My friend Paul Senness is an internationally recognized speaker and trainer on management and leadership. He’s also one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known. I asked Paul to let me interview him on how to successfully hire and manage technical staff.

How to Hire
In the IT world, there seems to be a lot of discussion about whether to hire for technical skills or for collaborative (people skills). In a nutshell, he said the most important part of the hiring process is not making an arbitrary choice to hire for tech skills or people skills. He say the most important part of the hiring process is writing a well-thought-out job description, then taking your time in the hiring process. He also said, in business, we’re often quick to hire and slow to fire. Paul says we’ve got that backwards. He says we need to be slow to hire and quick to fire when things aren’t working.

How to Manage
In managing, Paul recommends his four foundations of management: Participatory management, letting people do things their way, taking the mystery out of the workplace, and letting choices have consequences. In the interview, Paul goes into each of the foundations in detail, explaining how to implement each foundation along with examples. He also includes examples of what not to do.

Here’s the interview (a transcript of the interview is directly below the video):

Don Crawley: Our guest today is Paul Senness. Paul holds an MBA in leadership and he’s a retired naval aviator. He speaks to audiences worldwide on management and leadership. Paul, welcome to the Compassionate Geek.

Paul Senness: Thanks, Don. Great to be here.

DC: In IT today, there’s a lot of discussion, I don’t want to say controversy necessarily, but there seems to be a lot of discussion about whether you hire somebody for technical skills or collaborative skills or because they’re a good cultural fit. How do you reconcile all three categories?

PS: Yes. I think in the final analysis, you need something of all of that, but primarily you need the technical skill set. If they don’t have the technical skill set, they’re not going to be qualified to take the position. So I think we start with a strong technical skill set. How do you find out about that? That of course is an issue and then as the interview process goes along for the hiring, then you can start checking for team work, collaboration, cultural fit and those kinds of things. But out of the shoot, people have to have strong technical skills if they’re going to work in the IT industry, considering how competitive it is today.

DC: It’s much like any other field. If you’re a doctor, you have to have good medical skills. If you’re an aircraft mechanic, you have to have good aircraft mechanical skills, whatever the job is, you have to have a bare minimum of those technical skills before you can even be considered for the job.

PS: Sure and we’ve probably all seen television programs where somebody had great technical skills and just didn’t get along well with each other and that caused a lot of tension in the show and kept you interested. I would agree with what you’re saying is that, yes, there’s a big discussion about it but first and foremost, people need that technical skill set to work in whatever their environment is.

DC: So, in the case of IT, you have to be a good coder, you have to be a good router administrator, a good server administrator, a good help-desk technician or a good DBA, whatever the job is before you can move to the next part of the qualification process.

PS: Right. I would call that technical skill set or hard skills. Can they solve the problem? Can they do the actual work?

DC: And that then would leave us to the next question which is how do you screen effectively for technical skills?

PS: Yes, it’s really interesting. I read a lot about this, I’ve talked to people about this, a number of organizations, whatever the job is, tend to do phone interview with the candidate and they ask those kinds of questions and the process is different from person to person and somehow it needs to be kind of normalized so everybody has the same issues to deal within that. Some people don’t interview well on the phone, some people do and so, we make a decision on who we’re going to bring in for that interview, sometimes based on a bias of how much we like talking to them on the phone.

DC: Right.

PS: And recently, I read, particularly for the tech industry that this one organization gives the potential candidate very complex problem to solve that they can solve on their own at home and then they do a phone interview about how did you reach your conclusions, how did you do this and they get a much better feel for, “Are they good with the technical side and now worth bringing in for another type of interview.” We could look at those other issues.

DC: So, you would start with trying to solve a technical problem.

PS: Exactly.

DC: And then if they’re able to do that, then you start looking for the other…

PS: Right. I think the way to look at this might be and I think Google does this is that the technical skill set gets you in the door but it’s the actual interview that will get you the job. In other words, can you collaborate with people, if that needs to be a part of the job, collaboration.

