Shine Your Shoes? Go Barefoot!

I came across an article recently where important people were asked for their tips for selecting executives. In it I spotted a quote from someone I know and respect: “shiny shoes; shows attention to detail”. Yes I thought, but is it the right detail?

Early in my career in the software industry I had to hire a lot of new staff. I posted advertisements, let the agencies know about the positions, and the cvs flooded in. As I worked through them, hiring what I considered the best people I could find, I developed three simple criteria to help me quickly sift them.

First, I looked for some hint of interest or enthusiasm in what we did. Not that difficult considering we were involved in television and film production, and more specifically special effects work. Strangely, surprisingly few listed interests that I could link to our work (and I was using a very fuzzy definition). I knew that we’d have tough problems to solve and that some of the work would be tedious, but if they were really motivated by the end result, we’d work through it.

Second, I looked for the smartest people I possibly could. I learnt early on that having people work for me who were more intelligent than I had huge benefits; I could delegate more responsibility, they would spot the pitfalls I’d missed, and they’d help me hire even more really clever people. I also recognised that the best degree from the best university did not make them the smartest people in terms of our working environment, so in interviews I asked them to solve tricky problems, to be creative, to think on their feet. I called this “having the kit”, in other words, they had the equipment to tackle whatever problem we were faced with.

Finally I looked for the skill set we needed for a particular role. Sometimes we needed people with knowledge of particular chipsets, or UI design tools, or image processing algorithms. But if I did not find them, I did not let that put me off. I reckoned that a really smart and highly motivated individual would acquire the skills we needed pretty quickly (and they did).

This made talking to recruitment consultants pretty difficult because they appear to talk only in the acronyms that denote skills; ASP, C++, RGP, .NET, etc, etc. Apparently they did not have fields in their databases for “smart”, “creative”, “interests”, or anything that was going to help me. So that meant I had to do the sifting personally, and I did, developing an ability to scan a cv, and usually reject it, in 30 seconds.

A few years later one company I had helped to start was acquired by a big American company. A few of us were invited to a “management offsite” so that the middle tier of the company could meet each other and foster links and cooperation. Over lunch one day I was sat with a group of other managers from the US side and the topic of recruitment came up. The senior manager there turned to me and said “so, Chris, what criteria do you use for selecting candidates?” It was obviously a hot topic as the table went quiet and everyone looked at me. So I explained my approach and my three criteria and their priority. “Oh, that’s interesting”, she replied, “we use exactly the same criteria, but in the opposite order”. “Humph”, I thought, “so enthusiasm is optional?”

Barefoot in the sandSo, what about those shoes? The trouble is that it is so arbitrary. Sure, first impressions matter, and I’m a huge fan of design, so yes, appearance does matter, but shiny shoes? For every Hercule Poirot that you select aren’t you going to overlook a Lieutenant Columbo, Jack Frost, or Inspector Rebus? Surely attention to detail is just as important in a fictional detective as it is in a CEO?

Attention to detail can be so important, but what detail? Is it shaving an extra cent off your manufacturing costs, or the reports that your customers think your product looks un-cool? Is it that the project is two and a half days behind schedule, or that departmental rivalry is so bad they are playing the blame game? Is it that an employee is often late to work, or that their marriage is breaking up?

One CEO once told me that he thought Product Management was the closest job to being the CEO in a company. I understand what he meant, because the PM has to be able to get a huge number of things right, across all the functions of a company, motivating and inspiring others to engage with the objectives. Sometimes you do have to polish those shoes, get really analytical, do the numbers, check your ratios, and attend to all those quantitative details that have to be just right. The next day, you may have to spend your day in highly qualitative work, talk to customers, watch users, chat with the designers, dream about the future, and maybe kick off your shoes and go barefoot.

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