The Challenge of Hiring Individual Contributors for Leadership Roles

What is the best interview question when assessing for a people manager role?

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Oct 18, 2023

When you’re looking to hire an individual contributor into a leadership role, it’s important to remember one critical lesson: What makes someone successful in an individual contributor role has little predictive power for determining their success in a leadership position.

Think about what it takes to make someone a successful customer service representative. They’ll probably need to excel in conveying information clearly and empathetically, in active listening to fully understand customer issues and concerns, in problem-solving to quickly find solutions, and in having a deep understanding of the company’s products or services to provide accurate information and assistance.

Now, those skills are great to have; none of them would be harmful to someone in a leadership role. But those talents barely scratch the surface of what’s necessary to be the leader of a team of customer service reps.

A leadership styles test reveals that an ideal leader is someone who fosters employees’ growth, development, and creativity. A manager with great technical expertise is nice, but that’s far less important than having a manager who coaches, grows, and develops employees.

The challenge, then, is to assess an individual contributor’s leadership potential even though their current or prior role doesn’t directly showcase the exact skills they’ll need as a leader. An easy place to start is to find individual contributor analogs to leadership activities.

For instance, coaching and growing employees isn’t an activity that someone without employees could do, but coaching or supporting a co-worker is. And if you ask an individual contributor about a time they saw a colleague struggle, you’ll quickly identify a few folks who display leadership attributes even though they’re in an individual contributor role.

A specific question that works well is, “Could you tell me about a time when one of your colleagues struggled to do their job well?” You can tweak the wording a bit to fit your exact situation, but be sure you don’t give away the right answer. Research on behavioral interview questions shows that more than three-quarters of hiring managers add little phrases to the end of their interview questions that de facto tell candidates how to ace the response.

For example, if you add the phrase “and how did you help them?” to the end of the question, you’ve just told candidates that you only want to hear about times they helped their co-workers. But as you’re no doubt aware, there are plenty of people who won’t help or coach their co-workers, and those are the folks who are probably ill-suited to taking on a leadership role.

You can see this for yourself in the following actual candidate responses to the question, “Could you tell me about a time when one of your colleagues struggled to do their job well?”

Candidate #1:

“Overconfidence and insecurity in some employees is something that can sour an entire department or company. Unfortunately, it seems that each discipline has a few bad apples, and I unfortunately have to work closely with one. Working with someone who is overconfident leads to aggressive behavior; feedback is perceived as a personal attack, and anyone who offers or suggests new ideas or ways of approaching something is seen as an enemy. In this particular situation, the overconfidence of this colleague stems from their previous work experience at a smaller company. This colleague finds it difficult to work under new standards, and old habits have been difficult to break. This can make things very difficult for people to work with this colleague, especially those that are deemed a ‘threat’ because of their strengths in the department. Weeding out personalities like this one would greatly benefit this company.”

Candidate #2:

“One of my teammates was struggling to operate a new machine. I was about to jump in and just lend a hand to fulfill the orders, but my boss suggested that I step back and give them a little time to troubleshoot the machine instead of just jumping in and fixing it myself. I struggled with this during the morning, but after thinking over why I was being asked to do this, I understood that I was not giving the other person the opportunity to learn. If I happened to call in sick or if I was on vacation, the other operator would not have the experience required to do the job correctly. I kept an eye on them throughout the morning, and then during lunch, I asked them how it was going. They had mostly solved the problem themselves, which was impressive. And then later that shift, they asked me for a few pointers to get even better next time.”

If you’re looking to hire an individual contributor into a leadership role, especially a role that will require coaching and growing employees, which of those candidates would you choose? The one who’s annoyed by insecure people or the one who helped a co-worker?

You might not find leadership activities explicitly mentioned in individual contributor job descriptions, but you can typically find some analogs. By starting with activities involving coaching or growth, like the example above, you can get a much better read on the extent to which someone with no formal leadership experience might shine in the role.

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