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Management by Coaching

Avoiding a misfire with your next hire

Be thorough; be methodical; be patient

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

What's the number one topic in my coaching work with agency leaders? Hands down, it's their people. Whether it's a shortage of motivation, a behavior that needs changing, a difficult personality, or individuals not achieving their potential, the conversations all share a common theme—getting people to perform up to the leaders' expectations.

Andrew, the CEO of a substantial agency in the Northeast, was no exception to the rule.

Andrew was extremely frustrated with two of his key people—one a commercial lines department manager and the other a sales professional. When he hired the manager a year ago, he had great hopes that this person would free him to work on building business rather than dealing with day-to-day operational issues. Things weren't turning out that way. The sales professional was spending too much time servicing accounts and not enough time bringing in new business.

In addition to the two underperformers, employee turnover had increased over the previous 18 months. Quick to assume personal responsibility, Andrew was questioning his management style, the compensation/incentive plan and the agency's overall work environment. Eager for a fresh and objective perspective, he asked me to talk with the commercial lines manager and sales professional and several of their respective co-workers.

First, I wanted a clear understanding of Andrew's expectations for these two positions and what he thought was lacking in the individuals. In response, he handed me two fairly standardized job descriptions including basic duties and the skills and qualifications required. However, when we talked about what was lacking in the people, it had nothing to do with the functional requirements outlined in the job descriptions.

Once Andrew's expectations had been clarified, it didn't take long to get to the heart of the issue. Employee interviews quickly revealed that the problem wasn't compensation, work environment or lack of communication; the employees simply weren't a good fit. They were good people, with reasonable skills and adequate experience but they were not the determined, self-motivated "A" level players Andrew wanted in these positions. How did this savvy agency principal miss the mark in these critical hires?

Five practices that derail smart hiring decisions

Smart people make poor hiring decisions. According to a recent Harris Interactive study of 2,494 hiring managers and human resource professionals, 69% of employers reported making bad hiring decisions in 2012. Conversations with executives and hiring managers reveal several common pitfalls:

Focusing too much on skills and not enough on fit—Typically, the hiring process focuses too much on candidates' technical skills and experience and not enough on the their behaviors, attitudes and values. In reality, it is behaviors, attitudes and values—not technical competence—that lead to the employer's decision to let a person go.

Winging it—Agency managers know their business and what it takes to get the job done. They rely on that experience and gut instinct to carry them through the interview process. As a result, most don't structure an interview beforehand and determine the ideal answers to questions. Candidates do much more interviewing than most managers and are more skillful at presenting themselves than many managers are at seeing through their "front."

Relying on interviews to evaluate a candidate—According to a University of Michigan study on the predictors of job performance, the typical job interview increases the likelihood of choosing the best candidate by less than 2%. That's because the traditional job interview is a highly subjective process. Interviewers often have a range of biases that dramatically affect their perceptions of individual job candidates. Many managers who reached their position by virtue of their own success believe they can instinctively recognize a good candidate, when they are unconsciously just using themselves as a template. When you use yourself as a model, your ego often gets in the way, and that "bias" can skew your objectivity in judging others—a fatal hiring flaw.

• Making decisions too quickly—Most agencies today are leanly staffed, which puts managers under extreme pressure to fill vacant positions quickly. Finding the best candidate for a position takes time—time that agency managers think they don't have.

Skipping the reference check—It's easy to rationalize forgoing the reference check. Contacting references is time-consuming, and employers can be reluctant to talk. If you're relying on a résumé to validate a candidate's skills and experience, forgoing the reference check is risky. Studies indicate that 42% of job applicants exaggerate or have inaccuracies on their résumés and a whopping 17% make false statements.

Stacking the odds in your favor

In a people-driven business like insurance, we know that the people we choose are the ultimate differentiating factor between success and mediocrity. It's worth the effort to slow down and think through how you can build a better employee selection process.

