Best-in-Class Hiring: Front-Line and Mid-level Managers

Jan 31, 2002

In Part 1 of this article series, we discussed simplified hiring systems and a few good hiring tools. In Part 2, we discussed hiring better technical professionals. In this part, we will discuss hiring better front-line managers and mid managers. The Manager Position You won’t read about the “John Wayne,” “Omar Bradley,” or “Hersey-Blanchard” leadership styles here. We’ll leave those in the training room with all the rest of the pop leadership theories. We define “managerial competence” in behavioral terms, such as the ability to guide, direct, coach, support, give feedback, acquire resources, plan activities, demonstrate commitment, show personal integrity, remove organizational obstacles, learn, enjoy management, and make good decisions. Few jobs have the same financial impact as a manager. Budgeting, staffing, and long-term and short-term decisions can have incredible consequences. Performance differences among managers are estimated to be about 50% of base salary. That means a company with 100 managers earning an average of $70,000 will lose $3,500,000 each year (100 x 70,000 x 50%). However, because managers tend to be selected based on their performance as jobholders, leading experts observe the rate of manager incompetence is somewhere between 60% and 80%. (My own experience shows it to be closer to 90%). By the way, I am not referring to people who hold management titles but have no direct reports. These positions are usually special creations of a compensation committee to justify high pay, perks, and status for employees with specialized knowledge (finance, law, regulatory, etc.). If you look closely, folks holding management titles without management responsibilities are often technical professionals. Management positions tend to fall into three groups:

  1. Front-line managers who directly supervise people who do the work
  2. Mid-level managers who manage other managers
  3. Executives who steer the organization (we’ll save them for a later article).

Each management level requires slightly different (broader and deeper) competencies?? and their jobs sometimes include either technical, professional, or sales components. Measuring Managerial Competencies Managers often fail because they provide little direction, don’t adequately coach subordinates, consider their title as a “reward” instead of a responsibility, are self-centered, or fail to make the shift in perspective from jobholder to manager. The following section outlines a few common competencies for the front-line and mid-level manager positions (they may not be all inclusive for your positions, but that is the reason why “job analyses” are necessary). You might also notice that competency names are similar to other jobs. That’s normal, because even though competencies may sound generic, they are always defined by specific job activities (i.e., problem solving for a manager and problem solving for a production worker are significantly different): The competencies are as follows:

  • Ability to learn
  • Problem solving (more complex for mid-level managers)
  • Business knowledge
  • Project planning (more complex for mid-level managers)
  • Prioritizing
  • Managing subordinate performance (goal setting, coaching, feedback, support)
  • Personal influence (broader for mid-level managers)
  • Communication (more formal for mid-level managers)
  • Primacy of work
  • Learning attitude
  • Initiative
  • Integrity (more critical as managerial power increases)
  • Technical knowledge (varies with specific job)

When we organize these competencies by skill area, we can see the risk of not measuring a specific competency. We can also list a few tools that will provide the highest degree of predictive validity. As always, each tool should be either content (or criterion) validated before use.

1. Skill area: Ability to learn, solve problems and make decisions.

Job riskWhat to measureCompetency name
Not having sufficient knowledge to do the jobGeneral knowledge of the business, industry, department, or technical subjectBusiness knowledge

Technical knowledge

Not being able to learn new informationAbility to quickly learn and apply informationAbility to learn
Making wrong decisionsAbility to solve job-related problemsProblem solving
Most effective hiring tools: Advanced technical test; eductive problem solving test; customized problem solving test; behavioral event interviews

2. Skill Area: Ability to plan, organize and follow courses of action.

Job riskWhat to measureCompetency name
Failure to meet deadlines or deliver projectsAbility to plan complex projects to achieve goalsProject planning
Most effective hiring tools: Project planning case studies; behavioral event interviews

3. Skill area: The ability to get things done through people.

Job riskWhat to measureCompetency name
Subordinates confused, failure to accomplish projects on time or on budgetAbility to set goals, track progress, coach, give feedbackManaging subordinate performance
Failure to get people to work together or adopt a common objectiveAbility to persuade others to follow a course of actionPersonal influence
Inability to communicateAbility to present ideas and write effectivelyWritten or oral communication
Most effective hiring tools: Project planning case studies; behavioral event interviews; teamwork problem simulation; presentation simulations; writing exercise.

4. Skill area: Specific attitudes, interests, and motivations associated with doing a job (these are really not “competencies,” but we will stick with the term to avoid confusion)

Job riskWhat to measureCompetency name
Subordinates contributions minimizedWillingness to risk, unwilling to share controlManaging Subordinate Performance
Poor work attitudeGeneral attitude toward workPrimacy of work
Unwillingness to learn new thingsAttitude toward learningLearning attitude
No new ideasAttitude toward the status quo, preference for following rulesInitiative
Subordinates do as little as possible, do not support management, have poor attitude.Trustworthiness and integrityIntegrity
Most effective hiring tools: Behavioral event interviews; tests of specific attitudes, interests, and motivations

You can also use this list as a diagnostic tool. Just look over some of the reasons why your front-line and mid-level managers tend to fail and you will see which skill areas need better measurement. In the next article, we will describe competencies for hiring better salespeople. They are much more expensive than managers, because they are the “life blood” of the organization.

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