Some uncommon good sense about political candidates

Bob Lewis puts out a free newsletter on management. His is one of my favorites because the comments therein are often insightful. I think he hit the mark uncommonly well with his latest effort, so I am reproducing the whole thing below. Information about how to sign up for his newsletter is at the bottom of this post.

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Keep the Joint Running

by Bob Lewis

ManagementSpeak: We were fortunate to have several qualified candidates apply for the position. It was, however, offered to another candidate.

Translation: Qualified candidates make our current employees nervous.

This week's anonymous contributor took the nerve-wracking step of submitting this fine example of management euphemizing.

What were they thinking?

To appear forward-looking, Obama spoke between two Grecian columns. McCain, in contrast, proved he understood advanced technology by speaking in front of a huge digital flag instead of the more traditional cloth one.

Ridiculing the candidates is, of course, the American way. If it isn't, all four candidates and their surrogates are un-American.

But enough fun. Take out the money, ads, speechwriters, and commentariat, and what we have are two candidates interviewing for an executive job. Think of their VP choices as their succession plans.

Imagine you could interview them. Both candidates have mostly ignored the advice my friend Nick Corcodilos frequently gives. They're supposed to "Do the job in the interview." Instead, in varying proportions, they're giving you vague generalities and attacks on the other candidate.

In a real interview you would, of course, unceremoniously send home any interviewee who acted like this. We can only wish: The only attack ad worth your attention this entire campaign season was provided by Paris Hilton.

It's your interview. What do you ask each candidate?

"Why are you interested in this job?" is a good question to ask any executive. There's more than one appropriate answer, and you'll learn something from their response: Some leaders find their gratification developing people; others in building effective organizations. There are those whose focus is accomplishing something important and those who are turnaround specialists.

And there are some who just want the job for the title, prestige and money, and haven't, amazingly enough, prepared a decent answer.

"Tell me about the best hire you ever made, and the worst one. What made you decide to hire the best one? What made the person so good? And what did you do about the mistake?"

You ... we ... are hiring someone to run a huge organization. The most important decisions this person will make will be choosing the executive team. For the best hire you would probably want to hear about competence; also about choosing someone who was stretching but had ability and potential. The habits of success and collaboration belong in the answer as well.

You wouldn't want to hear about loyalty as an important criterion, nor would you want to hear that a candidate likes to hire people who think the same way he or she does.

For the worst hire you might want to hear about trying the person in a different role; definitely about replacing someone who just didn't work out.

You'll want to ask some "how would you handle" questions, too -- reality based ones that deal with current challenges. "I think we're overstaffed right now, and our budget is tight. What would you do about it if I hired you?"

If a candidate talks about experience cutting costs you should send that candidate home. If he/she talks about experience cutting costs while maintaining the ability to deliver ... about improving efficiency, performance and effectiveness ... you have someone who understands what's needed to run a real organization.

"Okay ... we finish this process, I hire you, you get your ID badge. What do you do first, second and third? How do you get started?"

I've never regretted asking this question. Some candidates know how to map out a program, one that starts with listening and building relationships, and building an effective organization. The candidates you don't want to hire are the ones who will start making changes immediately and unilaterally.

Running for office is a bit different, of course: Presidents have almost three months to do this before taking the oath of office, and are expected to change out the entire executive team. Still, most of the principles are the same.

All through the interviews you'd listen hard to get a sense of how each candidate thinks about the line employees who do all the real work. I'm going to pick on McCain here, because he pushed one of my buttons in his speech when he said that Obama's healthcare plan would, "... put a bureaucrat between you and your doctor."

First of all, private health insurance puts a bureaucrat between me and my doctor right now. And second, what is it about running for president that causes candidates to insult the men and women who will be reporting to them and looking to them for leadership?

Here's something you wouldn't do: Waste interview time asking about character and integrity. That's what reference checks are for.

And anyway, what might a candidate say on these subjects that isn't simple bragging?

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Bob Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, Inc. ( www.itcatalysts.com ) an independent consultancy specializing in IT effectiveness and strategic alignment. Contact him at rdlewis@issurvivor.com.

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Keep the Joint Running is now a free podcast, thanks to my partner in audio, Joe Baxter (info@josephbaxter.com). If you'd rather listen than read, just go to the iTunes store, click on Podcasts, and search for "Keep the Joint Running." Or, use this URL for the download site: http://www.avmypodcast.com/file/KJR/273.xml

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Don't leave me sitting here in a vacuum!

Don't leave me sitting here in a vacuum! If you think I'm full of beans, let me know. Leave a Comment (just click on the Comments button at the bottom of the homepage or any archived column) to share your thoughts with the whole KJR community (thanks to the good folks at JS-Kit, www.js-kit.com).

Or, drop me a line -- the address is Letters@ISSurvivor.com.

I sometimes use Comments or reader letters in my columns. The rules:

- Comments are public, because they're ... well, they're right at the bottom of the column.

- If you send me a letter, let me know if and how I can use it (as is, sanitized, or don't be ridiculous - you'll be found out and run out of town).

- Also let me know if you'd prefer to remain completely anonymous, or whether I may give you credit by name

- All letters and responses are the property of IS Survivor Publishing, division of IT Catalysts, Inc.

Copyright 2008, IS Survivor Publishing, all rights reserved.

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