Management In Real Life

Experience Doesn't Cut It
by: Kevin Herring

What comes to mind when you think of the title "Chainsaw?" How about the scariest, bloodiest horror movie you ever saw? If that's what popped into your head, thousands of employees and investors would say you were on the right track; they were all bloodied by the so-called turnaround expert and CEO described in this 1990s book.

Al Dunlap rose to stardom because he tried to save troubled businesses quickly by closing factories and laying off thousands of employees that sometimes pared a company down to a fraction of its former size. He was soon dubbed, "Chainsaw Al." Unfortunately, for "Chainsaw," the SEC got wind of questionable accounting practices, also a "Chainsaw" trademark, and banned him forever from earning a living through mass slaughter. His prize? Being officially designated "One of the 20 worst CEOs of all time."

Considering his track record, you're probably scratching your head wondering why companies kept hiring him. But if you were on the hiring team of any of his victim businesses, you might just as easily have thought that he was the man for the job. Why? Simply because your company needed help and you wanted someone who had lived through a similar experience. Who better to hire than a known turnaround expert, right? Well, maybe not. Experience without the right skills, the right values, and the right practices may not be enough. So, here are a few questions you should get answered before you fall on your sword over a coveted candidate's job experience.

1) Your candidate may have the experience you're looking for, but does that mean he has the right skills? I recently heard a business owner describe how he came up with a great hot sauce recipe and bottled it. He ruined the dinner he prepared for a special someone he wanted to impress, and she bailed on him. He was so down-in-the-dumps that he threw everything spicy he could find into a pot intending to punish himself—a weird guy thing. As luck would have it, family and friends happened to stop by and take a few sips before he could warn them. It turned out to be amazingly tasty! Now, consider this: He has experience creating a new product. But if you asked him to be in charge of systematically creating new products, he wouldn't know where to start. If you hired him for that, you would probably be disappointed despite his experience developing a successful product.

2) Your candidate may have the experience you want, like managing a group of people. But how would you know she was competent at it? If she was good technically, but not so good at leading a team, how would you know that she learned enough from the experience to be better now? Consider a senior manager in a purchasing department for a large manufacturer. She had been a manager before and had dealt with problem employees. Unfortunately, her way of dealing with them was to ignore them. Now she was in a new position and had a team member who rankled co-workers so much they avoided him at all costs. Just like before, she put off dealing with the problem until she heard enough employees gripe about it. The problem was never convenient to deal with, so she put it off until things quieted down eventually telling herself the problem just mysteriously went away. Of course, it didn't, and the cycle repeated. She hadn't learned how to solve employee problems the first time, so here she was in deja vu. If you thought that because she had experience as a manager she could handle problem employees, you would be wrong. 

3) Your candidate may have a successful track record of sorts, but can you be sure she really knows how she got there so she can do the right things for your business? One CEO thought that because the business doubled in size while she was chief, she was doing everything right. She understood the industry and had made some good strategic decisions to grow revenue. But because she tried to manipulate and control people at every level in the company, dissension, high turnover, and infighting were killing productivity making the business unprofitable. In her mind, her ability to manipulate people is what made her successful, but her success really came from her strategy skills. If you hired her thinking she knows how to build a business, you might be in for a shock.

So, if you think all your candidate needs to get the job done is experience, think again. If your pick for the job does have relevant experience, make sure he learned what you want him to learn from it so you don't create a workplace nightmare featured prominently on a bookshelf…and talked about for the next twenty years in articles like this.

Look at your hiring criteria and make sure you're asking questions of candidates to determine actual skills, values, and practices. Ask candidates how they would handle important situations in your business. Learn about the experiences they had and what insights they took from them to see if they're self-aware and not repeating mistakes. Pretend you're a candidate for your job and ask yourself the same questions. Look for opportunities to learn from your experiences and make yourself a better leader or team contributor.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

Kevin Herring

Kevin Herring is co-author of 'Practical Guide for Internal Consultants', and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.
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