How do you know if someone is up to the job?

June 13, 2013

You’ve got a vacancy for senior position. It’s critical you get the right person. You’ve got a range of qualified, experienced candidates to choose from. How do you know which ones are up to the job?

I don’t mean here ‘Will they take on the responsibility?’ or ‘Can they handle the pressure?’. These are important factors and will be the subject of a future blog post. But much more fundamental than that is the question ‘Do they understand what they’re doing?’.

Dealing with complex issues

The more senior you are in an organisation, the more complex the issues you’re faced with. In purely operational roles, you generally know what you’re supposed to do and how you are supposed to do it – you serve customers, operate machinery, prepare food, drive a truck or answer call centre queries. You may have to deal with difficult people, but otherwise there tend to be few decisions to make and clear processes to follow.

Compare this with jobs at the top of large organisations. Here the issues are multi-faceted and the information you have to work with is complex, ambiguous and often incomplete or contradictory. Imagine, for example, that you run a large contract cleaning business in the South East of England, where your primary customers are businesses in office blocks. You want to grow the business.

DecisionDo you look for new customers or buy a rival cleaning company and acquire theirs? Do you tender for contracts to clean offices in another part of the country or stay in the South East but move into cleaning schools or hospitals? Or do you broaden out to offer other services, such as security, grounds maintenance and catering, and become a facilities management company?

No right answers

There are no ‘right’ answers to questions such as these. In fact, you even have to work the questions out for yourself. It’s a matter of judgement and it may be years before you know whether you made a good decision.

Some people are better equipped to make these decisions than others. Clearly experience helps. It’s useful to know something about the contract cleaning market in order to make decisions about it. But experience alone is not enough and, in some cases, can even be a hindrance. Some people get too bogged down in the detail of their industry or their technical area to be able to see the big picture.

Working without structure

The vital factor is the ability to sort through masses of information, identify the critical issues and do this without guidelines. Not everyone can do this. It’s hardly a great psychological insight to say that some people are smarter than others, but this is a particular way of thinking about intelligence – the ability to guide your own thinking to make sense of complex information.

And this brings us back to your group of experienced, well-qualified candidates for your senior appointment. The chances are some of them will be able to think in this way and some won’t. Man Scratching HeadThere are plenty of capable people who struggle to make sound decisions when faced with ambiguous information in an unstructured environment, particularly if it’s unfamiliar. They may not be who you’d expect. They could be graduates. They might be engineers, accountants, lawyers, technical specialists or experienced operators who know their industry inside out. They may have impressive track records in their field. But put them in a situation where they have to work things out from a ‘blank sheet’ and can’t rely solely on their past experience and they are likely to be less effective. Even more worryingly, they probably won’t realise it is happening. They may make assumptions, jump to conclusions or focus on the wrong information, but have no idea they are doing it. People cannot see what they cannot see. They may be very confident in their decision making, but that doesn’t mean they always make good decisions.

Identifying people who can handle complexity

So when you’re hiring or promoting people how do you identify the ones who can operate effectively in a vague and fuzzy world? It’s not easy in an interview. A candidate who’s confident and knows their stuff can be impressive, but may still not have what it takes. Traditional reasoning tests (‘what’s next in this sequence’ type of thing) are an option but they take a rather one-dimensional view of ability.

When I’m assessing people for senior appointments, I haven’t found anything to rival the Cognitive Process Profile. It finds out how people solve problems of increasing complexity when faced with unfamiliar data, rules that sometimes change, contradictory information and some things which are completely irrelevant. Rather like life, in fact.

It can tell you the level of complexity a person can currently handle, what level of job that maps on to, whether they have the potential to go further and how well they learn – all vital information for senior appointments.

Although the CPP is slowly gaining popularity in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be widely known, even amongst psychologists. Having used it for over a decade, I’m quietly evangelical about it. I’ve come to really understand and appreciate the depth of information it reveals about the way people think and how that impacts on the way they work.

Not the whole story

It’s up to my clients to work out whether a candidate has sufficient knowledge and experience in their field. In my time I’ve assessed people for senior roles in sectors as diverse as mining, catering, property management, television and social services. I can’t claim to know enough about any of those to judge someone’s level of expertise. But what I can do is work out how they might use that expertise, particularly in a role that requires strategic thinking.

Of course, knowing someone can understand the key issues is just the starting point. Next time, I want to talk about the importance of management judgement…

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