When interviewing candidate managers to manage people, not just a process or market, always ask them about the last person they fired.
It is surprising how many managerial candidates have never fired anybody at all, and this one question is far more revealing about a manager's skills than softballs about finding and managing top talent.
Most managers don't find top people candidates themselves and don't usually manage the hiring process. We generally use recruiters to find candidates, who are largely dependent on job boards and proprietary personal networks. Once top candidates are found, the business process of recruitment is usually managed by HR in order to protect the corporation from legal risk. And while there may be some challenge in finding the best person for the money (i.e., who fits your budget), or in identifying the best future performers among entry level graduates, the Best candidates usually stand out pretty clearly.
Next, getting top candidates to accept an offer does show an ability to sell yourself and your company, but don't flatter yourself too much: Even the most charismatic executive cannot overcome a bum business plan. Successful hiring has more to do with the underlying health of your corporation and its ability to offer professional growth and increasing compensation than a winning smile and good Irish story.
Finally, the Best are not usually that difficult to manage – not surprisingly, that's part of the reason they are the Best. One of the great pleasures of managing in the technology business is the opportunity to manage the brightest talents on the planet, which allows you to focus on accomplishing business goals, not monitoring work hours, inappropriate behavior, ethical lapses or poor hygiene.
First off, admitting you had to fire someone is a reality check on honesty: We all make hiring mistakes, and if a managerial candidate cannot admit to a hiring mistake, then he or she is probably hiding a lot more as well, or really hasn't managed very much.
If hiring mistakes are not addressed head-up, the entire organization suffers. With the human body, the immune system constantly seeks out and eliminates threats to health. In the technology business, where people are the core asset, performance management has a similar function, identifying and eliminating hiring mistakes. A manager that does not, or cannot fire someone – for example, by dishonestly shuffling someone via transfer or misrepresentation -- puts the entire corporation's productivity at risk. Yes, rehiring is expensive, but tolerating underperformance is even more expensive.
Second, the ability to fire tells you much more about a managerial candidate's day to day skills than hiring. Firing is much, much harder than hiring, because to avoid subsequent litigation risks, you have to prove that you were managing the fired person responsibly all along. Litigation over hiring is much less common than litigation over wrongful termination.
There are many reasons for firing someone, but all these reasons – we'll call them firing-factors – reflect on a manager's core skill sets. The set of firing-factors do not begin or with end with technical skills, productivity or mental power. For example, because so much of technology is team-based, sometimes personal style and team-fit is the key firing-factor: If a team under a manager's direction is underperforming, and one person is the identifiable cause, that manager must act.
What are the managerial skills and knowledge that firing someone reveals?
- Setting clear goals and expectations: To fire someone, you have to prove that reasonable performance expectations were established.
- Getting understanding of those goals and expectations: If the underperformer can argue that the goals and expectations were never clear, HR can force you back into mitigation-mode, where you are forced to keep the poor performer for another period of time.
- Measuring people's performance: If you weren't regularly measuring performance, you can't prove their shortcomings, and leave yourself open to accusations of bias.
- Holding people accountable for under-performance: If you didn't reveal the underperformance in a timely fashion, HR can force you back into mitigation.
- Coaching to improve performance: Once underperformance is revealed, depending on the actual factors, you have to work out a plan to address these firing-factors. For example, ethical lapses might be cause of immediate termination, but most other firing-factors are in theory open to improvement.
- Listening and emotional intelligence skills: Getting to the real cause may take more than reading a report or evaluating a number, but reading the person.
- Process management skills: Once the firing process is underway, it must be rigorously managed, and you have to be carefully about what you say and communicate all along, else you can put your company at even greater risk.
- Understanding of legal and other business risks: If someone throws the firing process over to HR, it can indicate a narrow view of their job as a manager, and a lack of understanding of the huge costs a company can incur if a firing is not managed well.
In my own experience, when asked about actions I regret as a manager, the top of my list is always "I should have fired so-and-so sooner". By delaying, I caused myself ongoing trouble, reduced my own productivity, and allowed continuing organizational underperformance. I also did the person I eventually fired a disservice, since he or she was not forced to address their firing-factors quickly, or find the right company for them faster. The delay in firing hurt their careers as well.
So fire fast, fire well, and always ask: "Who did you fire last and why?"