The Clicking of the Tracks

When I was hired for my first big management job I had little to no experience. The leadership stared risk in the face and took a chance on me. As I grew into my position the senior leader of our department explained to me that he pushed to hire me even though I fell outside of the experience and education parameters of the job description. He was looking for someone different that brought in a different perspective.

Then he told me this story from his first big management opportunity. His supervisor taught him to build his team to drive the train of their company in such a way that if he were to be run over by the train that nothing would be heard but the clicking of the tracks. In other words, build and develop a team that does not need you.

Over the last few years I have had to hire for some very important positions in our organization. Positions of high influence that will make significant contributions regarding the vision and direction we will take. The potential for negative impact leading to lessening effectiveness, loss of employees, and damage to our reputation is very high in these types of positions. These positions demand a high level of technical skill and knowledge from the person who fills the role.

The potential destruction that can be levied by a poor hire in leadership positions is very scary. Those of us who have poured our hearts, lives, and even families into shaping a company enter into leadership hiring with fear and trepidation. The temptation is to turn to rigid hiring systems and checklists. Make the safe hire with lots of education, certifications, and years of experience.

But I don’t want leaders that are safe. That is the recipe for mediocre results, cultural disaster and dependence on you, the senior leader. What we do in our organization is so important that it transcends safety. Our work and our beneficiaries demand that we win, win big, and win for the long haul. I have to look for qualities in a potential leader that are winning ingredients. There are the three critical qualifications that I look for in a potential leader.

Intelligence relates to the ability of the applicant to comprehend, learn new things, and apply new competencies to challenges. I don’t administer any intelligence tests or any benchmarks such as GPA or where they studied. Here are some things I consider: What is the conversation like during the interview? What are topics of interest to them? What are their thoughts on something complex that your company deals with? I am not looking for the right answer but for an intelligent one. I usually want folks that are smarter than I am. The rubber meets the road on intelligence in an applicant’s teachability which directly relates to their humility which relates to the next critical quality: integrity.

Integrity means this person has a track record of building relationships based on honesty, trustworthiness, openness, and putting their own butt on the line for what is right. They are not in it just for prestige and power. In a professional reference check I am going to ask the referee to describe the company’s culture and spend a fair amount of time trying to get a clear picture. Then I am going to ask what imprint did the applicant leave on that culture. What influence did they have?

Lastly, resilience is critical in leadership. Leaders must have the innate ability to bear down and thrive in difficult and unfamiliar settings. Resiliency shows tenacity, drive, and hopefully the fruitful application of intelligence and integrity. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth calls it “grit”: a passion and perseverance for the very long term goals. Regina Hartley, Human Resources Manager at UPS, advocates for the “scrapper” — the applicant without the perfect, 5 star resume and experience list but has proven to overcome adversity with passion and purpose. My experience leading people that have not earned their position has convinced me that I want someone who has pushed through trials and has the scars to prove it.

Don’t throw out all of your human resource paradigms and protocols. AND don’t be imprisoned by them. Stare risk in the eye and forego the safe hire. If you have folks on your leadership team that do not possess these qualities you need to get them off the train. I’ve personally seen in two organizations how hiring resilient, intelligent people of integrity create an company that will hear nothing but the clicking of the tracks.