Signs of incompetent managers

  1. Bias against action: There are always plenty of reasons not to take a decision, reasons to wait for more information, more options, more opinions. But real leaders display a consistent bias for action. People who don’t make mistakes generally don’t make anything. Legendary ad man David Ogilvy argued that a good decision today is worth far more than a perfect decision next month. Beware prevaricators.
  2. Secrecy: “We can’t tell the staff,” is something I hear managers say repeatedly. They defend this position with the argument that staff will be distracted, confused or simply unable to comprehend what is happening in the business. If you treat employees like children, they will behave that way — which means trouble. If you treat them like adults, they may just respond likewise. Very few matters in business must remain confidential and good managers can identify those easily. The lover of secrecy has trouble being honest and is afraid of letting peers have the information they need to challenge him. He would rather defend his position than advance the mission. Secrets make companies political, anxious and full of distrust.
  3. Over-sensitivity: “I know she’s always late, but if I raise the subject, she’ll be hurt.” An inability to be direct and honest with staff is a critical warning sign. Can your manager see a problem, address it headlong and move on? If not, problems won’t get resolved, they’ll grow. When managers say staff is too sensitive, they are usually describing themselves. Wilting violets don’t make great leaders. Weed them out. Interestingly, secrecy and over-sensitivity almost always travel together. They are a bias against honesty.
  4. Love of procedure: Managers who cleave to the rule book, to points of order and who refer to colleagues by their titles have forgotten that rules and processes exist to expedite business, not ritualize it. Love of procedure often masks a fatal inability to prioritize — a tendency to polish the silver while the house is burning.
  5. Preference for weak candidates: We interviewed three job candidates for a new position. One was clearly too junior, the other rubbed everyone up the wrong way and the third stood head and shoulders above the rest. Who did our manager want to hire? The junior. She felt threatened by the super-competent manager and hadn’t the confidence to know that you must always hire people smarter than yourself.
  6. Focus on small tasks: Another senior salesperson I hired always produced the most perfect charts, forecasts and spreadsheets. She was always on time, her data completely up-to-date. She would always volunteer for projects in which she had no core expertise — marketing plans, financial forecasts, meetings with bank managers, the office move. It was all displacement activity to hide the fact that she could not do her real job.
  7. Inability to hire former employees: I hired a head of sales once with (apparently) a luminous reputation. But, as we staffed up, he never attracted any candidates from his old company. He’d worked in sales for twenty years — hadn’t he mentored anyone who’d want to work with him again? Every good manager has alumni, eager to join the team again; if they don’t, smell a rat.
  8. Allergy to deadlines: A deadline is a commitment. The manager who cannot set, and stick to deadlines, cannot honor commitments. A failure to set and meet deadlines also means that no one can ever feel a true sense of achievement. You can’t celebrate milestones if there aren’t any.
  9. Addiction to consultants: A common — but expensive — way to put off making decisions is to hire consultants who can recommend several alternatives. While they’re figuring these out, managers don’t have to do anything. And when the consultant’s choices are presented, the ensuing debates can often absorb hours, days, months. Meanwhile, your organization is poorer but it isn’t any smarter. When the consultant leaves, he takes your money and his increased expertise out the door with him.
  10. Long hours: In my experience, bad managers work very long hours. They think this is a brand of heroism but it is probably the single biggest hallmark of incompetence. To work effectively, you must prioritize and you must pace yourself. The manager who boasts of late nights, early mornings and no time off cannot manage himself so you’d better not let him manage anyone else.

Interview questions that will help you identify candidate’s true qualities

1: How’s your stamina?

We’re not talking primarily about physical stamina here, although that’s part of it. In a lot of shops, the workload can grind people down if they aren’t strong enough to handle it. It’s important to let candidates know that a position will be demanding-as well as to see how they rate themselves in the fortitude department.

2: How hard have you been working lately?

Even the most industrious employees can lose the habit of working hard if they’ve been in a situation that doesn’t require it. And a candidate who’s fallen into “coasting” mode may have trouble ramping up for the effort you require. Conversely, a candidate who speaks enthusiastically about being engaged in challenging projects may well be a self-starter who could energize your team with his or her commitment and work ethic.

