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Facts? I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Facts!


by John Wentworth
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mentalking“Data are bunk when it comes to picking employees.  I know!  I can tell who to hire in five seconds by just listening to them.” 

Jim, the recruiting director of Acceleration Service, sat at lunch with Fredrico, one of Acceleration Service’s divisional general managers.  Jim really liked him.  Fred was frighteningly bright, equally perceptive, but haunted by high achiever demons.

The demons included hubris.  Fred was sure that he was right.  About everything.  The problem was that he usually was, even when everyone around him disagreed with him.  His pattern recognition skills were superb, able to understand the essence of a situation from just shreds of facts.

But he overestimated his ability to pick new employees.  He ran a sales call center and kept one out of every ten employees hired.  As he and Jim sat there at lunch, Fred refused to use any data-driven selection tools.

Jim sighed.  “You are flaunting the entire discipline of psychology, you know,” he said to Fred.

Fred just smiled.  “I know what I know.”

Jim sighed again.

Jim was particularly frustrated because of some data-driven revelations that he had engineered and that Fred had acted on and which had turned out to be pivotal to Fred’s success, and which Fred had seemingly forgotten.

Fred at one point could not get anyone hired.  He was using a test and his recruiter had not been able to find anyone who could pass the test.  He reached out to Jim who assigned one of his corporate recruiters to the task.  Soon, they had candidates who passed the test and who got hired.  Everyone rejoiced.

But the rejoicing was premature.  Virtually everyone who was hired either left or was fired.

Jim sat down with Fred.  “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know Dude,” Fred said.  “It’s always been this way.  I have been able to create a cadre of loyal producers who are making a lot of money, but we can’t find any more of them.  I thought the test would help.  It’s normed to my top people, but it’s letting too many of the wrong people through.  I’m worrying about whether we have the right test.”

Jim growled under his breath.  He knew the test and he knew it was respectable.  And he knew that any respectable test, if it was normed to the right people, would create a filter that let people who were like the normed group through.  He recognized the limits to tests, too.  If you did not measure anything that actually correlated to on the job success, testing was useless.

And it was here that Jim had some sympathy for Fred’s point of view.  His environment was not like other call centers.  His management was not like other call center management.  Many of his successful employees had not been salespeople before.  They had been karate instructors, beach bums, nurses…there were a few that had sold, too, but they had not been particularly successful until they came to Fred’s shop.  So possibly, he thought to himself, Fred’s shop is so weird that the test is just not measuring what drives success here.

Jim called up the psychologist who had developed the test. 

“Ya know,” the Southern, folksy psychologist said, “we did gather some data when we normed the test that we are not currently gathering.”

“Why not?”

“No particular reason other than we had such a clear profile of success from the other data that we thought we probably didn’t need it.”

Jim just looked out the window, wishing he was doing anything other than having this phone call.

“Well, there is another reason, too.”

“What’s that?”

“The data have to do with dark side tendencies.”

“Which are?”

“Things like being suspicious, shy, sad, pessimistic, a sufferer, eccentric, loving risks too much and that sort of thing.  Not many managers want to hear that their top performers are high on these measures since, in extremis, they get you pretty close to mental illness.”

“So Fred’s top performers are nuts?”

“ ‘Nuts’ is not a word found in most psychology texts, but, yes.”

“So let’s measure the dark sides of the candidates.”

“And so we shall.”

And so they did.  Because they did not really know what they were looking for, they did more.  They quantified candidate profiles against the job requirements, which mostly had to do with their skills and prior successes, against the light side test scores and against the dark side scores.

Jim and Fred were having lunch.  They really did enjoy each other’s company, so they did not get to work topics until coffee.

“The first piece of stunning news I have to report is that we have an inverse correlation between candidates you have hired and their having done well in their past sales jobs.  If they were successful salespeople before they came here, they have left or been fired from your shop.”

“I told you that the karate instructor was the model we should be emulating,” Fred said, more serious than not.

“Then we found that there was no correlation one way or the other with light side scores on the test.”

“I told you that the test was no good!” roared Fred.

“And there is a very tight correlation between high dark side scores and strong performance.  Your top people are all nuts.”

Fred knew what dark side tendencies were.  And he knew he had them.  He just looked at Jim, for once in his life without words.

“Plus this: my recruiter has been living in your facility as you know.  He’s been taking his coffee breaks in your bullpen.  He has heard your Inside Sales Manager just beating up the new hires.  This might explain that several of the high dark side hires, whom you guys rated as stars, up and left suddenly.”

“So you are telling me that my environment and culture don’t match the people I’m hiring?”

“I am.  You are hiring eccentric and driven people who are pretty thin skinned and then your manager is beating them up.  It does not work.”

“OK, I get that he should not beat them up, but what kind of culture should I have?”

