Communication Skills Distinguish Candidates

Communication Skills Distinguish Candidates
By Mary Boone
(From the Association of Executive Search Consultants' Executive Talent magazine, )

You've got a senior candidate in front of you with juicy credentials: an impeccable education, serious experience in the right industry, articulate -- in short, everything is adding up to make this a perfect match. Or is it? The Internet era has ushered in a host of new leadership challenges for executives. These days, the old criteria for a candidate's success -- even seasoned with a dollop of charisma -- aren't enough to ensure results.
Leadership these days poses some serious challenges: People have new attitudes toward work and authority. "Free agents" and a long period of economic prosperity have helped create a workforce that isn't so eager to follow orders or work for control freaks anymore. Top software engineers in Silicon Valley have agents, like rock stars or athletes. People have their own ideas, and they expect to be heard.
New forms of organizational alliances are creating situations where executives lead and manage people who don't report to them.
It's more difficult than ever to get people's attention in an age of overwhelming information. Leaders have to find ways to break through the noise. These are only a few of the ways in which the world of work has changed in recent years. Most executives aren't equipped to lead in this new environment because an important element is missing from their experience, education and training: a sophisticated, interactive approach to communication.
Sounds simplistic? Don't be deceived. "I often see candidates who have all the right technical skills," says Dennis Krieger of Seiden Krieger Associates, an executive-recruiting firm based in New York. "They may have McKinsey, Wharton, or Kellogg on their resumes, but they aren't as successful as they could be because they don't have the communication skills they need to lead and manage today. … The candidates who really deliver are the ones who not only look good on paper, but also respect, listen to, and include people. Ten years ago, my clients were less concerned with someone's ability to communicate. But in a time of high turnover and instability, these things become much more important."
To date, most training and education in communication has been rudimentary. Apart from a few attempts to teach people to make eye contact, handle the media, or to use anti-inflammatory language, most executives don't know how to communicate well. In today's competitive environment, being good on your feet or a good listener is insufficient. Executives today must take a comprehensive, multidirectional, inclusive approach to communication to connect, inform, and engage people in new ways.
Most people in organizations confuse communication with persuasion. They talk about getting "buy-in" or "enrollment" for an idea, project, or initiative. This "tell-and-sell" approach to communication often has limited impact in an era in which people have their own ideas about what needs to happen in an organization. More important, it overlooks the value of leveraging intellectual capital during the development phase of a project. In a chaotic, warp-speed, competitive environment, we need ownership of ideas, not buy-in. An articulate and savvy candidate may not necessarily deliver the best results. In this new era, "tell and sell" is giving way to "ask and engage." The best candidates will be the ones who know how to manage and communicate interactively.

Improvement on Two Levels
An interactive approach to management requires superb communication on two levels: personal and organizational. Certainly, candidates need excellent interpersonal skills. But they also need to be able to create an environment where communication flows freely throughout an organization. In an era where intellectual capital is at a premium and where knowledge management is more than a buzzword, your candidate needs to understand that lateral communication -- getting people to share knowledge and ideas in an organization -- is as important as top-down or bottom-up communication.
Executives who ignore lateral communication do so at their peril, for it can have significant bottom-line results. In a recent article for Fortune magazine, author Thomas Stewart notes that the aftereffects of the Ford Explorer and Firestone tire fiasco occurred in part because of a "catastrophic failure to share knowledge."
Mr. Stewart explains that the information needed to alert the companies to the mismatch of tire and vehicle existed before the deadly incidents started occurring. However, that information was scattered in both companies. Effective cross-organizational communication could have made a tremendous difference.
Candidates must be aware of the importance of communicating and sharing information not only within their own departments or organizations, but also across boundaries in alliances of all types. At the same time, they'll also have to evaluate their personal willingness to share information. It's difficult to convince everyone in organizations and alliances to share knowledge if you're the kind of person who plays things close to the vest.

Interactive Competence
I interviewed more than 80 people from a variety of disciplines and organizations to determine what it takes to be a good communicator in this new era for management and leadership. The wisdom they shared with me resulted in the identification of 10 competencies that executives today need to master. They are the ability to:

  • Make people and their knowledge accessible to others.
  • Share power with people at all levels of an organization.
  • Design online and physical environments that enhance collaboration.
  • Create effective rituals and experiences that build cultures.
  • Use key interpersonal skills effectively.
  • Make information available, useful, and enticing to a variety of stakeholders.
  • Use stories to both share and capture knowledge.
  • Resolve hidden conflicts between actions and words.
  • Encourage pervasive listening throughout an organization or alliance.
  • Engage people across organizational boundaries.

