in a manner compatible with the company’s culture.
Morris turned down the offer. His bitterness remained. We ended up negotiating a settlement that included his resignation of employment in exchange for severance pay. Despite Morris’s having been an excellent technician with a promising future, his career with my client was over.
My client made a mistake other employers frequently make: the Stupid Switch, Part Two, where you conflate the ability of employees to do their current job with their ability to do a different job. My client assumed Morris’s success in his hourly technician role would necessarily translate into success in a supervisory position. Yet the former focused on achieving individual goals while the latter focused on achieving group goals. Little or no thought was given to the different perspective, skills, and approach needed when shifting from applying one’s own energies and skills to guiding and channeling others’ energies and skills.
When the differences between current job and new job are identified upfront with specificity, the selection process, criteria, interview questions, and performance expectations get seen in a new light. The promotion process becomes less a matter of chance, and the likelihood of the Peter Principle (promotion to a level of incompetence) greatly diminishes.
So the next time you have a promotion decision to make, place your right thumb just below your right earlobe and press. That’ll disconnect Stupid Switch, Part Two.
Race made this situation more challenging (and is the reason I know the story). However, companies regularly make promotion mistakes regardless of race or other demographic characteristics.
The sad irony here is that the employer earnestly wanted to promote Morris in part because of his race. It wanted to diversify its otherwise white management team and felt Morris would be a great addition. Hence the repeated offers of management-skills development even after he had filed a claim.
On the other hand, it’s not shocking that Morris attributed the problem to race. From his perspective, he was doing nothing wrong; the criticism was unmerited and unfair. Like virtually every African American male I have known, Morris had experienced racial discrimination and mistreatment in his past. It’s often impossible to scrub your perspective clean of such painful memories.
In my view, the company made a common mistake. It checked the “Affirmative Action Mission Accomplished” box merely by giving Morris the promotion. But it gave no thought to what would be needed to ensure his success in the new position. Although management wanted Morris to succeed, it essentially waited for him to fail. That’s when it started the dialogue on leadership expectations. It would have been far better for all parties had management been clear about those expectations before putting Morris in a position to succeed or fail.
In my 30-plus-year career, I have employed many administrative assistants. Experience and satisfaction levels have varied widely, from, “Thank goodness she’s on my team!” to “OMG! What was I thinking when I hired him?!”
My employee-selection success rate improved dramatically after I started using Star Profiles.
Here’s the first one I did. I wrote it when I worked for a law firm, still practicing law while spending increasing time on the road giving presentations. The firm had a four-page job description for legal assistants. However, my Star Profile had just three sentences:
Generates and files documents promptly and accurately.
Takes charge of my professional and administrative compliance.
Puts himself or herself in my travel shoes, making arrangements that consider time, cost, who I need to see, and what needs to happen.
Regarding the first sentence, documents have long constituted my professional lifeblood. Promptness and accuracy are essential. With either compromised, my ability to take care of my clients is compromised.
As for the second sentence, my administrative and professional compliance responsibilities involve many details, especially in my law practice days. Neglect or carelessness could cause major headaches, such as the time a lack of attention to licensing details resulted in my receiving an official court letter informing me that I was practicing law without authorization—a big no-no! Or the time a hit-or-miss approach to processing my expense reports resulted in my being shorted over a year’s time of over $3,000. I truly needed an assistant who would take charge of these responsibilities.
The third sentence focused on my increasing travel load. If you’ve ever had a bad travel experience, you know why I desired an assistant who would figure out what I needed and, with near-fanatical devotion to detail, get me to where I was going and back. Without such support, my professional effectiveness went down while my stress level went up, such as when a company hired me to conduct workshops on three consecutive days in three cities. The cities were essentially in a straight line, with the two outer cities being about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the middle one. Since I could fly in and out of any of them, the plan was simple: fly into one city, do the workshop, rent a car, drive to the next city, do the second workshop, drive to the third city, do the final workshop, return the car, and fly home from the last city. Simple and straightforward, eh? Unfortunately, my pre-star-profile assistant scheduled me to start in the middle city. This meant that after the first workshop, I drove two-and-a-half hours to the next city. However, after the second day’s workshop, I had to drive five hours to the last one.
Experiences like this inspired me to create my first Star Profile and use it in the hiring process. My approach has been simple. Share the profile characteristics with the candidates and get their views. In some cases, candidates have said, “If that’s what you really need, I’m not the right person for this job.” I ask you: What better time to find this out than before you hire them?
If the candidate says, “That speaks to me,” I ask for a specific experience of his or hers that would help me predict we will see the profile behavior in the future. If one is offered, I’ll say something like, “You know, perceptions differ from one person to another. To make really sure, I may need you to get contact information for people who have knowledge of the experience you share so that I can ask them for their perception as well.”
