Earlier this year, I asked for advice on how to hire
managers. Plenty of you answered – thank you. Since then, I’ve thought about the topic a lot. I’ve seen hundreds of CVs, sat through
dozens of interviews, and hired a few managers. When I interview a manager there
are plenty of things I look for – passion, cultural fit, talent, communication
skills – but here are some less obvious ones that separate the cream from the
You must be comfortable
with ambiguity. You need to see the
world in shades of grey, but still make decisions. Often, there are no right or
wrong answers; no rules that always apply. You must be pragmatic, not dogmatic. The best answer you can give to many interview questions is ‘it depends’. Q: How
do you manage people? A: It depends (on the situation and the person). Q: How
do you motivate people? A: It depends (what are their buttons?). Q: How do you
persuade people? A: It depends (some people like facts, some people like
stories). Q: Your project is running late. How do you fix it? A: It depends (there
are as many ways to fix it as there are projects). You get the picture.
In an interview, talk
about the concrete. You need to show you can roll up your sleeves and plunge
your hands into the blocked toilet bowl of software development. You can’t just
strategise and theorise. When you tell me about how you deal with tricky people
problems, don’t tell me about processes and rules. Tell me about the time that
Bob turned up to work smelling of beer, or how you caught Fred snorting cocaine
in the toilets. I want evidence that you’re seasoned, that you haven’t just
read a book.
This demonstrates that you’ve
done it before. For engineers, I hire for talent. You need to demonstrate that you’re smart, and
can get things done. But you don’t need 2 years of C# or SQL Server under your
belt. For a manager it’s different. Management is something that you learn. It takes time. Sure, aptitude is still important, but you must show that
your aptitude has crystallised into ability. Management is also about good judgement. Mulla Rasrudin once said that good judgement
comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement. I’d like you to
get that experience elsewhere.
You must be able to switch
from the concrete to the abstract. Show me you can knit your particular
examples into wider rules. Tell me how your experience contradicts, or confirms,
other people’s theories. Tell me about the common thread that runs through your
successful projects. Tell me about Herzberg’s motivational theory, and how you’ve
seen it work. Or how it’s good in theory, but not in practice.
Of course, these guidelines are aimed at hiring external
candidates. If you’re promoting from within – and that’s often a better choice – then different principles
apply. I’ll write about my thoughts in a future post. Subscribe to the RSS feed
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