Be clear about what you really want—Think beyond a basic description of duties and the experience required. Create a written mission for the position that briefly summarizes the job's core purpose. This helps keep you on track through the hiring process. Be clear about the results you want right from the beginning. Describe the outcomes you expect for a person who will be successful in the position. Pinpoint the competencies/skills required for the job. Identify the values an individual needs in order to fit well within your culture. Put it all in writing and keep it in front of you throughout the hiring process.

Be mindful of why people fail in your organization and use that knowledge in your selection criteria—Research consistently shows that people fail in a job due to factors different from the criteria used to select them. Though most managers can list the most common reasons people have failed, they seldom make the information part of the criteria for choosing new candidates. Managers who identify these "failure points" and build them into the selection process can reduce hiring mistakes by as much as 25%.

• Prioritize—No single candidate will embody everything on your list. Know the difference between your "must haves" and your "nice-to-haves."  This helps you avoid getting caught up in the range of strengths the person brings to the table and compromising on your "must haves."

• Structure your interview—When they are uncomfortable with the interviewing process, agency managers can spend more time selling the position and talking about the company than getting to know the candidate. Being prepared keeps the interview on track and significantly improves the quality of the information you can uncover. Think through your questions ahead of time and put them in writing. Avoid cliché interview questions. There are hundreds of Web sites that teach candidates the ideal way to answer these questions depending on the type of job they're interviewing for.

As you develop questions, stay focused on your criteria and how your questions can uncover what you really want to know about the candidate. For example, if you're interviewing sales people and you've identified "lack of persistence" as the number one reason why producers have failed in your organization, ask several questions geared to uncover candidates' levels of persistence. You might say, "Tell me about a time in your life when you really wanted something and you didn't get it. What did you do?"

Avoid too many closed-end questions. They can signal the responses you want to hear, and since they only require a simple "yes" or "no" or piece of factual information, they're easy to answer. Ask open-ended questions. Let's say you place a high value on professional development and you want to know if this is important to the candidate. Instead of asking a closed-end question like, "What professional designations do you have?" ask an open-ended question such as, "In what ways have you invested in yourself to improve your performance?"

• Use assessment tools—Assessment tools can help you evaluate everything from a person's cognitive capabilities and resilience to his or her technical and interpersonal skills. Used appropriately, they surface strengths, weaknesses and characteristics of the candidate that are not always obvious in the interview process.

Let's say your sales position requires a real "hunter" who can find and close new business without much support. One of your finalists interviews extremely well, has a good book of business and comes from a respected competitor. When you assess this producer, the results reveal a profile better suited for account management. Thanks to the assessment, you know what to dig for in the final interview. Armed with more focused questions, you see that the candidate keeps talking about his strong client relationships and can't give much detail about his accomplishments in business development.

On the flip side, there will be candidates who don't immediately impress you face-to-face but whose assessment results are very strong. In this situation, the assessment helps you keep your gut reaction in check. Instead of assuming that the person can't do the job and finding reasons to support your emotional reaction, the assessment helps you to keep an open mind.

Take your time and get multiple perspectives—A job interview is like a first date. It tells you whether or not you want to go to the next step but you have no way of knowing if the relationship will work. Have multiple exposures to the candidate and under different circumstances (e.g., on the phone, in writing, one-on-one with a boss, in a group setting with peers). Involve multiple people from your team; each will see something different in the candidate. Check references. A former employer has lived with the candidate day-in and day-out. Even if a reference is reluctant to share information, they can validate the individual's experience and their tone will often communicate their level of support for the individual.

• Minimize subjectivity—Build a checklist that correlates with the criteria you establish for the position (see bullet above "Be clear about what you really want.") Rate each candidate based on the criteria and ask other interviewers to do the same. Sometimes you can love a candidate, but when you measure that person against the criteria, it's clear that he or she is not the right person for the job.

The best hires come from taking a disciplined approach. Be thorough in defining what you want in a candidate and the outcomes you expect. Be methodical in the way you assess candidates. Above all else, be patient. Hiring in haste or compromising on a less than stellar candidate always costs you more in the long-run.

The author

Kimberly Paterson is a business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (, where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, customer insight and leadership skills to energize people and achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at


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