This step has proved highly effective in separating candidates good at getting but not doing jobs from candidates good at doing but not getting jobs. The smooth confidence of the former quickly fades, while the discomfort of the latter likewise fades. With the former, I sometimes have had to suppress a smile at their sudden tongue-tiedness. “It’s okay, take your time,” I’ll say. “If you can’t think of anything, you can’t think of anything.” With the latter, they often express their own interest in finding out what others perceive and go out of their way to get me contact information.
I won’t say my new approach raised my hiring odds to perfection. However, they have soared past the 50–50 mark that prevailed before. Moreover, having the Star Profile conversation during the hiring process has made their transition to actual employment much easier and more effective.
I’ve put away my coin.
If done properly, Star Profiles possess few words but create powerful, action-oriented pictures of what’s most important in a particular job from the perspective of the person to whom that position reports. In the case above, there were many other things legal assistants did. After all, there was the firm’s four-page job description. For me, however, success or failure centered on those three sentences.
Although short and to the point, Star Profiles don’t necessarily come together quickly. The most effective ones get honed and crafted to accurately depict the core of job success. Every word counts. Some managers have spent hours zeroing in on and fine-tuning the words that best capture the actions that matter most. Nevertheless, when you think about how much time and effort managers expend, and how much stress they suffer, because of bad hiring decisions that are revealed by performance and disciplinary problems, the investment is small in relation to the return.
Maria was the director of a small Latino Studies Department at a Midwestern university. Until recently, the university had been able to afford only one full-time, tenure-track position—hers.
Things changed after a wealthy donor agreed to fund another position in Latino studies. This meant Maria would finally have a colleague, her very own associate director (“I can delegate!”)
With eagerness, Maria jumped into the university process for hiring a professor. She formed a search committee and began looking for a fellow scholar to join her.
During the search process, Maria and I had a conversation about Star Profiles and how they’re used to make hiring decisions. Maria expressed interest in learning more, but time, distance, and other obligations prevented it from happening.
Several months later, Maria called me to say that the search committee had narrowed the finalists to five and were about to fly the first one in for interviews, faculty meetings, and a guest lecture. Maria was very excited but also nervous. A good choice would be heaven, but a bad one—given the procedural hassle of terminating a professor—would be hell.
I offered to give her a crash course on the Star Profile concept. She eagerly accepted.
As a result, Maria came up with four sentences that captured the core behaviors of a star associate director:
Provides teaching that attracts students to our program.
Produces tenure-worthy scholarship.
Interacts with members of the community to promote interest in and support for our program.
Collaborates with and supports the director in furthering the program’s goals.
Maria explained her four sentences:
“As for the first characteristic, we are a fairly new program. It will be critical to have the kind of teacher who makes students want to attend our courses and get the word out to other students.
“As for the second sentence, I’m not looking for an academic superstar. In fact, an academic superstar would probably spend too much time on scholarly work and want to leave once he or she got an offer from a more prestigious university. On the other hand, this person has to produce work of sufficient quality to get tenure. Otherwise, I’ll have a major problem in the future.
“As for the fourth, I’m going to have to work with this person extremely closely. Trust has to be absolute. I need a colleague I can collaborate with and who also has my back.”
A day after Maria finished her Star Profile, the first finalist arrived—Joseph, a candidate from an eastern university who had already established a reputation as an up-and-coming scholar. His curriculum vitae was very impressive, probably the most impressive of the five finalists.
Joseph’s guest lecture was a smashing success. It dripped with brilliance and authoritative elocution.
That evening, Maria hosted a reception for Joseph at her home. Fellow faculty members as well as program donors and community supporters wandered through her kitchen, dining area, and living room with plates of food.
After a while, Maria couldn’t help but notice that Joseph had been locked in a circle with three professors in an animated discussion. They seemed oblivious to everyone else.
She pulled out of her pocket the note on which she’d written the Star Profile and thought, “Hmmm, I don’t doubt characteristics one and two, Joseph’s ability to teach effectively and produce tenure-worthy scholarship. But interacting with members of the community to support the program, I’m not so sure.”
Maria decided to try a little experiment. She tapped Joseph on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, Joseph, may I speak with you for a minute?”
Joseph stepped out of the circle and faced her. “If you don’t mind,” she said, “before people start leaving, I’d like to introduce you. And if you’d care to say a few words, that would be great.”
“I have not prepared remarks for this occasion,” Joseph said.
“That’s fine,” Maria said. “You don’t have to say anything substantial, just maybe a greeting and an impromptu word or two.”
With a serious tone, Joseph said, “I don’t do impromptu.”
“Okay,” said Maria, “but I’m going to introduce you anyway.” With that, she tapped her glass with a spoon, getting everyone’s attention.
