by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.

cunning adj. 

  1. Shrewd; crafty; artful. 
  2. Executed with or exhibiting ingenuity. 
n. Skill in deception; craftiness; guile. 
People Selection is one of the Three Solemn Acts of Enterprise along with Product Planning and Capital Formation.  Yet the time and preparation devoted to the process by many managers is scant indeed. Information in a résumé may offer clues about a prospective employee, but mostly you get the applicant's cosmetic treatment of his or her past experience.  References rarely give you anything but glorious appraisals.  You may gain insights about a candidate's prospects from his or her letter-of-transmittal, but only if there is one.  For the record, unlike any other manager I know, I invite all applicants to write a post-interview letter, which, often as not, reverses my decision -- in either direction.  Is that 'cunning'?  Certainly not.

Interviewing is a game played against the clock.  One must make the most of the few minutes one spends with each candidate: forming a judgment -- but also making a "sale" -- not to mention getting across vital policy matters for which no better -- more fully "ionized" -- moment exists.  You hurriedly try to qualify the candidate's education and experience using selection criteria for the position.  You also try to frame questions intended to reveal the candidate’s motivations.  At the same time the interviewee eagerly spins responses to questions hoping to match the motivations of the interviewer.  Of course, once hired, an employee is expected to be conscious of other people's values, so the hiring manager is well advised to be favorably influenced by collaborative aptitudes.  That’s true of just about any position, I think -- marketing and sales, especially, but try to name any other in which a person can do the job effectively without taking into consideration what is important to colleagues as well as to customers, to subordinates as well as to bosses.

The interviewer ought to have an advantage in the interview game.  Still, most of the good managers I know make bad interviewers.  They give up the advantage by simply “winging it.”  Their questions are improvised on the spot.  Most of them can be answered 'yes' or 'no', which may be fine in a courtroom but, unless followed up with a 'why?' or a 'how?', such questions are hokey as hell in hiring.  Successful recruiting for most managers, then, is a matter of being lucky, which can be ascertained only after the fact.

Interviewing time is short.  I have resorted to having a blank pad of quadrilled paper on the desk, along with freshly sharpened pencils.  I start out easy, glancing down from time to time at the pad.  The aspirant does so too, relaxed at first.  At some point, as my questions become more technical ("Were you responsible for designing that metastable phantastron which superfluates the beacon local oscillator?"), the casualness is replaced by an unmistakable signal ("Ah-ooga, knowledge limit has been reached").  I have never asked a candidate to draw me a circuit diagram of the phantastron; the freshly sharpened pencils remained undisturbed interview after interview to this day.

You have to make use of every moment.  And every event.  One poor bastard shat all over himself by saying "nucular," while claiming professional experience in that field.  Thing is, screening means looking for at least one reason to say no, not yes -- an undisclosed rationale to disqualify.  Once, a fellow showed up wearing suit, tie, and huaraches; another had taken nourishment from his fingernails to the quick; and one poor sap blew the interview by telling me an off-color joke (at which I laughed heartily and have told many times since -- never during an interview).

Forming a team means expecting each member to show consideration for others.  Which brings me to a vexing question for which I do not have an answer.

Be it known that I deliberately draw diagrams and write statements all over my office blackboard (whiteboard, nowadays).  Unlike memos and directives, the stuff gets read by everybody who comes along: bosses, peers, subordinates, applicants -- much like the P.S. in a letter.  Neat way to communicate sometimes ("neat" may not be exactly the correct expression, but let's not use the word "cunning" here, either).

Along comes an aspirant, best foot forward, and the interview proceeds to an incidental question like, "Exactly where in the organization did you say your previous position reported?  -- uh, feel free to use my blackboard there."  Two quite reasonable events are expected: the first probable, the second possible:

Event #1 Candidate Asks Permission to Erase Part of Board.
Event #2 Candidate Erases Part of Board Willy-Nilly.
Event #1 confirms that the candidate's best foot is indeed forward.  And something more.  The person has disclosed what management science, under the influence of modern clinical psychology, has come to call "high relationship/low task behavior," which means that the most appropriate supervisory style will be "participative" not "delegating."  You could look it up.

Event #2 definitely contains valuable information, and it does not stand alone as a disqualifier (the interviewer did, after all, say "feel free").  Management science would describe the candidate as exhibiting "high task/low relationship behavior," which means that the most appropriate supervisory style will be "telling" not "selling."

Let us now consider a third event, which, apart from the fact that I have personally witnessed its occurence three times, is surely impossible. (A seated position is strongly recommended before proceeding to the next paragraph.)

Event #3 Candidate Does Not Erase Any Part of Board.
Try to imagine this.  The candidate, fixedly gazing upon the blackboard, rises up from the side chair, strolls around my desk, takes chalk in hand, and commences drawing an organization chart amidst and amongst, through and on top of, mingled and superimposed upon -- right in the middle of the stuff that was already there!  The previous sentence ends with an exclamation point and so does this one!
  • Three times in as many decades, I have been reduced to blurtings.
  • Three times I have bruised my chin on my necktie knot.
  • Three times I have experienced facial paroxysms, my eyebrows uncontrollably seeking refuge in my forelocks.
  • The son of a bitch writes on what must be to him an erased board.  By the way, in my experience, Event #3 is decidedly male-gender specific.

    As a student of Maslow and Berne, of Hersey and Leavitt, of Drucker and McGregor -- as a scholar of Behavioral Science, Situational Leadership, Applied Psychology, and any number of management development disciplines -- I am bereft of an answer to the question: What does Event #3 mean?

    • Is this a property of the cluttered mind? Or an exceptionally clear one?
    • Messy work habits? Or new standards of organization?
    • Meandering mentality? Or outstanding powers of concentration?
    Not that it matters to the sophisticated interviewer.  There's always the quadrilled pad and sharp pencils for disqualifying a candidate.
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