DC: And there may be some jobs where collaboration is not a part of their job description.

PS: Certainly. I mean, somebody — if all they’re going to be doing is independent code writing, for example, in what you’re using, they’re never going to interface with anybody except themselves, they’re going to hand the product out, well, then, maybe that cultural fit or collaborative skill set isn’t as important as rock solid technical skill set.

DC: What I hear you saying is when we paint with broad strokes, we often make mistakes in terms of how we decide to hire someone or how we decide not to hire someone, that you have to really look at very closely, at the job description.

PS: Exactly. And for me, that’s where it all starts. What’s the business about, what is it trying to accomplish? And from that, then you start to describe what are the kinds of job requirements that we have? So, this job is going to be doing these things, for example, a coder, what are they going to be coding in? So we start with that, I need somebody to be a DBA, I need somebody to do this so we start putting those different team positions if you will together in job descriptions and within the job description, then we’re very careful about writing what are the responsibilities and duties of that job and from that, we can start taking a look at what are the requirements to do that kind of work so what are the skill sets, if you will that are required to do that job and then from there, we can ask the kinds of questions, we can craft the questions. I think, too often what we do is we bring people in for interview, we like you, we ask questions, we get good answers and we end up hiring somebody. And so we end up hiring fast and firing slow instead of hiring slow and firing fast, getting rid of the people who don’t fit.

DC: It seems to me, from what you just said, that we are asking the wrong question. When we ask the question about which is more important, cultural fit, collaborative skills or technical skills, that really what we need to be asking is what is the job description.

PS: What is the job supposed to do and then go look for that rather than, how do we make this person fit once we get them.

DC: What is it that we’re looking to accomplish with this hire?

PS: Right. And just to give you an example, so when we start talking about when they come in for an interview, yes, you certainly are going to look at some of those technical skill sets and ask those hard questions but also, what about teamwork? What about cultural fit, what about collaboration? How do you ask those and those are soft skills — I’m going to call them soft skills and they’re a lot harder to ask questions about. For example, in classes I’ve done before, I’ve asked the managers there, how many of you want your new candidate to show initiative? And of course, they’re all interested in having the candidate show initiative. We all want employees like that. And I say, okay, describe it to me. What does it look like in your workplace?

DC: Yes.

PS: And I just get this kind of blank stare back. I say, well, if you can’t tell me what it looks like, how can you ask a question to find out what it’s all about? So, I know that you teach customer service, that’s great. I want people with great customer service skills, what does that mean? What does it look like and then how do I ask a question to find out if they have that skill?

DC: How do you quantify quality?

PS: Yes, that really does become a gut feel. And I think it will, in part, come from getting a stronger sense of confidence in the candidate’s answer and that’s going to come from the type of questions that we ask. My experience is we ask way too many yes-no questions and the problem with the yes-no question is people will tell you what they know you want to hear. Or we’ll ask a question that has a future open-ended question, that has a future orientation. For example, say you’re faced with this coding situation, how would you go about handling? Well, again, they get to live out of their imagination and tell you what you want to hear. If I ask a question though like this, tell me about a time when you had to code for this problem and they have to give me the experience. Or tell me how you dealt with a belligerent customer. Then they have to tell me a story about something that’s in their past and history, their history is perhaps the best predictor of their future. So past behavior, past performance is the best predictor of future performance or future behavior.

DC: Unlike the Stock Market.

PS: Right. And it’s not rock solid, but digging into the history has a much higher potential that you’ll get the right person than just asking made-up questions about the future.

DC: We’ve talked about when it might be appropriate to ignore everything other than technical skills. The example you gave was the coder who’s just going to be assigned to create code to do an application, for example.

PS: Right.

DC: Are there times where it is appropriate to ignore technical skills when hiring for a technical position?

