Selecting Great Managers

“It’s my way or the highway.” If I were to develop a list of the ten dumbest things a manager can say to his or her direct reports?? in truth or in jest?? the above expression would be both #1 and #2. If you have ever used this expression with your team, go out of your office right now and apologize. Even if you meant it in jest, you must remember, many use jokes or humor to mask the truths they would never say out loud. A team’s regard for their manager will always be in direct proportion to their perception of the managers regard for them. Never forget that your employees have previous history with other managers in their careers and past bad experiences never leave them. They are always looking indicators that you may a repeat bad dream. Maybe they didn’t think it was a joke. It is to me amazing that so many companies pay so little attention to good management selection, training, and disciplining. The fact that human resources seems to be willing to be uninvolved and unaware of bad acts, actors, and actresses until they are called in for the final act is even more confounding. If we are in the selection and retention business, then isn’t ensuring employees have balanced and effective managers a key element of our mission? If monitoring the effectiveness of managers in personnel related roles is not our mission, whose is it? In our efforts to track turnover, it is easy to consider “better opportunity for growth and advancement” to be the standard catchphrase for an exiting employee’s desire to make more money. Or is it a statement of frustration over the practices of their current manager? No matter how you feel about your overall corporate management philosophy, your employee’s primary and compelling concern is the office down the hallway. The core element of most turnover is the employee’s current manager and the professional relationship they have with them. Issues with ineffective management are threefold:

  • The selection process
  • Training and development
  • Enforcement of corporate management guidelines

In this week’s article, we’ll take a closer look at the first step?? the selection process?? and in the coming weeks we’ll analyze the last two steps. The Selection Process Most positions in companies are filled by a competitive process. You advertise your need, evaluate resumes, run an interview program, and select from among the best possible candidates. But many management positions are filled by a non-competitive process: a position is developed, the senior manager recommends (read: tells you to hire) an old co-worker/friend from his or her days at XYZ Corp. or a person chosen from within the company that they are already close to, even if they are a stranger to the team. If that’s the way things usually work, then what are the key elements of a good manager selection process?

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  • Empathy. A management candidate, to be effective as a manager, has to motivate and inspire their team. Many assume that management position candidates with a portfolio of excel spreadsheets of their team’s performance and production is a probable indicator of a “real motivator.” But it could be an indicator of a tyrant. The team they are leaving could be on the verge of revolt, meltdown, or burnout. The next manager’s performance will suffer accordingly. How often during the interview does the manager candidate say “us” instead of “I”? Listen to a manager candidate’s use of the first-person singular as opposed to first-person plural. It is not always what a person says as much as it is how they say it.
  • Education. We seem to have a fixation with education today. That is to say, we assume it can only happen in a university. Life and work are significant educations which may be complimented by a university graduate degree, but the absence of the latter should not be an automatic excuse to discount the former. If you are going to make education levels a prerequisite, should you not also ensure that there are good reasons? Are the skill requirements represented by continued education also obtainable by 10, 15, or 20 years of “doing it”? I once had the disagreeable duty of telling a CFO candidate with 15 years of corporate finance experience that he was not under consideration. He was seconded by a candidate with five years of experience and an MBA. One had done 12 business plans; the other had received an “A” in a business planning class.
  • Technical/professional skills. In this age of technology dominating the scene, it is easy to assume your best technologist will also be the best manager. That may well be true if your managers are required to spend 97% of their day doing hands-on work. But a real manager’s job is to lead, motivate, plan, interact, train, counsel, evaluate, promote, discipline, and create a positive and effective work environment where valued employees are encouraged and engaged. The ability to perform the core skill of any position should be a prerequisite, but merely one item on a long checklist. If they will ultimately be leading a team with multiple skill requirements and they are a “one skill guru” then they will not be able to impress the whole team. The hands-on management mindset assures two things: a good hands-on employee will cease to be doing what they do best and employees will not get the manager they need.
  • Likeability. Do not underestimate the importance of a management candidate being a good person who is able to get along with a wide range of people. An effective manager has learned to establish and develop relationships quickly. They communicate effectively and directly in difficult and pressurized circumstances. In a conversation or interview, they are making an effort to participate and facilitate. They let you finish a question before they start answering it, and the answer reflects an effort on their part to listen to what was said and to respond to it. A good manager candidate is hard to dislike, because they are good at being “likeable.”
  • Effective. The resume and interview should reflect a career of effectiveness, with substantial contributions indicated by merit promotions and important roles within the company. The person should speak with knowledge and conviction, not merely “rattling off” statistics from their past. You can always tell when a person is engaged or proud of the thing they are talking about. It is equally easy to discover when people are merely “reciting.” How do you sound when you talk about something of which you are proud?
  • Previous experience. Don’t discount previous management experience, but don’t discount its absence either. Hiring a management candidate who is “ready for the big step” can often be better than hiring someone who thinks they already know it all. Analyze the data candidates with previous experience indicate, but do not take it at face value. If, for example, a candidate claims to have saved $20 million in one year by establishing a new accounting process, ask them: What was the overall budget and percentage of savings? Did the “savings” include the cost of downsizing existing staff due to a process being outsourced or removed? If they were such a great success, why have they not been promoted or willing to wait for their just reward? Be willing to ask the “no experience” candidate why they feel they are ready for the next big leap. When you hire good previous experience, you win. When you hire good potential, but not yet realized, experience, you win. When you hire previous experience merely because it is there, you are rolling the dice.
  • Non-competitive candidates. When the manager wishes to bring in a candidate from outside the team for a management role, human resources and a group of the team this manager will be leading should conduct the interview process, outside the hiring manager. The results should be final, and “who voted how” kept confidential. The risk here is the manager hiring a good friend and ruining a good team all at the same time. But this process allows HR to evaluate this candidate against other potential candidates the manager does not want to see as long as they are fixated on their choice. Allowing the team to have buy in defuses some of the potential discontent created by bringing on the buddy of the boss.

A credit card commercial lists the costs of several items, but lists the ultimate outcome as “priceless.” Hiring good management candidates for skills that make them better for your employees should always be a key element. A manager does not create spreadsheets for a living. Managers do not exist merely to attend meetings. Managers are not paid to compensate for the shortcomings within their team, but rather to train those shortcomings out of the team. Managers do not exist to be removed from the team; they exist to be involved, engaged and to set an example. Actually, a good manager is priceless. So why not do it right? Have a great day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.