That "Girl" From Procurement

By Greg Adams-Woodford February 17, 2017

Organizations are only as good as the talent they employ, but finding that talent can be a massive challenge. Managers frequently rely on standard operating procedures and boring talk tracks to interview and fill open positions. These mind-numbing interviews result in a 50/50 chance of hiring the right individual, the individual who is not only qualified but has that certain something.

So how do you do it? How do you find the talent to accomplish the tasks in the job description and to make those unexpected yet valuable contributions to your team?

                                

First, Listen

I’ve spent years uncovering, mentoring and supporting hundreds of talented individuals and have learned the importance of listening to those around you. When you pay attention to your entire organization, you will identify talent you might not otherwise notice. But if you robotically focus on reviewing applications and setting up interviews, you may miss an opportunity to hire unconventionally, which can drive true innovation.

It’s like casting actors in a play or movie. It isn’t just about what appears on their acting resume, their past experience or how they read the script. It’s about how they respond to the role, how they interact with the other actors and how empathic they are.


Flip the Script

The typical interview occurs in an office or a conference room where the hiring manager (interrogator) sits across from the interviewee (suspect). It’s a scene that could be lifted from a 1930s film noir. Everyone knows the score. You sit there, I sit here. I ask the questions, you answer on-script.

But if you want to disrupt this hiring process, there is a way: improvisation. Think about it. With improv, you don’t adhere to a script. And you follow only one rule: You must reply “Yes and …” to any idea put forward. This sets the stage for a real conversation that builds on ideas rather than stifling them.

Improv is an unconventional approach and a difficult one, so it’s important to keep an open mind. Successfully incorporating it into the hiring process requires commitment from the leadership and team.


That “Girl” in Procurement

We all know her from the movies and from every office where we have ever worked. She sits quietly in the cube in the way back, doing excellent work that few—besides finance—appreciate. You might see her at the odd happy hour, but you probably don’t say hi. She knows her role and it’s not a speaking part; she’s an extra. But she aspires to a starring role. It’s just that she rarely gets an audition, and if she does, her experience or some preconceived notion of what she does gets in the way. I know this woman and I have known many similar people in my professional career: hard-working, talented, driven and waiting for someone to recognize them.

A few years ago, I joined a company as the new director of product management. I quickly learned that the scope of products I was hired to manage had changed to include two additional products. This increased the revenue I was responsible for to approximately $100 million. I needed help quickly.

I jumped on the HR merry-go-round to post an opening for an associate product manager. And we all know what that means: Post a boring but approved job description, interview 10 strangers using the same tedious script, ask questions, take notes, try to tell a joke or two to make it more bearable for everyone involved. In the end, everyone walks away with smiles, polite handshakes and a “We will be in touch” sendoff.

At the same time, one of my first tasks in this role had been to get rid of thousands of out-of-date but high-quality educational resources. When I went to investigate how and why to make this happen, I was told to talk to procurement. The woman I met there had a broad understanding of how things worked. She showed drive, intellectual curiosity and the ability to think in a way that was off-script. Her abilities were more comprehensive than her title. I knew she was the right person to fill my open position.

When I shared my choice for the new position, my manager scoffed and said, “That girl from procurement?” He questioned my ability to recognize and acquire talent. He informed me that upper management would never allow something like this to happen.

This was a man unfamiliar with the “Yes and ...” improv model. I responded, “Yes, and we can change the way things are done. We can demonstrate that we aren’t like everyone who came before us.”

I didn’t convince my boss initially, but I continued to advocate for my candidate. Finally, after a month, the “girl” from procurement had a shot at the role.

I knew I needed her innate ability to solve complex problems, her attention to detail, analytical intellect and sense of humor. I suspected this role might benefit her career and grow the revenue of my product line.

But first I had to find out if she was interested. She was not specifically trained for product management and had no prior experience in this area. In fact, she was studying supply-chain management. But I assured her that we would provide her with all the support she needed to become successful and convinced her to apply for the position. She applied and so set the stage for her interview or “audition.”

The Audition

Let me set the stage: We’re in my office. I sit in a big black chair with a window directly behind me, making it hard for the candidate to see me. She walks in, smiles politely, nods and then promptly follows the script to sit and appear confident yet eager to get the role. But part of the mystique in this audition is the power that a manager conveys. Think about the word “manager.” The definition is “a person responsible for controlling or administering.” One word always sticks out to me: control. After all, that is what a manager does. And that is typically how managers are judged in performance and bonus reviews.

I immediately broke with convention and stood, announcing that we were taking a walk and could talk along the way. I like this approach, as it removes the crutches people use from the equation. And it can lead to revealing interactions. You get to know the person as a vulnerable human being, rather than as a question-answering automaton.

Since I already knew her from previous interactions, I opted to take a different strategy with the “script” and improvised. I also did most of the talking. I knew that she would be dealing with customers and sales and wanted to know how she would handle a one-sided conversation.

In later conversations, she shared her discomfort: She had come to the interview prepared to answer questions and wasn’t expecting to be “talked at.” I suspect she was a little offended that I dismissed the work she had done to prepare. Extended Run Luckily, this drama had a happy ending. I hired the woman from procurement into the associate product manager position. Our team members and the business immediately understood her positive impact. First, she successfully sunsetted a $70 million product. Next, she launched two new products. One gained a 4X margin on investment. The other was a major initiative that gained positive early market acceptance.

Yes and …

• We threw the script away.

• We grew the organization by organically hiring internally—against common wisdom—inspiring others to seek opportunity.

• We increased revenue despite not hiring experts.

• We assisted in the transformation of the culture of a large international publisher even though we were a small entity.

• That “girl” from procurement became one of the major contributors to the business and a fixture in the success of the team.

Yes and … the theater of power is unintuitive, but when you deconstruct it, it opens up unlimited possibilities in the human drama. Just ask the “girl” from procurement.

Greg Adams-Woodford

Greg Adams-Woodford

Greg Adams-Woodford has more than 15 years of experience in the digital education, technology and financial services industries. As executive vice president of creative and product development at the New York Stock Exchange Government Services, he led all aspects of product development and helped transform his departments into some of the most innovative and respected within the company. He also served as vice president of product management and development at Pearson. Contact Greg at gaw@kenekt.io.

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