3: How do you react to being told “No”?

A big part of the typical manager’s job is telling people why they can’t do something-either because they don’t have the money or resources or because an idea or proposal is no good. And let’s face it: Some folks don’t handle being told No that well. A candid response to this question may not tell you for sure how well candidates handle the issue, but it could give you a picture of whether they’re aware of their own tendencies.

4: Can you handle telling other people “No”?

If don’t want to be the DDrN (Designated Dr. No) for the organization, you need people on your team who are willing and able to share the load. Of course, you don’t want someone who’s chomping at the bit to slap people down, either. But it can be revealing to see how many candidates respond along these lines: “I don’t really feel comfortable telling other people they can’t do things. I just worry about my own responsibilities.”

5: How good are you — REALLY — at handling change?

Everybody asks this question, so of course every candidate has a prepared answer. It goes like this: “I think it’s important to be flexible and adapt to new circumstances. One time, [insert anecdote illustrating ability to manage change here]….” This is a critical problem for managers, because the pace of change continues to accelerate, but a lot of job candidates are extremely uncomfortable with it. Trying to identify those folks during the interview process may require you to ask about it point-blank–and then hope that the candidate will abandon the script at some point so you can have an earnest discussion.

6: Are you a good scrounger?

A common interview question centers around a candidate’s problem-solving capability. But this question focuses on a candidate’s ability to come up with the resources out of what he or she has on the shelf. (Think of the James Garner character “The Scrounger” from the movie The Great Escape, who comes up with camera, pipe, or whatever else the POWs need when planning their breakout.)

7: When conflict arises on your team, how do you handle it?

This is one of those questions that can easily be fielded with a stock answer and a polished anecdote, so it’s up to you to try to elicit something more illuminating. Often this will just be a matter of asking follow-up questions (and these don’t have to be formulaic; just have a conversation around what the candidate has told you). You can also pose a scenario and ask candidates what they might do in a particular situation. Is this approach contrived? You bet it is. But it will challenge candidates to think on their feet and may provide useful clues about their personality and conflict management skills.

8: What have the last few years taught you?

Anyone who’s been in IT for awhile knows that the industry has had some serious ups and downs. This questions is designed to get at what the job candidate has learned through the periods of explosive growth as well as through the tough downturns, tight budgets, and shifts in the job market.

9: What type of people do you like to work with?

Even if you get a canned response here, you may be able to get a glimpse of the candidate’s personality. Previous experiences and genuine preferences will often filter through to their answers. For example: “I like to work with people who really know what they’re talking about, not people who just want to show everyone how smart they are”; “I like to work with people who I can bounce ideas off of”; “I like to work with people who respect what I do.”

10: How do you stay current?

Since this one comes right out of Interviewing 101, most candidates will be ready for it. But it’s still a critical question that must be addressed. The technology changes so quickly that all of our past experience decreases in value daily. You can’t hire an IT professional without assessing their plans to keep abreast of new products and technologies.

11: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do professionally?

This question also comes out of the interviewing playbook, but it’s still a good one. It’s interesting to see whether the candidate mentions some technical achievement or project or discusses something more personal instead — for example, having to fire an employee.

12: How would you describe your perfect job?

You can learn a lot from the responses to this question, and it may spark a lively conversation as well. You might discover that the candidate is quite assertive in describing what he or she wants a position to provide; in fact, you may learn a thing or two that will help you craft a better job description for the position. You might also find out that a candidate has some unrealistic expectations about the respective roles of employer and employee-which could lead to disappointment and poor performance if left unaddressed.

13: If you could take back one career decision, what would it be?

This is a pretty good shot-in-the-dark question. There is certainly no “right” answer, but it can be useful to see how candidates respond. Can they point to something instantly or do they have to consider? Maybe they’ll be confident enough to admit, “I can’t think of anything substantial. So far, I’m pretty pleased with how my career is going.” Sometimes, ambivalence or dissatisfaction come to light, suggesting that they’re headed down the wrong path altogether. Regardless of their answer, this question can lead to an interesting discussion.