Why are these abilities important? They can make a multimillion-dollar difference in organizational results. Let's look at an example related to the competency of being able to resolve hidden conflicts between actions and words.
Several years ago, the Royal Bank of Canada began a program to encourage referrals in its financial-services business. The bank recently had purchased several financial-services firms and wanted to aggressively expand its product offerings to customers.
The company initially took the traditional communication route. Executives told employees about the referral approach in brochures, rousing speeches, and employee magazines. Not much happened. Then they decided to ask the employees about how to encourage referrals. Guess what? It turned out that if I was a bank manager and I referred my customer to a financial advisor, all I would get for my trouble would be reduced numbers at the end of the year. You see, if I was successful, my customer would move money out of my branch and into another part of the organization. My compensation was based on my branch numbers at the end of the year. Oops!
As a result of the employee survey, personnel from various disciplines from all over the company were brought together to exchange ideas and information about closing the gaps between what the company was saying and what it was doing about referrals. This highly interactive approach paid off. In the space of one year, retail referrals quadrupled, resulting in an $800 million increase in new business.

Implications for Candidate Selection
The implications for the candidate selection process are clear: You need to find people who are willing to:

  1. Admit that an existing communication approach isn't working;
  2. Ask the people themselves about what's not working and why; and
  3. Commit resources to bringing together cross-disciplinary teams to communicate interactively and design effective solutions to the issues that are raised.

Using technology to communicate isn't on the list of competencies because it's so important that it permeates each one. Candidates not only need to know how to employ technology as part of demonstrating the above competencies, but also how to choose and apply the right technologies for the right communication situations.
Interactive technologies have been around for decades. Interactive attitudes are more difficult to find. It's much easier to teach candidates how to apply technologies than it is to teach them an interactive approach to the way they communicate and manage.
Technological competence shouldn't be the primary consideration. If you have a candidate who fully understands the importance of connecting, informing, and engaging people, then he or she can learn the technological aspects of better management.

Questions for Candidates
As you consider candidates, you might consider the following questions useful in determining your candidate's IQ (Interactive Quotient):

  • What experience have you had in managing people across organizational boundaries in situations such as joint ventures, outsourcing relationships, new business models, and mergers or acquisitions? What did you do to ensure good communication across those boundaries?
  • What global experience do you have? What adaptations did you make to your communication approach in order to accommodate different cultures?
  • What did you do the last time a subordinate questioned or challenged you?
  • What technologies do you find most useful for getting input from a broad range of stakeholders in your organization? Describe how you've used them, and the results.
  • What was the most creative idea presented to you in the last three months?
  • How often do you interact with people more than two levels below you?
  • What methods, technologies, or approaches do you use to get people to share knowledge and information with each other in your organization?
  • When is the last time you publicly admitted to a mistake or changed your mind about an issue?
    Asking questions such as these will reveal a candidate's ability to operate in a fluid flexible, less hierarchical environment.

Seeing What's in Front of You
"Really, when you're making a choice about a candidate, everything you need to know is sitting right there in front of you," says Mr. Krieger. "If someone's got an attitude or is arrogant in an interview, you know you're going to have problems down the road. And if they use the word 'I' all the time or if they overuse the word 'we,' you need to do some digging into their ability to mobilize a team to get things accomplished."
Also, observe the person's ability to listen during an interview. Do they ask you incisive questions? More important, do they care about the answers? As they answer questions, see how well they understand the need for multidirectional communication. Do they realize that results won't happen without it? Do they know how to get a message out there, how to get feedback, and how to get people talking to each other?

Distinguishing Between 'A' and 'B' Candidates
As Mr. Krieger points out, communication capabilities distinguish the "A" from the "B" candidates: "When I find someone who has these types of skills, I'm more willing to place less emphasis on things like the years of experience they have in a particular industry." Attending to a candidate's ability to communicate interactively at both the individual and organizational level can be a critical clue as to whether they'll really be able to deliver results in their new position.

-- Ms. Boone, writing for the AESC's Executive Talent magazine, is the author of several books, including "Managing Inter@ctively" (McGraw-Hill, 2001). As president of Boone Associates in Norwalk, Conn., she is a frequent speaker, executive coach and consultant on how individuals and organizations can improve their performance through innovative approaches to communication. She can be reached at .

Uploaded By : erwin
Last Update : 17/07/2004

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