Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hiring a President

A few years back I wrote an article called “Hiring the Best and Avoiding the Rest.”

Recently I have been thinking about how we “hire” a new president (or any public office holder for that matter.) So, I am going to make an attempt to apply good Psychological principles to the process of hiring a president. Please note that throughout this rambling I will use “hiring” and “electing” to mean the same thing.

As citizens today we are faced with the difficult problem of electing qualified people to serve in public office. We have a real problem because unlike hiring an employee, we cannot place “help wanted” signs everywhere and just pick the best qualified candidate. We cannot post a job description on Monster.com and wait for the best to apply. Unfortunately most of the time, we just wait until election time and vote for one of the people on the ballot, a ballot determined for us by the political parties. But given that we don’t have much say in the “pre-screening” process (or do we?), what could we all do to improve what we end up with in our elected officials?

Elections are always a gamble. We can never know the outcome of our decision until after the election and actual on-the-job performance occurs. However, we can increase our probability of electing (hiring) more qualified people by improving the process we use. I will discuss some of the steps and techniques to help us do that, improve our process. Elections are a high stakes game of chance. We as citizens need to be prepared to make sure we have the odds on our side. Think of it this way:

An election is a game of chance.

Smart citizens (electors) know how to play the game

by using a systematic process to

maximize the potential for success.

Most of us do not take the election (hiring) process as seriously as we should. Smart voting (hiring) not only gets a good person on the job, but it helps avoid problems down the road. Hiring the wrong person is a costly mistake for a company, but it can be even more costly for an entire nation! Look at the cost to the states who have had governors resign recently. The question is, could some of those mistakes been avoided by not having elected those people? Smart hiring (electing) won’t avoid all mistakes, but it will improve our odds.

We have a lot at stake, which is why good elections (hiring) are vital to our success as a society. Electing (hiring) leaders is perhaps one of the most important and least attended to tasks of all citizens. The traditional hiring process has three steps: 1) Defining the job; 2) Recruiting candidates; and, 3) Selecting an employee. This isn’t quite the same in the election process. Usually we think we only can act at the third step (election). But I think the general public, the media, and the political parties can have an incredibly powerful impact on the first two steps. I would think of the three steps for hiring an elected official as: 1) Developing a Success Profile; 2) Narrowing the field; and, 3) Electing a leader.

Developing a Success Profile

This is the step where the media can have a huge impact, aided by the input of political scientists and Psychologists. What are the characteristics and skills necessary for a person to be an effective president? What skills and experience does a president need to get things done in Washington D.C? I would think that we could easily develop a list of 8-12 critical characteristics and skills a person would need to be an effective president. A different, but similar list could be developed for any elected position. The media needs to objectively report what makes for an effective president, not just what they would like to see.

By analyzing and defining the job this way we can focus our efforts on looking at candidates who have these specific, job-related skills. This job definition process (actually it is a success definition) would also be extremely valuable for the political parties in the primary process. I believe that it would not be difficult to develop this skill list. For example, one could look at the presidents of the past century and evaluate their performance. Then an analysis can be done to compare performance on the job to their skills and work experience. In no time at all we would have a profile of the skills, knowledge, and abilities of a successful president.

Unfortunately, the political parties and the media are not focused on the skills necessary for success. Rather, they tend to focus on the personal appeal, attractiveness and speaking ability of candidates. It also appears that political parties sometimes focus on things such as party loyalty and connects. I would maintain that these are of minimal value as a president. I am not saying they are not important, but they are a small part of a good president. In other words we need as a society to be asking the question, "What does a person need to be successful in this elected position?" We may find, for example, that being an effective senator requires a very different set of skills and experience than those of an effective president.

Defining the job is the critical first step in finding an effective person in any position, including elected positions. If done poorly, it will negatively affect the rest of the process. In the area of elections it is not only done poorly, it is not done at all! Without a clear skill profile the rest of the process is left to chance…which is exactly what has happened in recent years.

