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How Do You Hire Good to Great Leaders?

| January 4, 2022

by Vijay Menta

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Vijay Menta, CIO of Middlebury College.  Vijay may be reached at [email protected].]
Happy New Year everyone!
At around the same time last year, I published my Backpack Essentials for a Your Leadership Journey piece.  Several of you provided me with such wonderful feedback, that I was inspired to write another one for our Tuesday Reading series.  So thank you for sharing your feedback and keeping infrequent authors like me engaged on this journey of sharing their thoughts!
This time around, I will be focusing on one of the most vexing and time-consuming topics that many have tackled in the past. That theme: Hiring and building great teams and subsequently developing leaders.  The pipeline of having qualified leaders and only a handful of professionals stepping up to the plate is real. Our traditional approach of hiring with years of experience may not be the only solution going forward.
As, Jim Collins, Business Consultant, Author and Lecturer once said “If I were running a company today, I would have one priority above all others: to acquire as many of the best people as I could [because] the single biggest constraint on the success of my organization is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people.” and “People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”  It is important to recognize the fact that people are your most important asset.  To build a sustainable and successful team we must put people ahead of everything else.
So how does one go about hiring Good to Great leaders? Hiring great people is even harder in our current environment.  However, as we all learned from our MOR leadership training and from Jim Bruce, it could be the single most important “million-dollar” decision we make that could make or break our teams.  It is a fact that we cannot ignore.
We need to realize that it may be time we have to look at other attributes for a candidate than just hiring someone with experience.  Yes experience matters, but to me, there are other items that we need to inquire about that are equally important to hiring an invaluable asset to the team.   What is more important to you?  Is one individual hitting it out of the ballpark more important than that one individual inspiring the entire team to hit it out of the ballpark?    You can always mentor and train if you find the individual who embodies the right attributes.  Over the years and after numerous hires, I look for four important attributes in a candidate.  I fondly refer to them as my 4 A’s of hiring.

Aptitude, for learning

Learning never stops and we all continue to learn from each other every day.  However, it is very important to observe and look for signs of what the candidate has done in the past to keep abreast of the technology, invest in their own professional development, and networking.  This aptitude for learning will demonstrate the willingness and investment that the candidate is willing to go above and beyond their daily grind.  Let’s face it.  Whether you are hiring for a technical role or a non-technical role the learning never stops. What they bring to the table at the time of hiring is important, but to me, it is more critical that one invests in their professional development and works towards bettering themselves continuously.

Attitude, passionate about work

As Stephen Covey, Renowned American Educator, Author, and Businessman wrote  “If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won’t require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. Their fire comes from within, not from without. Their motivation is internal, not external.”
We always talk about cultural fit.  But in my opinion, this makes an assumption that the current culture is something that should not be changed or is working great.  We all know that is not 100% true.  An individual should not be afraid to make the changes that are considered to be an improvement.  The most important thing for a change leader is how they go about making those changes and what is the attitude that they are bringing every day to influence these changes.  Look for answers to these questions when assessing one’s attitude.

  • Are they working towards the betterment of the institution and without causing any collateral damage? 
  • Are they able to continue to build momentum and champion the change by collaborating with others? 
  • How do they show up to work every day?
  • What kind of mindset do they bring every day?  Do they see the glass as half-full or the glass as half-empty?
  • Do they appear to be risk-averse or willing to take a calculated risk?

The answers to these questions reveal whether you have a leader on your team and they are willing to lead from where they are.

Altitude, how high is the candidate willing to jump

The third attribute that I usually look for when hiring is altitude as in how high the candidate is willing to jump.  Look for those specific examples and experiences that the candidate can share where they had to go out of their way to find a creative solution and what efforts were put in to find one. The response should paint you a good picture of how they lead in a crisis,  Do they fight or flight?  When they do fight, are they being realistic or dogmatic?  All of these questions will provide you with an answer to how they will be able to lead from wherever they are.  Day in and day out we are faced with challenges that don’t come with a playbook or with scripted solutions.  This is where we as professionals need to exercise many dimensions of creativity to provide solutions for our stakeholders.  Sometimes, it may not even be a technical solution that solves the issue.  We may have to assist in ways that you did not envision and unless you are willing to go that extra mile we may not be able to find success in our endeavors.  Look for those in your conversation with the candidate and tease out when they were able to go that extra mile to find those creative solutions.  That is usually an indication of how they handled their stretch opportunities.

Accountability, taking responsibility

During the interview process, listen carefully to their responses.  Do they claim successes as their own and blame others for failures?  If they own up to failures, do they appear to get defensive in their response or treat their failures as lessons learned and talk about the growth they experienced? 
Accountability is defined as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.  Especially in academia, we live and die by the honor code, and finding a candidate that espouses this accountability characteristic will inspire others around them to take responsibility for their actions and eventually make for a stronger team.  Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of any hiring manager to make the team stronger? 
So here they are, the 4 A’s of hiring – Aptitude, Attitude, Altitude, and Accountability.  I hope you find these tips useful when hiring and would love to hear what other thoughts you may have on this subject of hiring Good to Great leaders.  Have a safe and healthy year everyone!
Hire Leaders for What They Can Do, Not What They Have Done (