Poor Donald Trump. It seems that POTUS has been having trouble with his recruitment efforts. It seems to me – expert in US political analysis as I am – that Donald’s problems arise from a serious conflict of priorities: on the one hand, he yearns for the political credibility that emerges from the ability to assemble an executive team of high-performing professionals; but on the other, it seems that he struggles to work alongside anyone who offers the slightest opposition to his wishes. It must be particularly hard to make recruitment decisions when you’re looking for people with the character to lead some of the world’s most high-profile government institutions whilst also looking for people who are easy to control.
Easy as it is to make fun of President Trump, his decisions will ultimately affect us all, even far from the States. And when I take a step back, I can’t help wondering how often my own efforts to help managers recruit the best people have been stymied by similar problems.
Much like Donald, when we recruit someone new, we tend to want someone who will reflect well on us. By hiring top talent, we get to look, also, like top talent. So when we’re setting out the criteria we want from our candidates, we focus on the positive: ambition, professionalism, qualifications, initiative and teamwork are qualities that I see coming back again and again on person specifications. But who are we really describing here? A highly-qualified, ambitious professional who can work on his or her own initiative but who can also gel well with a team sounds wonderful on paper but if the leader of that team isn’t also at the top of his or her game, this candidate is going to be quickly seen as one thing: a threat.
I recently saw someone rejected for a job on the grounds that they would be “difficult to manage” – which does rather make me wonder on which side of the table the problem actually lay.
As HR professionals, trying to help our managers get the candidates that are best for the organization, then, we need to be alert to managers’ insecurities and prejudices. But our problem is greater than that.
After all, if we encourage managers to dilute their aspirations to ensure that they recruit someone who meets their unspoken needs as well as their explicit ones, we are consciously reducing the quality of the hires the organization is making. But if we don’t account for the implicit requirements, we risk conflict, early dismissal, employee frustration and manager intransigence with all of the impacts upon productivity and engagement that this entails.
An obvious potential solution is to only recruit to management people who are capable of handling the kind of quality of employee that you aspire to recruit. But apart from this involving an infinite feedback look, it also defies the Peter Principle: eventually, all managers are less competent than they need to be.
But although it seems like we’re stuck with a choice between manageable adequacy and unmanageable excellence, the truth is both simpler and more complex than it at first appears, because managers don’t manage in a vacuum. HR is just one – albeit a very important one, obvs – of a range of resources managers must make use of to do their job properly, and we are used best when we are trusted and available.
So for President Trump, the solution lies not in looking for the most pliable-yet-competent candidate, but to look back at what he is trying to achieve. If his team were to express its objectives explicitly, then the roles played by key members of his administration would immediately become clearer and the qualities and attitudes needed by his appointees would fall into sharp focus, allowing him to appoint not the most pliable but the most professional candidates: people whose tasks and attitudes already align with the administration’s objectives and who can therefore be trusted to get on with their jobs without needing control or interference from the Oval Office.
Who am I kidding?
But there is clearly a lesson to be learned by managers who don’t have the leadership of the Free World on their shoulders and the nuclear button under their thumb, and by the HR professionals whose job it is to help them appoint the best talent they can:
You need to work in partnership, understand each other’s needs and clearly articulate what you want – positive and negative – in your favoured candidates. Don’t be scared of high quality talent. Give it explicit direction and let it get on with it and when your talent succeeds, you can take the opportunity to take credit for your smart hiring decisions.
 Insert sincerity to taste.