Thursday, March 12, 2015

The New Model Estate Manager: Ulysses S. Grant?

Is there a price to pay for such quick and cheery dismissal of our fellow human beings?  Well, as it turns out... yes.

Anyone applying for domestic service positions is all too familiar with the long and ever-growing list of items which can derail the careers of even the most talented candidates:

Hello Kitty... goodbye job!

Late credit payments of any kind, including those caused by identity theft and not cleared from all three credit bureaus. Even after your FICO score is restored to its full 800+ glory, the ghost of one late payment can be traced and haunt you… for decades to come!

I want this car washed by sundown.

Driving record blemish, including license points subtracted for moving violations, such as failure to use the right hand turn signal while merging into the minivans pulling out of In-N-Out, or even a citation for failure to keep the sun-baked finish of your wheel covers appropriately simonized at all times.

Just say no to drinks with granny!

Drug usage. It turned out to be that free glass of "house white" you had a coupon for at Olive Garden last night, with just .00013 swirling in your system twenty four hours later and showing up on the pre-hire physical report, alcohol-positive. 

Family dependents. Wives, husbands, partners, children, elderly parents… you name it! Those pesky hangers-on, discreetly known in domestic staff recruiting as "complications," are just bad news for your career. Even more damaging: stamp collecting, pets, or church service volunteering

Quick... everyone hide!
Even the nationally-renowned Human Resource Management guru and author Cynthia Shapiro advises all candidates, in all industries, to always 
hide the fact they have loved ones and outside interests in their life, to avert the potential new employer from becoming jealous during the interview dating period! 

"But, it was really quite exclusive..."

Employment gap.  Unemployed for more than thirty days? Umhm... well, you can be certain that you'll be suspected of having enjoyed that time on a very special secluded island... Rikers!  Yet - quite ironically - this infamous all-inclusive and fully paid package deal offers its guests unrestricted access to: continued academics support up to and including post-graduate degrees, physical fitness facilities, and real skilled trade services training... opportunities for improvement which are virtually never available to domestic workers employed on private estates!

Myself, however, after having proudly steered clear of each of the above items for twenty-five years and fully expecting all of my domestic industry colleagues to do the same, as well… imagine my surprise... of discovering an approach to success which focuses instead on the strengths a worker possesses, and not simply their ability to hide any perceived weaknesses.

I’m not the first person to realize this; it’s an idea as old as any other, yet not particularly prevalent in our little corner of the working world. Partially, this is because of pure laziness: it seems to be just easier to ignore and exclude people after they’ve been crossed off a list. Yet, mostly, I suspect, it's because we cannot always see what is relevant to the mission we are staffing for. 

And, that creates a strong temptation to eliminate domestic candidates for any possible reason anyone can think of, regardless of its relevance to the job’s requirements for success. Slippery slope?  More like... Malibu mudslide! But is there a price to pay for such quick and cheery dismissal of our fellow human beings? Well, as it turns out… yes.

For instance, one interesting example of illogical exclusion comes to mind… our country’s perhaps most-beloved historic people manager, Abraham Lincoln, learned this lesson the hard way, as told to us by management guru Peter F. Drucker in his timeless selection, TheEffective Executive:

President Lincoln, when told that General Grant, his new commander-in-chief, was fond of the bottle, reported:  “If I knew his brand, I’d send a barrel to some other generals.”  After a childhood on the Kentucky and Illinois frontier, Lincoln assuredly knew all about the bottle and its dangers. But of all the union generals, Grant alone had proven consistently capable of planning and leading winning campaigns. Grant’s appointment was the turning point of the Civil War. It was an effective appointment because Lincoln chose his general for his tested ability to win battles and not for his sobriety, that is—for the absence of a weakness.

Lincoln leaned this the hard way, however. Before he chose Grant, he had appointed in succession three or four generals whose main qualifications were their lack of weaknesses ...(is this starting to look familiar... the revolving door installed at the staff entrance of some estates?). As a result, the North, despite its tremendous superiority in men and material, had not made any headway for three long years from 1861 to 1864. In sharp contrast, General Lee, in command of the Confederate forces, had staffed from strength. Every one of Lee’s generals, from Stonewall Jackson on, was a man of obvious and monumental weaknesses. But these failings Lee considered—rightly —to be irrelevant… Whoever tries to staff an organization to avoid weaknesses will end up, at best, with mediocrity.

I think that last line from Peter Drucker is important enough to repeat here in some really big print:

Whoever tries to staff an organization to avoid weaknesses will end up, at best, with mediocrity.

He did dress up like a butler. 
Coincidence ??!
Of course, I’m not suggesting we begin to encourage weaknesses when staffing private estates. I simply propose the idea that we take a more intelligent look at the reason we are placing candidates into positions, and if the traditional, quick, auto-dismissive and thoughtless approach to ignore as many domestic candidates as possible is honestly working (this is simply a thought experiment here, so it’s okay to have been wrong in the past….  go ahead… toss around the idea for a moment… I promise not to tell anyone!).

I certainly cannot top Peter Drucker’s story about General Grant, but here’s a little something from the side plate to chew on: 

I recall being placed, some years ago, to manage the daily details of a fairly significant property. I'd flown across the country and smoothly sailed through the multiple-level interview process, simply because, well, with my astonishingly squeaky clean background, no one could find any reason for me to be excluded (see above list). My strength?  Quite simply, I knew where the shrimp fork was to be placed. It was, incredulously, the only real question anyone had asked me during my candidacy. And embarrassing to admit, it was, at the time, just about the only thing I had any knowledge of, yet the clients were just so happy that I'd never been arrested for grand theft auto, there didn’t seem to be much interest in continuing with additional inquiry, for things like, well, for instance, um, did I know how to manage people?

The assignment, surprising everyone including myself at that time, turned out to be a spectacular train wreck within just a few weeks, as the real strengths needed for that particular Estate Manager position were exactly those most lacking in my abilities at that time, none of which were relevant to the list of potholes which had been used by the agent and family as the exclusion criteria. 

Many estates have suffered the same, painful lack of performance with their new hires: selecting candidates based purely on their absence of weaknesses, yet not their presence of strengths. What is the lesson?  Perhaps a lack of weaknesses is not as valuable as having relevant strengths. 

Perhaps a candidate’s strengths... deserve a closer look.