How to hire managers – advice wanted

InterviewThere’s a great chapter on hiring in Peopleware, by Tim Lister on Tom DeMarco. It starts by demonstrating how most managers would hire a juggler:

Circus Manager: How long have you been juggling?
Candidate: Oh, about six years.

Manager: Can you handle three balls, four balls, and five balls?
Candidate: Yes, yes, and yes.

Manager: Do you work with flaming objects?
Candidate: Sure.

Manager: …knives, axes, open cigar boxes, floppy hats?
Candidate: I can juggle anything.

Manager: Do you have a line of funny patter that goes with your juggling?
Candidate: It’s hilarious.

Manager: Well, that sounds fine. I guess you’re hired.
Candidate: Umm…Don’t you want to see me juggle?

At Red Gate, we heed the point that the book goes on to make. In an interview, we test the skills that people claim they have. If we’re hiring for a developer, we ask them to write code. Testers test something for us, sales people sell us something, we ask designers to design, and so on.

There is a chasm between the abstract and the concrete; between the meta and the specific. Ask somebody applying for a sales job how to sell something and they’ll speak fluently about finding out the customer’s needs, how to handle objections and how to close the deal. Ask them immediately afterwards to sell you a computer and they’ll jump straight in and try to sell you an iMac with not even a nod to finding out why you want a computer. No matter what they say should be done, most designers ignore users, testers don’t test boundaries and marketers don’t segment.

There is, however, a limit to this technique. It only works well when the essence of the job can be distilled and presented as an interview task. This fails when the job is more ill-defined; more amorphous. Project management, say. You can ask someone to code in an interview, but can’t ask somebody to project manage. You can’t present them with a group of people and a project behind schedule and say "here, project manage this for half an hour". You’re inevitably reduced talking about how they’d handle certain situtations, or how they handled them in the past, not actually doing the task.

I can see a few solutions to this problem:

  • Avoid the problem. Always hire for these roles from within. This has the disadvantage that you often end up moving talented technical people into roles they’re not suitable or ready for. Hiring people externally is a good way to bring in fresh points of view. If you always appoint from within then you risk an in-bred culture / process.
  • Accept the problem. Do your best, but acknowledge that many people you hire won’t work out and you’ll have to fire them. The disadvantages – commercial and human – to this approach are obvious.
  • Only hire based on personal recommendation. If somebody you trust can vouch for the person you’re hiring then that removes a lot of risk. However, it also reduces the pool of people you can hire from. This is a severe restriction.
  • Insist that the people you hire are hands-on. This isn’t a complete answer, but I hire people who have something to offer than pure management. They need to be able to demonstrate they can roll up their sleeves and contribute directly. I don’t hire people who stay aloof and refuse to engage directly with the tasks their team do. Project management isn’t (just) about Gantt charts; people management isn’t (just) about personal development, performance reviews and team meetings. These hands-on skills can be tested for, but although they’re necessary they aren’t sufficient.

However, I don’t think these solutions are acceptable. If you’ve got any better suggestions on how to hire project managers / development managers / support managers etc. then post them here.

Enjoyed this post? Subscribe to the RSS feed.

5 responses to “How to hire managers – advice wanted”

  1. A solution could be hiring a person as a contractor for 3 months. If they prove themselves you make a permanent offer, if not the contract expires and they move on. No hurt feelings as long as everyone is upfront about the commitment level.
    Of course not everyone will agree to that so you may lose some of the hires, but the restriction is much less severe than only hiring people you already know, which is your current best choice.
    Another idea is to ask for references, people formerly managed by the prospect. They should have a word or two to say.

  2. Janet says:

    Hiring someone on contract for three months will severely limit your pool of senior people. Nobody wants to give up a full time job with benefits to work on a short term contract without them in the hopes of getting them back later. The person risks losing a significant amount of vacation time and possibly health insurance.
    A better solution would be role-playing during the interview. Pick a situation or skill that is important to the job – a difficult employee with a personal hygiene problem for a manager, a difficult customer insisting on a scope change for free for a project manager, etc – and have one of your people play it through with the candidate. You should get a good feel for their ability from that and it shouldn’t take half a day to do it.

  3. Hello, I wrote a reply to this article on my own blog. Unfortunately it’s not appearing in the trackbacks.
    Here’s the URL:

  4. Adam Russell says:

    Agree 100% on the scenarios. I know the juggler dialog is simplified parody but there’s no way I’m gonna hire someone on the basis of personal assertion alone.
    its a big investment to hire someone and then have it not work out. actually, its a big investment to give them an hour or so for the interview, so you may as well get the most out of the time.
    so, I spend approx 50% the time in my interviews on role-playing key-skill scenarios and seeing how the applicant respond. half of what I’m looking for is what the interviewee actually comes up with and the other half is really how they respond to this interview situation.
    and the value of the juggler parody dialog would be much higher with more (any) persistent verification of key facts from the applicant:
    After the “I can juggle anything” response, I’d go to:
    “Manager: well, this job requires juggling at least four balls, a flaming object and a floppy hat. you pikc a role that you’ve listed in your resume within the last 2-3 years where you have actually done that and describe exactly how that worked”.
    once you get to an actual role where the specific skills have been actually exercised (with at least 1/2 you don’t), you drill into exactly how they did that job:
    “Manager: ok, so describe your typical week: at what point did you bring out the four balls, the floppy hat etc”
    “Manager: how did you light the flaming object? what did you do about the fire regulations? ….”
    its a scenario walkthrough again, but with a real situation (theirs) rather than a mythical one.
    again, about 1/2 of the remaining aren’t able to convince me that they actually had that experience: “Oh, so you didn’t actually juggle the four balls, you managed someone who did… Ok.”
    Lastly, its always worthwhile to throw in a couple of technical questions on various PM skills as a reference point.
    I’ll admit that with PM’s it’s a bit easier because of the nature of their jobs and the skills that are required: if they are “shrinking violets” they are not going to succeed in the role.
    On the other hand, the approach can be tailored to any role with a bit of thought.

  5. Solutions to this problem are not up to the mark from your blog. For the better advices we should take the proper experts opinions.