When I was a director of consulting in Coopers, during the 1980s I built a large and very successful decision support practice based on my early experience of financial planning systems. History doesn’t say much about ColyPlan but that was the spreadsheet system built in-house that was a real competitor to Lotus 1-2-3 (for the younger of my readers that was the market leader before Excel). Those were the days when I learnt to read paper computer tape punched with Fortran code.
The technology developed alongside my interest in decision support as both a technology and its psychology. Professor Peter Keen was a visiting director and an inspiration, and I met both Professor Kaplan and David Norton of Harvard University. After Coopers I came close to selling a company to David.
We did some great and innovative work. We needed a great and innovative team.
I was the only member at the start and by the time I left, at our largest I had built a team of more than 25. Getting the right people in the team was essential to its growth and following the advice of Paul Girolami, Chairman of Glaxo (https://www.brovary.co.uk/2017/12/21/inspirational-leaders-sir-paul-girolami/) recruiting the right people was essential.
I haven’t checked on the internet but there must be thousands of articles about how to interview successfully. I know there are psychometric tests, technical tests, and checklists. I am also sure there are as many courses you could take to hone your technique.
At Coopers on our training courses I learnt some of these, but they never quite covered what I needed which was to build an effective and working team who would take the growth agenda into new sectors while staying on top of the developing technologies. There was no model to work from. Consulting was new and the area of work even newer.
I had my own way of recruiting which I would use whenever I could. Let me share it with you.
We had technical reviews of a candidate’s competence, but I left these to my senior managers because they were the ones who had to work day to day with the candidate. They checked if the candidate was technically up to scratch and if they understood the technologies. Before anyone got to me I knew that they had passed all the rigorous technical tests, but more importantly my team would be happy to work with them and trust them. However bright they were they needed my senior managers stamp of approval.
I was convinced that the team was more important than the individual and I needed to make sure that the team was never jeopardised. My job in the recruitment process was to assess how a candidate would fit into the team. Highly qualified candidates were rejected if they were lone wolfs or socially disruptive.
On the other hand, I searched out the intellectually disruptive. We always needed to be challenged especially in a growth area.
When it got to my turn I would call the interviewee late in the evening, normally around 5:30 or 6. We would meet, have a small chat just for me to check off any final technical issues, and then maybe after 15 minutes I would say something like ‘It has been a really busy day. What say we go and have a glass of wine and carry on talking there?’
I would pack my case and we would go off to the local wine bar, still chatting on the way.
We arrived, and I would always buy the drink, but as we talked soon members of the team would arrive, one by one, as they returned from their clients. This was of course prearranged because the team knew when I was interviewing, and I had told them join us. That was never a problem. We liked socialising and they knew these were drinks on expenses.
I know interviews are stressful enough without my ruse, but I had the chance to watch the candidate.
Consulting is a difficult environment. I remember when I was a young consultant Peter Burnham my director would throw me into the deep end. Once his secretary came to me around 10am and said Peter was delayed elsewhere and he had asked that I fill in for him at a meeting at the Ministry of Defence. All she had was a name and no detail and so I took a taxi, arrived, and had to work out as we talked why I was there. That was truly in at the deep end.
I would talk and watch my candidate. I would see how they related to the new arrivals. They knew that the job offer was dependent on impressing me, but suddenly other people were asking questions. It was noisy. They didn’t know if they were supposed to buy a drink or accept the offers of champagne (it was the 1980s).
I should say that there was no discrimination between genders and both men and women were subjected to this ordeal. Given all the recent discussion, although I now can’t remember the statistics, there was no discrimination between genders and as many women passed this ordeal as men.
I always worked on this principle. If there were equal competences between a male and female candidate I would always chose the woman. There was a technical consulting reason. It was a sexist world in the 1980s and I knew that a woman was always more likely to be able to see a Chief Executive faster than a male. That was the world then and that made them the more effective consultant.
I always learnt far more in these interviews than I could ever do with a desk-based meeting. It didn’t matter if they ever bought that round of drinks. I saw how they interacted with other people, their social skills and most important the team dynamic was enhanced.
We must have been doing something good because we were very successful, and many of my old team have gone on to do some great things. Whatever we were doing, it worked.
By way of a short postscript, early on a recruited candidate’s first day, I had a chat and owned up to the interview process, but also shared with them a piece of advice given to me by my director, when I first started.
He told me the 3 indiscretions, which if I committed, would cause him to fire me immediately. I said the same to my new team members
- Any fiduciary indiscretion from a small fiddle on my expenses to major fraud. The requirement of total honesty extended to both the firm and my clients.
- Getting caught having sex in the office. There was a sparkle in his eye as he carefully stressed the word caught.
- Finally, and most importantly, he said, not recruiting anyone because I thought they were cleverer than me and so become a threat. He said, I would always rise to my natural level and if they went further than me they would never forget who recruited, mentored and led them and meanwhile while they were rising up the organisation bright people would make my life easier. Always recruit the brightest people you can find, and they will make your life better.
That is some of the best advice you will ever hear.