Tell me about the last time you inherited a problem unit—one suffering from poor productivity or low morale. What was the scope of the problem, and how were your direct reports affected?

Why Ask This Question?

Every senior manager has a problem unit all the time: Even if things are going fairly well overall, then the unit with the least amount of output relative to its peers is a de facto problem unit. Dealing with a unit's problems might entail increasing employee morale, determining a unit's policies and procedures to provide clearer direction to staff and to avoid redundancies in job functions, reexamining the budgeting process to cost-justify ongoing programs, or revamping equipment and systems to bring a product more swiftly to market. Again, the focus in this issue will remain how managers accomplished their agendas through their people.

Analyzing the Response

Candidates typically have no problem painting a picture for you of a particular problem unit that they successfully turned around. Those bragging rights are often one of the first issues that candidates volunteer during an interview, and it's not uncommon to find them detailed on a resume as well. Still, problem units more often than not stem from problem employees— ineffective middle managers who (1) don't believe in or don't understand the corporate mission statement, (2) doubt their ability to effectuate positive change in the organization, or (3) adhere more to an entitlement mentality and feel that they're owed a paycheck simply for showing up at work. These are all common scenarios that beg for effective management intervention.

Changing people's attitudes about work sometimes takes a carrot and sometimes takes a stick. Whatever the motivational means that senior managers use to change others' feelings about work, altering subordinates' behaviors and attitudes is one of the most challenging aspects facing management today. To complicate the problem even further, weak farm systems make it difficult for executives to weed out sub par performers aggressively.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. A senior managerial candidate responsible for repairing a problem unit, however, will always need to remove middle managers with incurable weaknesses. Therefore, this query often leads to situations where staff had to be cut. How those people were let go will tell you a lot about this individual's style of dealing with subordinates.

Some managers, for example, lop off heads. They're the ''Bloody Marys'' of corporate America who draw blood first and ask questions later. Others view the progressive discipline process as an opportunity to salvage subordinates via training (as opposed to a tool for getting rid of people). Whatever the case, question candidates about their opinions of how the terminations occurred:

''How did your direct reports respond to your programs for changing production standards, motivating staff, and disposing of those who couldn't make the cut?''

''How did you determine who should stay and who should go? What criteria did you use in the final analysis?''

''What kinds of training programs did you install to help your existing staff to meet your new performance initiatives?''

''Tell me about your most difficult termination: What made it so hard, and how did you handle it?''

''What kind of time frame benchmarks did you set for yourself, and how successful were you at reaching them?''

It's also logical for you to look for contrary evidence and ask for an example of a situation where the candidate wasn't successful at solving the problems that made a particular unit lag. No one can fix everything all the time, and it's interesting to hear about the times where the candidate was unable to manage the problem. Note what obstacles got in the individual's way, and examine them against your organization's current barriers.

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