Want the Most Qualified Candidate?

A while back, I found myself engaged in a rather spirited conversation with an admittedly frustrated manager. He had spent the better part of the morning sitting through one of my leadership training retreats. One in which we dissected the concept of various leadership roles, responsibilities and results. My single-minded focus had been to help those present develop a blueprint of sorts that could enhance their own daily personal leadership activities. It was a positive exercise. But, all morning I could tell the concepts weren’t exactly clicking with this individual. So during our first break, I pulled him aside and asked him, “Why isn’t this working for you?”

“Phil, it’s not that it’s not working,” he began earnestly. “I realize the importance of what you’re sharing. But, I keep waiting to hear you tell me what I really need most right now. Tell me why these new employees I have been hiring lately are not working out.” He continued.

“I do extensive searches to find the most qualified candidates available. Once we get them hired and trained, we provide them the necessary tools, resources and support to allow them to be successful in their new jobs. Then, I stand back anxiously awaiting their success. Instead, too often, I end up watching the wheels come off before my very eyes. My department’s productivity drops. Our quality ratings suffer. The customer is far from being satisfied. Trying to find what motivates these people is like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis. It’s impossible! In the midst of all that, the overall morale of my best, most senior employees has dropped to an all time low. Now, if you really want to make this a good, worthwhile leadership development program, just show me what I am doing wrong and help me fix it. Then I will leave here a happy man!”

The challenge was clearly before me. Though I admittedly didn’t have all the answers for his questions and frustrations, I did recognize one fundamental problem in his approach that, over time I’ve discovered, has tripped up a great number of otherwise well-meaning managers.

“Well, the first thing you should realize is you don’t always want the most qualified candidates for every job,” I stated rather matter-of-factly. The gentleman shot me a quick look of disbelief. I could almost hear him thinking, “So this is the clown they picked to help make our organization better?”

Despite what he might have been thinking, his spoken response was more subtle and measured. “I’m confused,” he admitted. “I’ve always been taught that a good manager surrounds himself with the most qualified people available. Now you’re telling me that those are exactly the persons I don’t want?”

“Possibly,” I countered. “And here’s the reason why. The ‘most qualified’ candidates, often are simply not the ‘best suited’ candidates for the jobs we need to fill. Do you understand what I mean?”

The manager’s confusion was obvious and predictable. I was suggesting a concept that ran counter to much of what he had been taught and had practiced throughout his professional managerial career. Yes, he was confused, but he was also curious. By his own earlier admission, the way he was doing it now was simply not working as he planned. He knew there had to be a better way, he just hadn’t discovered what that better way was. Therefore, he was open to suggestions. That’s what brought him to my training session in the first place.

For the next several minutes we talked as I shared with him some thoughts as to why the ‘best suited’ employees trumped the ‘most qualified’ employees almost every time. He seemed to find value in our discussion and maybe you will too.

One practical reason why we shouldn’t always hire the “most qualified” candidates is purely economic. We may not be able to afford them. As a result of the education and experience the “most qualified” individuals possess, they frequently expect and command premium compensation in the marketplace. To pay them what they are worth may be impractical due both to limited financial resources and to the possible internal inconsistencies that would be created by paying this “new” employee (regardless of how qualified he or she may be) at a rate over and above that which other more experienced, long term employees are paid.

A second practical reason involves professional flexibility. Many of us have discovered the hard way, that the more experienced and qualified an individual is, often the less flexible he or she may be to learning new and tailored ways of doing things. In other words, the “most qualified” individuals may already “know” what works (based on their past education and experiences) and therefore, be less willing to listen and learn about the history of how and why things are done the way they are in this organization.

Coupled with the reason listed above, another practical reason for concern deals with the type of reception offered the “most qualified” new employees by their new co-workers and teammates. If the existing work group is intimidated or frustrated by the manner in which new, highly touted employees enter the established work group, then dissension, teamwork and morale problems can result. It takes a skillful leader to be able to introduce new, high performing individuals into an established work group without negatively disrupting the chemistry of the group. It’s not impossible. It can be done. But it must always be done with great care and consideration.

Finally, observant leaders must always be on the lookout for any internal activity that might offer even the slightest impression or indication of legal impropriety or inappropriateness. Let me offer an example of what I mean. Assume, if you will, that you are just concluding an interview with an extremely well qualified candidate for a current job opening. During the course of the interview, you had already made the conscious decision that this candidate would not be a good fit for the position you have available. The candidate was obviously over-qualified, or too expensive, or too inflexible, or too cocky, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not that she is a bad person, it’s just that she’s not the “best suited” person for this job.

Just before bringing the interview to its end, you ask if she has any lingering questions? She offers only one, “What are you looking for in the candidate you will ultimately hire to fill this position?” Ever so innocently, you respond by saying among other things, “our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available.” You didn’t really think about what you said, you just said it. But she thought very carefully about the specific words you used. You were just saying what you thought was the right thing to say. But what she heard was an implied promise.

Later on, once she learns that she has been passed over for the position, if she discovers the job was filled by a less educated, less experienced, less senior individual, a very real possibility exists that she will assume she has been ultimately discriminated against. After all, she heard you say, “Our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available,” and in her mind, that means her. Is a lawsuit imminent? Not necessarily. That depends on factors too numerous to address here. But, why put ourselves in such a position of risk? It’s not worth it.

I can’t say whether or not the gentleman that initiated the exchange that led to this article actually left “a happy man” or not. I do think he left with a better understanding of the significance of the words we use, when coupled with the responsibility that comes with our roles as supervisors, managers and leaders. I wish the same for you.

Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®
[email protected]

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on leadership, service and communication. His popular book, “Willie's Way: 6 Secrets for Wooing, Wowing and Winning Customers and Their Loyalty” recently hit #1 in Customer Relations on the Kindle store. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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