Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

Put Yourself In Our Shoes: "What Would You Do?"

CJ Westerberg, September 18, 2010 5:37 PM


A classic from The Daily Riff- how has the conversation changed since we first published here?  - CJ

"On some very key things,
people need to internalize it,
and they need to own it.
- Susan Doherty, GM

Put Yourself In Our Shoes - What Would You Do? 
The Question General Motors Asks New Hires

by C.J. Westerberg  

Here's the scene:
A small group of us were talking about the complexity of hiring a school leader (in this case a private school).  One would think it would be at least easier than dealing with the regulations attached to a public school search. The group was evenly split between business and academia (higher education) in terms of experience.

The discussion included goals, qualifications, traits and strategies, before we moved on to more anecdotal experiences, mainly tactical. We found ourselves desiring a different outcome when it came to a discussion about what questions are worth asking during an interview when hiring, and it went like this:  

Business person: "I had a mentor who taught me always to ask a strange question like "Are you a lucky person?" since it inevitably threw off the "good interviewees" from their prepared Q&A speak. We always value "how quickly they could think on their feet."

Academic: "How interesting - I would say it is almost opposite in academia. Quick response may indicate impulsivity. Slow and deliberate implies a deeper thought process."

He continued by saying in an ironic tone: "Pondering is valued."

(Laughter from all)  (Does anyone remember the movie "Being There" with Peter Sellers?) 

Academic: "By the way, what is the right answer to the question (about being a lucky person)?"

Business person:  "There is no right answer . . ."


So when we came upon this interview with Susan Docherty, "who leads the United States sales, service and marketing team at General Motors", in The New York Times, it was time to ask:

Are schools creating an environment where students can enter the real world without a complete behavioral and expectation disconnect?

We know, we can hear it now, "education is not just about work readiness."    Yet we spend the major portion of our time when young in school.  We then spend the major portion of our post-school life with work.  Isn't work an integral part of who we are?  Work is not some  separate "silo" apart from good citizenry, self-fulfillment and our ability to make a difference in this world.

And, yes, we get that education is not like business.  It's "messier" because it involves kids and so many moving parts.  Business also is very messy and involves a cast of characters and challenges in its own right.  Try being at GM right now.

We've been talking to many business owners of late who have lamented the lack of initiative and curiosity from interns, new or potential hires...and, on the flip side, the same concerns are being voiced from professors in higher education.  Instead of thinking of it as laziness or lack of interest coming from students, we hear another consistent theme:  fear of making mistakes, the need to be told what and how to do  something step-by-step, doing just what is needed and no more.   Does it stem from our testing culture?  Our over-programmed kids?  Are they being taught that things are not worth doing unless it is attached to a grade or a diploma of some sort?

And the same words
mean different things
to different people.

-Susan Doherty

Back to Ms. Docherty. Below are a few excerpts from the interview by Adam Bryant with link here to full interview, where she shares her strategy for leadership, how not to come off as bossy (and why it's more important for a woman), and why she likes to sit in different chairs in meetings.

Do school leaders think this way?  Do teachers teach for this kind of thinking?  Are our schools set up for this type of behavior?  Do we value innovation and different ideas?  Do we like ideas that come from the student to the teacher instead of the other way around?  Just asking. 

"Q. How do you hire?

A.  . . .   make sure that when I'm looking at people for my team, it's not just what's on their résumé -- their strengths or weaknesses or what they've accomplished -- but it's the way they think. I can learn twice as much, twice as quickly, if I've got people who think differently than I do around the table.

Q. What feedback have you heard about yourself through the years?

A. I will tell you that 9 times out of 10, people say that I'm impatient. However, I think in the environment that we're in right now, coming out of bankruptcy, that has become a strength.

Q. When you're gathering comments about someone, what phrases do you like to hear, and which ones scare you off?

A. The ones that scare me? If I hear the person uses sarcasm negatively, or is a constant second-guesser. The things that excite me would be team player, innovative thinker and a willingness to take risks.

Q. So you've got your input and you've decided to interview someone for a job. What are you asking them?

A. One of the first questions I ask is, "Can you describe a decision that you made, or a situation that you were involved in that was a failure?" And I don't need to know how they got to the failure. But I need to know what they did about it.  How they handled that is the best illustration of whether or not they're an innovative thinker and are comfortable taking some risk.

Q. Any other acid-test question?

A. I always ask people, "If you could be in my shoes today, what would be the top three things you'd do?"  When most people prepare for an interview, they're very focused on their prior experiences and examples of what they've done. "... It demonstrates to me how they think on their feet without being prepared.

Sometimes I get answers back that are very in-the-moment, tactical answers. Sometimes I get very leader-like questions about vision, about things that are way beyond stuff that we're currently thinking about. I love that question, because it's very telling about how people think. And then there are other people who give a very balanced view, with thoughts on the short-, medium- and long-term. So I get a real quick read on strategic versus tactical thinking.

Q. What other leadership lessons have you learned?

A. Whether you have a really small team or a really big team, communication
needs to be at the forefront. It needs to be simple . . . Because everybody listens
at different levels, and everybody comes to the table with a different perspective
and a different experience. And the same words mean different things to different people.

On some very key things, people need to internalize it,
and they need to own it.

. . .And I think being disruptive, and not always being predictable,
 is healthy."

Previously published by The Daily Riff 2/2010

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