Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes


Discernment, hiring practices, leadership, and Bill Gates

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Something has bugged me since I first recognized that universities award advanced degrees to very smart people who may not be smart in making hiring or leadership decisions. I’ve been hired to help many folks who have exemplary academic backgrounds yet have a lot to learn about connecting with others as teachers, mentors, or leaders.

In general, the intellectual activity of graduate study is focused on delving deeply into a specific subject area from the perspective of scholars in that discipline and mastering relevant research skills. This is appropriate when the goal is to produce scholars armed with everything research has discovered about a topic, and who are eager to do more research.

My concern is when organizations hire people based on marginally relevant academic criteria, weighing education over common sense or the ability to perform a job well. Other credentials, including emotional intelligence and wisdom gained through experience, may be more important when a position requires excellent leadership and communication skills. Too often, it is assumed that earning an advanced degree means one is intelligent or capable in multiple ways.

Leadership has little in common with what people learn in most PhD programs; often, even business schools (MBA programs) teach leadership and communication from an inadequate, outdated perspective. I’m certainly not the first to notice this, and calls for change have gone mostly unheeded for years.

A few disclaimers: I’m not referring to all universities, all people who complete graduate school and are intelligent in multiple ways, or all business schools. Nor am I implying organizations should not require critical credentials (hospitals and airlines come to mind).

I admire clients and friends who are brilliant professors, leaders, physicians, attorneys and great human beings. Some have numerous publications and books to their credit; their work has improved lives. I believe in higher education and will be eternally grateful for what I learned in college and graduate school. However, I don’t assume that completing a top-ranked graduate program prepares one for working well with others.

I’m biased, but experts agree: having strong leadership and communication skills are important predictors of success. One’s communication ability impacts outcomes in education (learning), health care, business and other areas. I know leaders who inspire, persuade and mobilize others via effective, open communication. They engage in dialogue; they listen, encourage diverse viewpoints and demonstrate how they value their colleagues. Not surprisingly, they are respected and admired. Unfortunately, they are in the minority.

Many talk about the need to find leaders who communicate well, but few understand the complexities involved. There are several ways to evaluate credentials. It is a shame how often academic background is over-valued, while  minimizing or ignoring qualifications, skills and experience that may be a better fit to accomplish organizational goals. Great talent is overlooked, or never allowed in the door, while mediocrity, inefficiency, or incompetence flourish among those offered positions because of where they studied or who they know.

Every day, in alarming ways, time, money and reputations are lost while people perpetuate dumb hiring and retention practices. Beyond recent examples related to the global financial meltdown, I could rattle off hundreds of case studies from my consulting, but I’ll try to control myself.

Sorry, I can’t resist – here’s one, with details disguised to protect identity: I knew a Harvard MBA  unaware of the poor impression she made with her pretentious speaking style and inability to listen. She was supremely confident in her communication competence. (To her credit, she was skilled at the condescending comment.) She had been hired for a leadership role and Ivy League connections were supposed to be advantageous. As a consultant, I was asked to advise her team. I completed my assignment, and a few months later, I learned she had been “let go, because of tension in the office and poor fit.” From the moment I met her, I knew she was a poor fit!

Too many decision-makers lack the vision to question entrenched hiring practices, e.g., bringing people on board because they fit a traditional mold, or look good “on paper.” What if the selection process were based on an open inquiry about what the most important criteria for hiring should be? The best candidate might look different from everyone else. It would be helpful to ask these questions as we consider someone’s credentials:

  1. How are stakeholders (e.g., clients, customers, students, constituents, colleagues or employees) best served through hiring this person?
  2. How are we able to serve the greater good (our community, profession, country, or planet) with this person on our team?
  3. How will this person help us to be more effective or efficient in achieving our mission or the “bottom line?”
  4. How prepared is this person to fulfill the responsibilities relevant to this position?
  5. What special talents, skills, or gifts would this person offer to our organization?

We need discernment about credentials, and discernment is lacking among many who have the power to appoint, hire or elect leaders. So what credentials matter, beyond appropriate formal education? Emotional intelligence, strong communication skills and practical knowledge make a difference, especially in those charged to lead others or to teach skills applied in real world settings.

Thank God medical schools insist doctors-in-training practice the art of medicine with human beings. Interns and residents learn from experienced doctors who have seen patients, performed surgery, etc. However, leaders-in-training too often learn management, leadership, or communication skills from people who have not: 1) managed people or group projects; 2) held leadership roles in an organization; 3) studied, learned, or practiced effective communication (ideally, good communication skills plus relevant knowledge should be required to teach anything)!

For every Yale JD, Wharton MBA, Johns Hopkins MD and Michigan PhD I have had the privilege of coaching, I have met extraordinary, innovative entrepreneurs who barely earned an associate’s degree, or who graduated from a college that will never make a “best of” list. They are smart and have improved lives through superior work; they inspire others and lead by example.

There are negative consequences when highly educated people – trained by the best institutions – have little or no knowledge about how to connect with others. Often they are placed in key roles where they fail to earn respect or trust; they are clueless about leadership and the power of partnership. Overwhelmed, over-confident, or unprepared, they are set up to fail.

I love education and am the first to encourage relevant graduate study, certification, or further training. Knowledge enriches lives, and traditional credentials matter, but they are not the only ways to demonstrate expertise. I’ve learned to recognize when someone is a master at what he or she does, with no additional credentials required. Would you ask Bill Gates to finish a bachelor’s degree in computer science before allowing him to teach you about software development, entrepreneurship, or global leadership?

Author: Julie Mitchell

Julie Mitchell is an executive coach, facilitator, professional speaker and senior consultant who can help you create more positive working relationships, improve your performance, and achieve goals through understanding and practicing effective communication on every level.

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