Several years ago, one of my clients in the health care industry decided to create a new position: vice president of human resources. The company had grown to such a size that its executive committee felt the need for a senior HR leader.
After conducting a nationwide search, the committee narrowed the candidates to two: Janet and Mary, both highly qualified, experienced HR professionals.
However, the committee was divided on whom to hire. As the company's employment attorney and employee relations advisor, I was asked to interview the finalists and weigh in on which candidate I thought would be a better fit.
The new vice president of HR would report to the company's chief operating officer, Bob. I sat down with Bob and helped him create a "star profile," which is a list of the core behaviors that lead to success in the job.
Bob came up with the following:
- Becomes a trusted coach to our leaders to maximize human capital return on investment (ROI).
- Keeps us compliant without creating a bureaucracy.
- Has my back, especially when telling me I'm wrong.
Equipped with this star profile, I scheduled telephone interviews with the finalists.
When interviewing job candidates, I follow a simple formula: I share each star profile characteristic with the candidates and invite a discussion on whether or not they believe they are the right fit. Next, I ask the candidates to tell me about a specific experience in their past that would give us confidence they are the right fit. Lastly, to distinguish people good at doing jobs from those good at getting jobs, I say, "Because perceptions vary, I will probably circle back to you to get contact information of others with knowledge of the experience you shared."
Using this approach, I interviewed the two finalists.
When I shared the first characteristic with Mary about becoming a trusted coach and maximizing human capital ROI, she became animated and spoke with passion. When I asked for an experience, Mary described how she changed an incentive compensation plan based on an analysis of behaviors being incentivized versus the behaviors that needed to be incentivized. She was happy to supply contact information for others with knowledge of this experience.
With Janet, that same profile sentence drew a blank. The concept of maximizing human capital ROI seemed foreign to her. She struggled when I asked for a representative experience. Finally, she mentioned having found a cheaper health insurance plan, which I had trouble matching to "trusted coach maximizing human capital ROI."
When I shared the second profile characteristic with Mary about avoiding bureaucracy, she laughed and said, "We HR professionals do have a tendency to slap a policy on it!" Mary shared a methodology she used to avoid what she called "handbook creep."
Janet's reaction to this sentence was quite different. "I'm offended!" she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"HR is not a bureaucracy! It provides a vital function in ensuring compliance and protecting employers from claims!"
I didn't ask Janet for a representative experience.
For the third characteristic—being supportive of the boss when telling him he's wrong—Mary related how she's used humor to settle down highly charged, Type A executives.
This was Janet's response to the third characteristic: "When I get aggravated by an over-the-top executive, I go to my office, close the door, take out a box of chocolates from my desk and eat one."
The interview with Janet ended uneventfully. With Mary, it ended with her saying, "It's Friday. Can I start Monday?"
It came as no surprise that Bob and I strongly recommended hiring Mary. However, the executive committee decided otherwise. After we shared the star profile characteristics and the candidates' responses, an executive vice president spoke up: "If I understand you, Jathan, if we hire Mary she's going to want to be involved in strategic decisions such as what I'm planning in expansion of my division. Is that right?"
"Yes, I believe that is right," I said.
"That makes me uncomfortable," he said.
The CEO joined the discussion and effectively ended it. He said, "Jathan, I'm in my 60s and have been in many organizations. I've never heard of an HR [function] like what you and Bob describe. It's intriguing, and maybe down the road we can consider it, but I don't think we're ready for that model now."
The decision having been made, Janet left her employer and joined my client, reporting to Bob.
Three weeks later, she called her former employer. "Have you filled my position?" she asked.
"May I have my job back?"
With that, Janet departed my client.
Now feeling desperate, and with hat in hand, my client went to Mary. She agreed to take the job but said, "Understand this: I expect to be held accountable to the three sentences in that star profile, and I expect you to support me."
The company agreed, and Mary began her employment.
Over the years, the company grew and prospered. Eventually, Mary was promoted to senior vice president with a staff of 22 HR professionals.
As for the executive vice president who was uncomfortable with HR involvement in his strategies? He subsequently succeeded the CEO. And as CEO, guess who became his No. 1 advisor and confidant: Mary.
P.S. As a practicing employment-law attorney during Mary's tenure, I can add that despite the company's growth, including developing major operations in California, it was a lousy client―billable hourwise.
P.P.S. For privacy reasons, I changed names and other details of this story. However, the heroine of this story, "Mary," has authorized me to identify her. She's Louonna Kachur. If you'd like to know more about her journey, feel free to connect with her via LinkedIn.
Jathan Janove is president of the Organization Development Network of Oregon. He is also a certified executive coach and listed in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. In 2005, he was named the Utah State Bar Labor & Employment Attorney of the Year.