Does this individual need close supervision to excel, or does she take more of an autonomous, independent approach to her work?

Why Ask This Question?

Some people naturally like to work in groups or pods,'' side by side with their peers. They crave recognition for a job well done, and they enjoy ongoing social interaction. For them, work is all about deriving a psychic income from developing other people's skills and abilities as they move through corporate America fulfilling their own life's agenda. These people will keep their managers in the loop regarding the status on a given project because they feel that their managers have a right to know. This way, those managers don't have to worry about the individual's performance, and there's ample reason for social interaction.

On the other side of the spectrum, you'll find the loners—the folks with a fierce level of independence who cherish the freedom to get work done their way above all else. If you over supervise such employees, you will be accused of being a micromanager and being distrustful of them. Why else, goes their reasoning, would you need to be on top of them so much? ''If you trusted me and my work, you would allow me to come to you when I had a problem.'' Interaction above that level is simply uncalled for.

Analyzing the Response

Not to over generalize the categories of workers out there, but you'll often be able to distinguish between affinitive and analytical types of people. Affiliative types always focus on the people factor in business situations. Their primary concerns revolve around their coworker relationships: personal disappointments and surprises, feelings regarding people's perceptions about their work, and an interest in others' career and personal development. These are the folks who immediately identify themselves as ''people persons'' and who place fellow workers' needs above profits or other business concerns.

Analytical types, in comparison, value their own freedom and the ability to work independently. They often see little need to get too close to coworkers. Accountants, architects, and computer programmers who sit in front of PCs all day creating solutions to complex problems are usually analytical kinds of people. These types of independent thinkers are usually the ones with the greatest need for autonomy and freedom.

The feedback you'll get regarding analytical types during a reference check will sound like this:

''He works best in an environment where you're not looking over his shoulder. He's not a yes-man by any stretch of the imagination. He'll creatively get things done, he'll reinvent the wheel if need be, and he'll constantly network and develop new alliances. But he's got to have the latitude to reach his goals. If you oversupervise him, you'll squelch the enthusiasm and creativity that makes him happy and keeps him producing.''

It is ultimately your choice to hire either kind of person. Be especially aware, however, of hiring analytical types if you prefer to provide lots of structure, direction, and feedback on a day-to-day basis. Your natural style of management and goodwill may be perceived as burdensome to the solo flyer. In that case, recognize your own need to control situations and your preference for keeping your people on a short leash, and hire accordingly.

How global a perspective does this candidate have? Do you see him eventually making the transition from a tactical and operational career path to the strategic level necessary for a career in senior management?

Why Ask This Question?

The ability to see beyond the immediate areas of impact and scope of responsibility helps middle managers move up through the ranks within their own departments. It also prepares department heads to climb successfully to higher realms of corporate accountability. Consequently, it becomes important in evaluating professional and technical candidates to measure how much the Peter Principle has played a role in their careers. The concept behind this principle is that those who are ''Petered out'' have simply risen in the organization to a level where they are incompetent, and this precludes their climbing any further.

Analyzing the Response

There's nothing wrong with reaching such a plateau in anyone's career. After all, most people aren't cut out to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. As a matter of fact, you may view the Peter Principle as a practical necessity of business life that ensures continuity in the positions you're filling. After all, if you need a controller to head up a section of your accounting department, you might not really want a candidate who sees herself becoming your organization's next CFO. Not that becoming a CFO isn't a noble aspiration; it's just that it can become uncomfortable trying to placate someone who wants too much too fast. And there are few managers out there who haven't had to face that leapfrog syndrome before.

Of course, others hope to reach their first chief financial officer ship via a steady and planned progression through the ranks. They realize that it could take ten years in a company to reach that goal and are willing to build a list of credentials that ultimately qualifies them for such responsibility. More important, they are realistic about the time and energy commitment necessary to achieve their plan. You certainly can't take away from someone the fact that the person is realistically building a foundation for greater responsibilities.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. But what about those candidates who see themselves achieving grand career achievements but who lack the requisite talent or commitment to make that happen? That's what you want to find out via this reference-checking question. Follow up your initial query with a qualifying statement like:

''Eileen, could someone argue that Diane is 'Petered out' as a controller in the sense that she's really reached her maximum ability to make an impact on your company, or do you see her as an up-and-comer with a lot more potential to take on more global responsibilities?''

If Eileen responds that Diane is an up-and-comer, you could in turn qualify that response with the follow-up:

''That's great, but I don't want to hire someone who's itching to move through the ranks prematurely. Is she prepared to spend three more years as a controller, or do you sense that she's more aggressive in wanting to reach certain goals in a shorter time frame?''

That generic add-on query should suffice to provide you with an insight into the individual's career expectations and ability to stick it out with your company over the long haul.

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