Won’t You Let Me Take You On A…Sea Cruise?

The new Athenian Fleet Admiral was rowed out to his flagship to take command of the assembled galleys that protected the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. He gazed at his fleet with pride; in the coming months the defense of their homeland would depend on the performance of these sleek warships. He summoned his Flag Secretary and asked, “How fast will these galleys row?” The Flag Secretary did not know and was ordered by his Admiral to find out as quickly as possible. Being an efficient bureaucrat, he summoned the ships’ captains and told them the next day each would take his galley out, and they would be timed rowing a measured mile. The captains were immediately agitated and defensive: “But those ships out in the first relays will have rested crews! Those to follow will suffer in performance through no fault of their own.” “My boat was built for choppy seas, in the calmer bay we are not at our best as are some of these others!” “Who is to decide who will row against the tide, and who will have the tide in their favor?” “I have a new crew, I will look like a poor captain against those with more experienced crews!” “My men are old and need rest!” The Flag Secretary dismissed the captains, promising he would develop a formula for testing that would be fair to all. But this was no easy task as each suggestion he made was met with another barrage of issues, concerns, and perceived injustices. A week later, while the Secretary still labored to make the perfect plan of operation, the Admiral took his new fleet out for drills and exercise. On the morning of the second day, the lookout called to the deck, “Admiral, I see five hundred ships of the enemy bearing down on us with the wind in their sails!” On this day the admiral only had two hundred of his own fleet with him. Should he fight, or should he run? He turned to his Flag Secretary and said, “Quickly, how fast can my galleys row?” Two thoughts must now enter your mind:

  • How embarrassing for the Flag Secretary!
  • Is there a point here, somehow related to recruiting? (Waiter, check please!)

Well, in a world of multiple commitments, limited resources, and pressing demands, we in the recruiting business, are being pressured into a role of doing more, with less, for longer, than any other economic, technological, or societal period of growth, change and upheaval in the entire History of the World. At least that is the impression you would develop if you listen to us after work, read our articles, or follow business news. Whether this period of stress and strain is the worst, or merely pretty bad, it is obvious that most of us feel over-committed in our assigned roles. It is doubtful we have time to do everything once, let alone having to find the time to do some things twice. Yet, we often are doomed to do just that (well, “doomed,” is a little heavy, shall we say “destined”?)! Why? Because in an age of instant communications, video-conferencing, email, answering machines, and faxes, many of us still do not know how to communicate effectively. We confuse having many communications with communicating well. (Rule of Thumb: volume only increases decibels, not quality.) In my last article, I discussed the two basic elements of communications: Transmitting/Speaking and Receiving/Listening. The person trying to support or sell needs to be the Receiver/Listener if they hope to influence decisions. However, there is another element in effective communications, the hidden objective. Or more accurately, the intent behind the question being asked. Before a true and useful answer can be discovered, the intent of the question must be uncovered. This is what separates the “True Recruiters” from the “Bicycle Messengers” of the recruiting world. The Admiral in my little story posed a question, “How fast will my galleys row?” In essence a simple request that resulted in a complex and elongated search for an answer. More to the point, there was no answer available when the information was most needed. In this scenario, is it the fault of the Admiral for not being clear in his instructions, or is the Flag Secretary at fault for not first asking of the Admiral, “To what purpose will this information be used?” The Admiral’s answers could have been:

  • “To evaluate the material condition of my galleys.”
  • “To evaluate the training of my crews.”
  • “To test the effectiveness of my captains.”
  • “Oh, no reason. Just another bored executive looking for a meaningless report.”
  • “To see how well you can perform a basic task.”
  • “To see how fast I can “get the heck out of Dodge” if the need ever arises!”

Our hapless Flag Secretary, so armed, could have dealt with the issues and concerns of those with whom he had to coordinate to achieve the Admiral’s wishes or goals. The ineffective manager tried to demonstrate his value by developing a perfect and flawless plan to a simple question. However, he missed the point of the exercise. The true answer to a question can never be found unless you:

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  • Listen carefully!
  • Discern the intent behind the question!