PS: Sure, maybe if I have somebody who has a minimal understanding of coding and their job is to run the team and be their coach because quite frankly, high end coaching of all kinds of different people and skill sets is a different animal than actually doing the work. I think maybe the best example of that is the head coach of a professional sports team. And probably the most varied one would be professional football where they have so many different positions but certainly, the head coach hasn’t played every one of those positions and have expertise in every one of them.
It’s not his or her job to do that, it’s his or her job to bring the whole team together. Yes, they have a lot of coaching staff in the background that are working on those special skill sets but I could see where that could happen where somebody might not have the technical skill set, but they have the gift of bringing the team together to get the task done.

DC: So, let’s move from the hiring process now to the managing process. So you’ve made your hiring decisions. You’ve hired the highly skilled technical people, again, a coder, a DBA, a network administrator, network infrastructure manager, help-desk technician, whatever the job is. And what are some of the biggest pitfalls that you see in managing highly technical people?

PS: Well, I think I see the same pitfalls in managing almost any group of people and that is not treating people as people, not treating them as part of the process. I’m fairly strong on this. I have kind of four foundations about managing teams or managing people. And the first one is participatory management.

PS: That means I want people, I want input from everybody around me about how to get things done. In other words, I’m not going to stand up there or sit and say that I’m the smartest person in the room and I know more about this than anybody else. The example we just gave you, I might be coaching a team because that’s a skill set that I have and I don’t have a clue about how they code. Maybe I don’t need to do that. So, I need their participation on how we get things done. And the people who are closest to the work that’s being done in general have the best ideas about what needs to be done to make it right, to fix it. So that’s the first thing; participatory management. The second thing is to let people do things their way. I think we would all agree that happy hands are productive hands and when people get to do things their way, they get job satisfaction.

DC: Doesn’t that kind of fly in the face of traditional management where I’m going to dictate how I want things done?

PS: Certainly and I think that that maybe worked 30 years ago, at least it appeared to work 30 years ago. I don’t think it works today.

DC: And maybe it didn’t even work 30 years ago but it’s still a set.

PS: People did it because they were told to and that was just the culture.

DC: My way or the highway. Yes, okay, all right.

PS: And I don’t know if that’s business culture so much anymore today. Now, this “let them do it their way” certainly comes with a caveat. People have to stay within the bounds of policy, procedure, ethics and law. Inside of that though, quite frankly, if it doesn’t make any difference how I do my work and you do your work if we’re doing the same thing, we get the same result at the same time, you’re happy doing it your way, you’re happy doing it my way. Now, back to the example we’ve been using, (it’s getting thin pretty fast here) and that’s coding. You and I should probably learn how to code the same way. There ought to be a standard for that so that I don’t write one way and then you have to pick it up and run with it if you’re not familiar with it.

DC: Sure.

PS: So, participatory management, let them do it their way. The third one is take the mystery out of the workplace and there’s a lot of mystery in the workplace, every workplace. For example, if I said to you, Don, tell me how you do something procedurally like for example, when you put a book together or a workshop or something. And I stop you and say, okay, why do you do it that way? Would your answer be, well, that’s the way I’ve always done it?

DC: Oh gosh, I hope not but I know where you’re going with this one.

PS: Yes so, and I hear that a lot. Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it. Well, if that’s the way you’ve done it, there’s a mystery. And that doesn’t mean we’re not doing it the right way or the best way. It’s just that we’ve forgotten about why we’re doing it the way we’re doing it and it might be time to go back and challenge that process and see if we’re doing it the right way or the best way, the most effective way. So, that’s number three. Take the mystery out of the workplace and then the fourth one is choices have consequences. Explain them.

DC: Yes.

PS: And that takes — if you’re a manager, that takes you out of being the bad person and keeps the other person from becoming a victim because they can no longer say, well, you made me do it that way. No, we talked about you doing it this way, we talked about you doing it that way, and the consequences of each, you chose to do it that way, I’m going to invoke the consequences. Now, this doesn’t mean punishment or stuff like that. It just means that, well, how many with our kids have said, you better do this or else. They didn’t do it and there was no “or else.”