Narrowing the Field

Once we have a Success Profile the candidate recruitment process can begin. This ought to the primary responsibility of the political party! Start with the Success Profile. The party should then be actively finding people who match that success profile and match the beliefs of the party. This would be a systematic process. But once we get to the primary process the media and the general public can have a significant role. The media should be looking at and reporting about primary candidates in terms of their match to the Success Profile, not just what they say in written speeches in front of supportive audiences. As we move through the primary process candidates can be questioned on their performance. We can also see how they hold up under the pressure of the campaign process.

Electing a Leader

Perhaps the most important thing that Psychology tells us about human performance is that:

The best predictor of future performance is recent past performance, especially performance in the same skill areas.

In other words, I would not hire a quarterback for my professional football who has never played quarterback, even though he was a very successful blocker. And I would never hire someone to fill an accounting position who had never done accounting, even though she was a very successful salesperson. Nor would I hire as the new CEO for a company someone who had only run a machine on the assembly line, even though has was the best machine operator. So, why would we hire someone who does not fit our Success Profile to lead the most powerful nation in the world? Am I being too harsh? I don’t believe so. That’s why the success of our presidents (and all political leaders for that matter) is so unpredictable…the process is done so poorly! I am not blaming the candidates; I am blaming the system that brings us those candidates.

But the best way would be to first have the Success Profile I mentioned and we would really take the guesswork out of the process. If the political parties and the media have done their jobs, then electing a leader is easy. In fact, I believe that if the parties and the media did what I describe above we would for the first time in a long time have two qualified candidates from which to choose. But even given that, the citizens would need to look at the Success Profile and compare that to each candidate’s:

1) Past work history, especially recent history

2) Compare how that history compares to the Success Profile

3) Performance during the campaign, especially on areas in the Success Profile.

4) Yes, add in a little likability too.

There you have it. Pretty simple. Will this happen? Probably not. Why? Because the political parties and the media are too invested in the current (purely based on luck) system and will be resistant to change.

I welcome your comments.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thinking of Politics, the US, and Europe

I recently returned from a trip to Europe (vacation) and it really started me thinking about the U.S. political system. I noticed a couple things that were quite ironic.

First, Germany (where I spent the largest amount of time) is actively in the process of privatizing all kinds of government services. This at a time when the U.S. federal government is attempting to take over more and more private sector functions.

Second, the parliamentary system was a real eye-opener for me. I know it is not new, but I had never looked at the parliamentary system before. Talking with European residents help me see it in a different light. Having been born and raised in the U.S. I thought that our system was obviously the best. But I noticed something during this trip to Europe which made me envious of the European parliamentary system (at least the one in Germany!) Let me try to explain why.

In the U.S. we elect politicians based on the "person." We elect the person that we "like" the best. That is why if you look at the last 100 years of U.S. Presidential elections you will notice that it is almost always the more "personally appealing" candidate who is elected. The voters do not pay attention to the work history or the past actions of the candidate. OK, now for the Psychological part of this...Industrial Psychologists know that the best predictor of a person's performance on the job is that person's "past performance," especially their most recent past performance in similar jobs. In the U.S. the electorate never looks at a candidate's past performance, but only at the current promises he/she is making...Big Mistake! (I will make another entry on this topic in the near future.)

How is it different in Germany? Well, in Germany people go to the polls and they vote for a "party" and the party policies, not a candidate. That way they are voting for the ideas and actions of a party, not the personality of the candidate. The party then places the person in the job and the person is more likely to carry out the policies of the party. Of course the policies are what the people voted on. It makes a lot more sense, don't you think?

In the U.S. we don't look at the candidate's past performance but mostly on his/her personal appeal. The media doesn't help either. They tend to focus on all kinds of superficial information also. And both the candidates and the media tend to want it all in 30 second sound bites...so what we get is bad information. Think about it this way...one would never hire an employee the way our president is chosen, so why would we pick the person for the most powerful position in the world that way. It just doesn't make sense!

The start of something

Well, I have always wanted a place to post my thoughts and get reactions from others. Please follow proper net etiquette and do not use offensive language, or your comments will be deleted.

I have started this blog as a way to look at things from a Psychological perspective...because I really believe that Psychology allows us to exam our own actions and those around us through a lens of understanding.

I hope you enjoy sharing this journey with me.

Dr. Larry Pfaff