“Hi everyone. Thank you so much for coming out this evening to meet Joseph. I hope you had an opportunity to hear his wonderful lecture earlier today. And I want to thank Joseph for traveling here to join us this day.”
With that, Maria stopped speaking and looked at Joseph. All eyes were on him. Joseph looked around the room but said nothing. An awkward silence followed. The silence was broken when Joseph turned to the professors with whom he’d been engaged earlier and plunged back into conversation with them. He remained thus engaged until nearly all of the other guests had left.
“Oh my goodness! When I think how close the search committee and I were to offering Joseph the position, I shudder. What a nightmare that would have been! ‘Interacts with members of the community to promote interest in and support for our program’—I don’t think so! ‘Collaborates with and supports the director’—I definitely don’t think so! All I can say is, ‘Whew!’”
Maria and her committee ultimately hired another finalist, with Maria using the Star Profile as a discussion point and assessment tool. Maria found her long-term “star,” who eventually succeeded her as program director.
As for Joseph, about a year after this episode, Maria attended an academic conference and met an attendee from a university that had hired Joseph. The attendee told Maria, “We were all excited at first. The guy is brilliant. But, off the record, he’s an arrogant jerk!”
Maria smiled understandingly and nodded sympathetically.
If you’re contemplating an important decision with long-term consequences, it pays to invest in the decision-making process. Maria was about to plunge off a cliff similar to the one I plunged off of in “Stupid Switch, Part One.” Instead, she saved herself by creating and using a Star Profile.
By projecting into the future a moving picture of what would constitute success, and then zooming in on the necessary behavioral characteristics, Maria was able to make a wise choice. She saw that academic scholarship was not the be-all-and-end-all that she and other faculty members tended to assume. Other characteristics, ones less obvious or tangible, were equally if not more important, such as how this associate director would work with Maria as director and how the person would connect with members of the community. By moving from “Who has the most impressive qualifications?” to “Who possesses the behavioral traits most likely to produce the results we need?,” Maria dramatically upped the odds of a good, long-term selection decision.
When I served as president and board chairman of a nonprofit organization, I didn’t think about succession until my term was nearing the end and the deadline approached for nominating a successor.
I began a succession scramble. I asked one board member I liked and respected if she would consider succeeding me as president and board chair. “Not enough time for the job,” she said. I asked another board member—similar response. I began to get nervous. I tried a third. Another rejection!
Getting desperate, I asked a board member who I was confident would say yes. Smart and hard working, Richard was also ambitious—and rather abrasive. From time to time, employees and board members had been on the receiving end of his blunt observations.
Although somewhat skeptical, the board accepted my recommendation that Richard succeed me. The members voted in favor, and Richard soon took over.
Almost from day one, Richard’s different leadership style surfaced. Instead of engaging in collaborative decision making, he administered strong doses of old-school command and control. This caused friction. Relieved to have passed the reins, however, I kept my head down and resisted urgings to intervene, including declining requests that I resume my former position.
Tensions worsened. Recrimination and conflict became the norm. After several rounds of verbal fisticuffs with the board, Richard resigned under pressure and in anger. The whole episode was fraught with pain, lost opportunity, and harm to our organization’s mission.
Not exactly the best way to leave a legacy.
In hindsight, I realized that as leader, I committed several mistakes. First, I waited too long to focus on succession planning. It should have been part of my thinking from the beginning of my term, not the end. Second, I spent insufficient time reflecting on my organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT), and on what behavioral traits would be most important in a successor. Instead, I focused on my need: getting the succession monkey off of my back. Third, after the change occurred, happy to be unburdened, I became passive and did not help set the stage for my successor. It was, “Here’s the baton. Run!”
Having subsequently used Star Profiles in succession planning and having coached others to do so, I can say they’re positive difference makers. Had I applied this approach then, the profile would have said something like this:
• Combines humility and drive in working with the board and staff to further our mission.
• Energetically drums up financial and other support from members and donors.
• Promotes teamwork throughout the organization, from volunteers to staff to the board to the community members we serve.
• Helps keep our financial house in order.
In addition to disconnecting my Stupid Switch, a Star Profile would have been a useful recruitment tool. Before I approached Richard in desperation, I would have had very different conversations with the board members I attempted to recruit. The focus would not have been their fulfilling an obligation or relieving my burden. It would have been a discussion of needed leadership behavior and why their past behavior indicated a good fit for the future. At a minimum, I predict they’d have had a tougher time telling me no and would have helped me recruit someone else.
Moreover, the profile would have been useful after the new leader took over. It would have provided a basis for an ongoing dialogue between current president, past president, board, and staff about what really matters.
Great leaders care about the legacies they leave. That legacy is more than the results you produce while in the job. It includes what you did to ensure that your organization was in good hands after you left. Treat succession as a critical responsibility and use a Star Profile to help. You’ll leave a legacy worth leaving.