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Did you create a culture of open information sharing and increased accountability by giving responsibility to your subordinates, or did you focus more on establishing their parameters and controlling the decision-making process?

Why Ask This Question?

Senior managers affect your organization's corporate culture because they make an impact on the way people communicate with one another and feed information across departmental boundaries. On a broad behavioral spectrum, executives usually fall between two extremes: they either manage by consensus building and participative input from their subordinates, or they autocratically decide what is to be done and then force their mandates downward upon their staffs.

Of course, no one style is necessarily correct. And daily business life necessitates that a successful employee will be able to wield both styles of management depending on the situation. Still, most people are inclined toward one way of supervising more than the other, and hiring the wrong style could create rifts in your senior management team. If, for example, you're used to running your company close to the vest and employing a trickle-down theory of decision making, then the new hire who prides himself on empowering his direct reports and allowing them to operate autonomously may build resentment from other department heads. The centralized decision maker, conversely, in an open, enlightened environment may stir feelings of animosity in his direct reports, who feel as if they have chains around their necks.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. This query is fairly simple and practical to apply. As a self-appraisal query, ask the candidate:

''On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being that you have a totally autocratic style, 10 being that you make almost all your decisions by consulting with your staff and gaining their buy-in), how would you grade your decision-making style?''

Once the candidate admits to being a 6 or a 4 (most people will take a middle-of-the-road response unless they know that you're specifically in the market for, say, a ''Bloody Mary'' type), question ''What makes you a 4? If I were to check references with some of your direct reports, how would they grade you?''

Additionally, you might ask:

''If you're a 4 and naturally lean toward a more paternalistic, controlling style, what would make you a 1? In other words, what would drive you to the extreme of becoming a total autocrat? Give me an example of how that's played itself out in real life.''

Reciprocally, you might question, ''What could make you swing in the other direction and become a 6? When have you chosen to not follow your natural inclination in supervising others, and how did that work for you?'' Finally, question, ''What should I expect if we were to bring you aboard: You've been a 4 in the past; do you continue to see yourself that way, or is that natural inclination something you're seeking to change?'' Forcing the numbers issue can be an effective way to assess candidates because it allows them to critically evaluate themselves and volunteer shortcomings.

How do you typically stay in the information loop and monitor your staff's performance?

Why Ask This Question?

Senior executives can't be everywhere all the time. Therefore, many of them adopt a policy of hiring good managers beneath them and letting them manage. That's because the strength of the senior manager's directives is only as viable as the chain of command ordained to carry out those orders. Granted, insulation is a factor in any senior manager's life because there necessarily must be a distance between operative employees and key strategic decision makers. Time constraints ensure that. Still, no one should operate in total isolation. Therefore, mechanisms have to be put in place to feed information back to the source.

Analyzing the Response

Will a senior management candidate readily admit that she's too hands-off and doesn't have a total grasp on what's going on underneath her? Never— nor should she! Still, the way information gets fed back can be telling. The key to diagnosing the candidate's response is often found in the person's communications philosophy.

You've no doubt heard of MBWA, or ''Management by Walking Around.'' That can be a viable style if the individual knows what she's looking for, has well-developed intuitive skills, and has a knack for standing over people's shoulders and observing direct performance. Otherwise, it can merely be a facade with little value to the observer or those being observed. After all, how much can anyone glean while casually walking through a department? Sure, this slice-of-life technique places the general among the infantry, but it's often the case that little more than a superficial observation is gained, and observers perceive the show of involvement as insincere.

What about managers who hold lots of meetings? Meetings can be very positive in that they allow staff members to share ideas, vent frustrations, and creatively brainstorm to customize solutions for the organization's changing needs. Meetings mandate communication, and there's typically not enough open information sharing in most organizations. On the other hand, meetings held too often can serve as superficial mechanisms that delay action and lead to analysis paralysis.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Therefore, question the perennial meeting holder like this:

''John, what triggers your need for a staff meeting? Give me an example of the last meeting you held and who attended. What issues were tabled and what conclusions were reached? Tell me about a time when necessary action was postponed because you needed staff feedback before proceeding. How would your peers and superiors rate the value of your meetings?''

Managers who have the inclination and time to work side by side with their troops make no bones about it. When senior vice presidents of loan service sit down next to collections agents and crank out collections calls, those executives typically pride themselves on being in the trenches fighting alongside their troops. They feel that it builds loyalty among the ranks and keeps them close to the grassroots of their business. Is that the optimum management style? Again, that depends on your point of view and your particular line of business. Question the candidate as follows:

''How was your call to action perceived by your troops?''

''Do you train people when you sit next to them and listen to them as well, or do you typically pick up the phone and do all the talking?''

''What's the goal of this sit-in: Are you trying to instill a sense of camaraderie by working among the ranks, or is it more of a 'If I can do it, you can too' type of message you're sending?''

''How do your peers regard your hands-on management style with your people?''

''Give me an example of a time when a subordinate was embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable with your actions when you were cranking out collections calls.''

You can gain a lot of insight into candidates by gauging how they keep themselves in the daily communications flow and manage feedback. That's how corporate cultures are made and broken.

How do you typically confront subordinates when results are unacceptable?

Why Ask This Question?

Confronting problem employees is daunting for even the most confident managers. Some take a direct, unequivocal approach in delivering constructive criticism. Others provide a light and tactful touch and couch criticism in a context of warranted praise for work well done. Whatever your particular style, remember that many subordinates don't do what you expect but what you inspect. Therefore, imposing discipline on underperformers, setting well-defined objectives, and then policing the plan is a necessary part of everyday executive business life. The consequences of inaction, after all, could be perilous.

Analyzing the Response

The ability to distinguish sound supervisory approaches from ineffective ones reveals itself best through a behavioral questioning format. Bear in mind, however, that whatever response you get will call for a follow-up confirmation via a reference check. No one, after all, will describe his primary weakness as an avoidance of confrontation—that shows no backbone. On the other hand, candidates won't reveal their hotheaded tendencies lest they be perceived as undisciplined, reckless, and tactless. Outside third-party references will consequently offer more balanced insights into this touchy yet critical issue.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. During your interview with the candidate, you might question:

''Tell me about a time when you had to be a strict disciplinarian.''

''How swiftly will you resort to written documentation when a performance problem occurs?''

''Have you ever had to fire someone on the spot?''

''Would your boss ever describe you as a person who was more inclined to maintain smooth and amicable relations at the expense of avoiding confrontation at all costs?''

''Could a subordinate accuse you of being too heavy-handed and intent on pushing your agenda through with little regard for others' feelings?''

''Have you ever been accused of making unduly optimistic assumptions about your direct reports?''

''If you had to grade yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being you're a strict disciplinarian, 5 being you avoid confrontation at all costs), where would you fall on the spectrum?

''What is it about you that makes you a 3? Tell me about the last time you had to show your teeth and turn into a 1.''

There are obviously multiple ways to uncover a candidate's inclination to confront problem issues and stand up and fight. The key lies in allowing the individual to paint a picture of the circumstances and explain the necessity for taking such a strong course of action.

 
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