“You are a high dark side score person.  What culture do you want?”

“I make my own culture wherever I go!”

“Yeah, yeah.  And you fly, too.  Be serious.  Think back to when you were a kid.  What did you want your world to be?”

“I was surrounded by criticism.  I wanted unconditional love.  I felt different from other kids.  I wanted to be reassured that I was OK.”

Suddenly Fred’s face lit up.  “I got it! So I should provide that to my employees.  Unconditional love and belonging.”

“Yup,” Jim said.

Fred had gone back and made the conversion in his mind and actions.  Given that he was a man of extremes, it was not a surprise when the next day he started hugging all the new employees and telling them he loved them.  They were surprised and a few were a little put off, but on balance they liked it.  And they still quit.

“Why?” Jim asked Fred.

“I don’t know,” Fred answered.  Your theory must be wrong.”

“And your sales manager is abusive.”

“There is that!”

Fred went back again and started listening to the sales manager as he “trained” his new hires.  It turned out that “trained” meant berated, humiliated and scorned.

Fred fired him.  Jim helped him hire a new one.  The new one had the opposite problem.  Everyone stayed.  They just did not produce.

And the new sales manager, who was actually brought in as a VP, talked Fred into getting rid of the test and Jim’s recruiter.  He generated his own flow from his prior acquaintances and then hired the ones he liked…but they did not produce.  Fred go so enraged that he took over the inside sales himself, moved the new guy to outside sales and reengaged Jim.

Jim sat with him.  “You do know, I trust, that the research on good salespeople is that they start slow and take about six months to hit stride.”

“Not mine.  They do it faster.”

“But, considering for just a second that you might be wrong, I wonder if you gave them more of a conventional environment including a less enthusiastic training and a longer fuse, if they would not perform after a while…just like the majority of sales people.”

“I’m not abusive!”

“You are not as abusive as the guy you fired, but you do everything you can to make them go away.  Their training is like one big long stress interview.  Only the super-strong survive.”

“And those are successful.”

“There might be a better way.”

“Not for my shop!”

“Keeripes, you are stubborn.”

“And…I am right!”

So they kept hiring, not using a test or really anything else except Fred raging and swearing and threatening in the mass interviews.  Fred’s theory was that what he asked them to do, learning to sell his way, was difficult but could be mastered by those with extraordinary strong constitutions, those who were desperate to make a lot of money.  So he brought people in almost indiscriminately and then abused them in the interview process.  He hired those who responded right and were sufficiently drawn to the stress environment that they accepted his offers.

But they did not perform, either.  Jim suspected that they took the job to get the salary and then bolted as soon as they could find a less stressful job.

Fred hired a new inside sales manager.  Jim had personally watched over this search, including using a test.  The test showed that he was a mini-Fred.

“This guy is just like you,” Jim told Fred.  “Are you sure you want to hire a mini-you?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m going to try it.”

The guy reported for work with a load of inside salespeople who had told him they wanted to follow him.  Jim got fired again.  This time he was amused, not irritated. 

The new guy figured out in about a month that it was no fun working for an older clone of himself and took off.  The sales reps that he tried to hire him came in, sat through the stress interview and then left, never to be heard from again.

This left Fred as the acting inside sales manager with his payroll burdened with the VP who had been marginalized into an outside sales manager role and whose morale, and productivity, stank.

There is no happy ending to this story.  It is closely based on a real life experience of our company with a client whom I consider to be a close friend.  But his flaws prevent him from creating a stable, smoothly functioning organization that can grow.

He is not the only one.  Many entrepreneurs, me included, own businesses because we were lousy employees.  We are infantile and narcissistic, wanting to create an organization in our image, wanting to see ourselves reflected in our corporate mirror.

The only solution is to build a barrier of individuals who can both lead and follow between the entrepreneur and the rest of the organization.  This, however, requires trust, something the infantile and narcissistic have a hard time embracing.

The other issue this story drives home to me is that recruiting is very heavily influenced by the organizational context in which it is done.  Many recruiters try to do recruiting the same way every time, for every company.  They frequently fail.  The wiser recruiter looks at the organization, identifies the obstacles and resolves them.

If the organization wants to hire candidates who just don’t exist, or are not available for the money the company wants to pay, that issue needs to be resolved or recruiting will fail.  If a hiring manager does not want to hire because s/he is not sure of his/her boss and is afraid of being criticized for his/her hiring decision, that issue needs to be resolved or no hires will be made and recruiting will fail.  If the hiring manager makes erroneous hiring decisions, s/he must only be shown candidates who will succeed in the job, or turnover and low productivity will overwhelm what benefit the organization gets from filling jobs.

Recruiting, if fully done, is as complex as any other organizational matter.  Recruiting does not have a history of stepping up to that complexity, but, if it does not, recruiting will fail.

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