A more current example, not involving the Persian Fleet, might be appropriate at this point. Let us imagine you call one of your hiring managers or clients and they ask you to discover if a candidate for a position wishes to perform as an individual contributor or be part of a “team.” Simple enough request, but why do they really want to know this?

  • Is this a “screen in” or “screen out” question?
  • Does the position require introspective work unassociated with the team?
  • Is the manager’s current team too social and not enough work is being done?
  • Is the manager considering establishing their first telecommuting position?
  • Is the manager not ready for you today and blowing you off with a useless mission?

Each of these “intents” require a different methodology in seeking a useful answer from the candidate. The manager will not be pleased with the information that the candidate prefers “working in a team environment” if it was their intent to see if this person wanted to telecommute. Since the intent of the question was unknown, the recruiter did not inquire correctly. It has still remained undiscovered that the candidate prefers working in a team environment but would gladly trade that off for a chance to work from home. But is this really a big issue? As in all issues in recruiting the question can be answered with the simple statement, “How many good placements do you want to lose this year for a simple omission on your part?” (The “intent” of the above question was to prove my own point. Therefore the actual correct answer was predetermined by the question.) If you consider today’s business environment, understanding the need to comprehend the intent of the questioner becomes more apparent. He or she might not have the slightest idea of why they are asking! Managers are younger, with less total years experience in their chosen field, with less time with their current employer, with less classroom and practical training in their role than ever before in business. Sometimes you need to focus on the intent behind the question to merely assure somebody knows. Or, the inexperienced hiring manager may not yet be comfortable or efficient in directing the efforts of others. Their subordinates and vendors may need to be willing to be more aggressive in seeking all the information required to do a good job. Candidates also deserve to have their questions answered correctly and their answers to questions correctly interpreted. Often the corporate or agency recruiter is the only link for the candidate to the hiring manager during the pre-hire process. The candidates assume we “know what they mean” when they ask their prepared questions and give their “canned” answers. They assume that with our years of experience that we are not going to cost them a good opportunity or career due to our inability to listen and discern and thereby effectively and efficiently communicate between the two parties. However, there seems to be a natural reluctance to ask “follow on” questions. Is it the fear that we will appear unaware or unworthy? Do we think our managers and candidates lose respect for us if we do not appear all knowing on all issues with a minimum of direction? Or is it our own belief that we “know” what the manager or candidate means, even if they do not? Are we busy “not communicating” because we are only listening to our own inner noise? That is too bad if true, because we can only influence outcome if we listen and discern the intent of the questions of those we support. An agency recruiter called me few days ago to present an entry-level candidate. The recruiter was excited, as this was one of the hottest college candidates he had seen in a long time. Great grades, relevant degree, fantastic internships and even some co-op. The candidate had done voluntary community service. I informed the recruiter that I had no entry-level openings, but I did have a very hot intermediate level position, “Do you have any qualified candidates to discuss in that arena?” The recruiter responded by saying, “Those 5-7 year people can be hard to find. But, let me tell you more about this entry level candidate…” The intent of my response was to get off a topic in which I had no interest and to direct the conversation to an area I would be interested in discussing business. The “Listener” obviously missed the point and continued to try to discuss an issue that I indicated was not “on the table.” A good follow on question might have been, “Ken, do any circumstances currently exist where you could consider a once-in-a-lifetime entry level candidate? No? OK, let’s discuss this other need you have.” My answer would have been, “First I have to get something going on my senior need. Once I am comfortable about that, let’s talk about your ‘superstar.'” Sometimes the intent of raising an objection is to negotiate or direct the conversation, sometimes it is a just an objection. Learn to ask for the intent before you start to try and resolve a question. Good communicators listen to their managers and clients. Great communicators discern the intent of the question then act accordingly. In crossing railroad tracks the old adage was, “Stop, Look, Listen.” In recruiting it should be, “Listen, Discern, Act.” Have a great day recruiting. (Author’s Note: For those with an interest in history, the Admiral did successfully get away and live to fight another day. He did this by lightening his ships of all unnecessary and superfluous gear so his ships could row faster. The first 160 pounds to hit the Aegean was his Flag Secretary.)

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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