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Strong Character Plus Good Attitude Equals Great Potential

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I often ask directors what percentage of their challenges are technical in nature compared with people-oriented. In most cases, the breakdown is 60% people and 40% technical. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that most employment interviews focus on technical considerations rather than examining a candidate’s character, personality, background, and attitude.  

I remember asking a pharmaceutical executive if he had an MBA. “No,” he replied with a grin. “The MBAs work for me.” Not to downplay technical skills, knowledge, and achievements, but the most accomplished leaders have one thing in common: they are great with people. One client recently remarked, “Intelligence and academic smarts is one thing, but I now focus on character and attitude. I put the emphasis on attitude, passion, maturity, and independence.”  

Those comments are supported by Kailash Sharma, president and representative director of Zydus Pharma Japan. “Whenever I am asked, ‘what do you see in a candidate while hiring him or her?’ most of the time I answer ‘potential,’ rather than experience or degrees. Potential not just to achieve for what he or she is being hired for currently, but also potential to think and act broadly and think big.” (Sharma was referring to Dr. David Schwartz’s book The Magic of Thinking Big.)  

Adam Bryant’s book, The Corner Office, has a terrific chapter on smart interviewing. Michael Mathieu, CEO of YuMe, takes a leaf out of Steven Covey’s (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) philosophy and asks candidates how they would like to be remembered when they’re gone. If you were to die, who would speak at your funeral and what would they say about you?  

One Japanese executive told me he likes to ask job candidates about their families. He asks where they’re from and also inquires about their family dynamics. Dr. Sylvia Lafair’s book, Don’t Bring It to Work, explains that the first organization we experience is our family, and it’s within our families that we learn how to behave. Behaviors learned from the family often find a home in the office and can quickly materialize in times of stress.  

The importance of learning about a candidate’s background is supported by Tachi Yamada of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “I try to understand how they deal with difficult interpersonal issues,” Yamada explains. “Intelligence is often displayed in what I would call complex abstract thinking, and there is nothing more complex than human relationships.”  

A shared meal is an ideal time to ask personal questions. “Don’t decide on a candidate just based on one interview,” suggests Hermann Strenger, then general manager and head of Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Japan. “Meet the final candidates also over dinner. You get a much better feeling of the person by spending two hours in a relaxed atmosphere.”  

Hiring in Japan offers its own challenges. Two of the qualities most often requested by hiring managers are youth and the ability to speak English well. Strenger warns: 

Putting the age limit too low can be costly. Most companies are looking for the energetic guy, younger than 45, with plenty of experience, proven success records, and fluent in English, of course. As you well know, many talented persons in Japan started in sales and “lost” 10 years while climbing the ladder from MR to area manager before getting discovered for a headquarters position. Don’t get influenced by the candidates’ English ability. Focus on what you are expecting the candidate to accomplish. 

In his book, Hire with Your Head, Lou Adler suggests that we fast-forward 12 months. Imagine that a new employee has been with your company for a year. What have they achieved? What are their accomplishments? Have they increased sales? Cut costs? Shortened a timeline for development? Looking at achievable, measurable, quantifiable, and time-bound objectives will help screen candidates and allow you to select the best person to do the job. Hire the right character and attitude with a track record of success, and watch your eagle soar. 

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