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The Most Valuable Question When Interviewing Managers
Interviewing managers is difficult.
For starters, the role has high volatility. Managers can elevate a team well past what was thought possible. On the flip side, they can blow up a high-functioning team, destroying it’s magic in unrecoverable ways.
Second, it’s hard to fire mediocre managers. When a mediocre individual contributor leaves the company, usually they have a mediocre volume of things to transition. When a mediocre manager leaves the company, they’ll often have a bunch of plates spinning in various states of wobble. Someone has to keep those plates spinning, it’s likely going to be you, and you hired this person because you didn’t have the time to do that well.
So, you want to hire a great manager. To do that you need to evaluate them on a large number of competencies - people management, process management, subject matter expertise, communication, and more. That’s a lot of ground to cover. However, my favorite question can get you a reasonable read in under 15 minutes.
How many people have you hired, fired, and promoted?
The three most important decisions in management are hiring, firing, and promoting. Asking prospective managers how many times they’ve done each, and asking follow-up questions about their responses, gets to the heart of a manager’s competency faster than any other question I’ve tried.
How many people have you hired?
Great managers are great recruiters. Asking someone how many people they’ve hired gets you critical information, fast. If they’ve only hired a couple people, you can’t count on this person to come in and revamp your hiring process on day 1. If they’ve hired a bunch, ask some quick followups to understand how they did it:
What’s your offer acceptance rate? Where do you want it to be?
What’s your top source for top-of-funnel pipeline?
How do you make sure you’re counteracting bias in the hiring process?
The biggest red flag for this question is if someone acts like hiring is easy. That’s a sure-fire way to know that they have no idea how to hire top talent.
How many people have you fired?
Firing is a gut-wrenching, stressful, angst-inducing, and essential function of a manager.
Anecdotally, most effective managers have fired around 1 out of every 7-10 people they’ve ever managed. Proportions much lower than that start to raise concerns that this candidate has had issues effectively performance managing. Ask follow-ups to understand anomalous report:firing ratios.
Furthermore, if a candidate has only managed a few people and never had to fire someone, then you’ve gotten the signal that it’s something you’ll need to help them with if and when the time comes. You can also avoid accidentally giving a manager with no firing experience a report with material performance issues.
The biggest red flag for this question is anyone is if someone acts like firing is anything besides a life-changing event that requires the utmost seriousness and attention.
How many people have you promoted?
Growing your team is an essential manager function. Promotions are also a rough proxy for the effectiveness of your team. Great managers should have promoted a significant proportion of their team and have clear examples of how they helped their team advance their career. For someone in a role for more than a couple years, a good quick response to this question is “most of the team”.
The biggest red flag for this question is multi-year management stints with very low promotion counts. Dive into that signal to uncover if it was happenstance, a faulty reward mechanism, or a failure in team execution.
You should be able to get through this three-part question in under 15 minutes. By the end of it you’ll have a quick but useful read on the candidate’s ability to hire, fire, and promote effectively. A nice benefit of this rapid-fire discovery is that it explores the candidate’s ability to communicate effectively when concise information is needed.