The Quest For The Best

In a recent interview, a retired CEO of a large corporation said that if he were to do it again, he’d greatly slim down the usually overstuffed Human Resources section.

Gone would be such supposedly necessary components as younger staffers screening older job seekers, forms filled with trick questions, and tests involving play-acting. Instead, he said, all he’d need is five minutes of eye-to-eye conversation with a job candidate to know whether to offer the applicant a job or thank them for trying.

In similar fashion, I can relate to that. As a journalist I had only a few minutes after meeting a stranger to decide the best strategy for getting information I needed to write the story. Failure wasn’t an option.

Several factors came into play including how they were dressed and sat, how many and what kind of questions they asked me and how they responded to mine, their eye contact and tone of voice, their enthusiasm and curiosity, their attitude concerning my presence and purpose for being there. Then I had to accurately process what I was seeing and hearing.

All of that applied whether the person was rich or poor, president or hourly worker, intelligent or ignorant, urban or rural. Although challenged at first, I soon acquired enough skill in that regard that after only two to three minutes with a stranger, I knew how best to proceed. It’s not a stretch to think of how that logical, simple, yet revealing procedure could be used in judging how a person would perform on the job.

In that same context, and in one recent day, I was twice reminded of that former CEO’s remarks.

A technician and his helper-trainee arrived at my neighbor’s house to solve a problem with either the swimming pool pump or heater.

The technician turned on the equipment, then hunched over it while intently looking and listening for any clues as to what the problem might be. Logically, the helper-trainee should’ve been close by the technician’s elbow, wondering, asking questions, taking advantage of what the technician knew and was looking for, but he wasn’t and he didn’t.

Instead, he stood a few feet away, and with arms dangling, kept staring at something down the street. Not surprisingly, the technician had to remind the trainee to pay attention as he continued his attempt to find the problem.

Had that helper-trainee been interviewed with the approach favored by the retired CEO, he most likely would’ve never been hired. Only rarely can any person quickly change basic behavioral traits to match a certain situation.

During the evening of that same day, I witnessed the opposite kind of behavior.

As my wife and I walked into a department store, we looked at our watches and agreed on what time we should leave. As I began walking away, a young salesclerk matched my stride, and moved in the same direction. That was my cue to pursue the reason for his attention.

“So you noticed?” I asked with a smile.

“Yeah, it happens all the time. She goes in one direction to do her thing, and he goes the other way. I’m heading back toward the check-out in the men’s department, so if you see anything that interests you or you have any questions, I’m your guy.”

“How long have you worked here?” I asked.

“Three months,” he said.

“Well, you’re still here,” I countered, “so it must be agreeing with you.”

“It is, but it’s just an in-between step for me. Come this fall, I’m going to school to become a commercial airline pilot.”

He then went on to say how much aviation excited him and what he’d already learned about the design and functioning of commercial and military aircraft.

His voice revealed a sense of purpose, an exciting commitment as he prepared to move forward and toward a longed-for goal. His imagination was already taking him where he confidently believed he would eventually end up.

As we reached the checkout counter, a customer approached the clerk with a question. That ended our conversation. I wished him luck and we said goodbye.

If the retired CEO had heard that conversation, he would surely be at complete ease to board a plane piloted by a young man who once worked in a department store.