DC: Yes and so what do you do?

PS: And what they learned from it is they can do anything they want. So, I know that that’s more the punitive side of it but the fact of the matter is, if you come to work on time, we’ll continue to pay you. If you don’t come to work on time, we may not continue to pay you. Then it’s their choice. And it takes us out of being like a dictator and an authoritarian, they get to be a part of the process and I think that’s a really big deal is that people today want work that’s interesting, interesting to them.

DC: Right.

PS: They want recognition and support for doing that work and that means making deposits into the bank account with them that they’re valued, not just giving with paycheck and not just talking when things go wrong and then the third thing is they want to be in on how things get done, they want to participate.

DC: It reminds me of the Foster Cline and Jim Fay idea about raising kids. They talk about parenting with love and logic and one of the things they say is give the kids lots of choices and let the consequences be natural consequences that do the teaching. Is that what you’re saying?

PS: Well, certainly and I think if we went back to Steven Covey, he would say there are two kinds of consequences, there’s social consequences and there’s natural consequences. An example of a social consequence would be if you don’t show up to class, you’re going to get an F. The natural consequence is you’re going to miss the learning. It’s the natural consequences that I think that are probably more important but in fact, the social consequences have to come into play also.

DC: So, if we were going to summarize this conversation. We would talk about hiring based on the job description.

PS: Right.

DC: And looking at that, more than making some arbitrary decision about we hire for cultural fit or for collaborative skills or for technical skills but instead, we hire based on the job description. We’re going to take a look at that job description and understand that thoroughly.

PS: Even more thoroughly than we probably do now. Yes, because like so much in life, it’s not cookie-cutter. You may have a team, a small group of people who are coding and they’re a team and they need a different set of collaborative skills than somebody who’s not working in that environment and so it really does have to be specific to the job and specific to the organization.

DC: That really looks…

PS: Too much to one size fits all and what’s the easiest way to do this.

DC: Yes, what I was going to say and I totally agree with what you just said but I was going to add that this really speaks to the importance of giving a lot of deep thought to the job description.

PS: Exactly.

DC: And perhaps soliciting the input of people who are going to be working with this person in developing the job description.

PS: Right.

DC: And then from a management standpoint, we talk about your four principles. The idea of participatory management, about letting them make their own decisions about the job so that you’re not micromanaging them, about choices have consequences…

PS: And taking that mystery out of the workplace.

DC: Taking the mystery out of the workplace. Is there anything else that you want to add to this conversation?

PS: I think if people get their head wrapped around those four things and it’s not easy, because you now have to turn those into what does that look like in your workplace and what does that look like in your management style. I think a lot of the problems with managing people that people think they have now start to go away because you free up the inner drive and motivation that people have. And in the hiring process, I think the thing is to take time. It’s curious, I wonder how many people who are watching this have hired somebody and during the interview, their top level brain was going, this is the person we’ve got to hire. Only six months later, they’d be asking themselves, what was I thinking about? And I would challenge them if they can think back, was their stomach kind of doing flip flops during the interview because that’s an indication that the words they’re hearing are not matching up with the subconscious is picking up. So, I think if we take our time and hire the right person, we’ll have a lot less churn and that’s a lot less stress for everybody in the workplace.

DC: It’s interesting, I hear you talking about trusting your gut.

PS: Yes.

DC: And yet, that’s a concept that makes a lot of people in business today really nervous. But you’re not saying solely…

PS: I’m not saying trust the gut, I’m saying if your gut is jumping up and down, pay attention to it.

DC: And maybe look at other…

PS: There might be time to ask more questions, it might be time to bring this person back from another interview because something is just a little bit unsettled.

DC: Paul, thank you so much, this has been a great conversation, really appreciate you spending some time with us today. I’m Don Crawley, see you next time.

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