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The Disorderly March IV

March 9, 2010

Back from New York – much more I want to say than I have time for this a.m., but I definitely wanted to link to this interview in Sunday’s New York Times Biz section.  I’ve written under this headline before to express my fury at the Transcriptarians, the business people like Jim Collins or Marissa Mayer who…well, let them speak for themselves.  From the Times’ interview with Collins on hiring (emphasis mine in all quotes):

For each book, he hires a research team of university students, up to a dozen at a time, to help him during long summers of work. He is picky about whom he hires, typically from Stanford and the University of Colorado. They’re not always business students; they might be studying law or engineering or biochemistry.

He prefers to learn as much as he can about them before he meets them. “Because if I meet them, I may like them, and then all the assessment of the person is going to be filtered by the fact that I like them, and what I really want to see is the quality of their work,” he says.

So he will look at their transcripts. “If they even have a small glitch in their academic record over the last year, they don’t really get considered,” he says. “I need people who have that just weird need to get everything right.”

Or this gem from Marissa Mayer of Google, also from the Times:

At a recent personnel meeting, she homes in on grade-point averages and SAT scores to narrow a list of candidates, many having graduated from Ivy League schools, whom she wanted to meet as part of a program to foster in-house talent. In essence, math is used to solve a human problem: How do you predict whether an employee has the potential for success?

A scrum of executives sit around a table, laptops in front of them, as they sort through résumés, college transcripts and quarterly reviews. The conversation is unemotional, at times a little brutal.

One candidate got a C in macroeconomics. “That’s troubling to me,” Ms. Mayer says. “Good students are good at all things.”

To the wood chipper wit’ ya!  Like I’ve said before, certainly more than once, this obsession with the perfect transcript is fools’ gold – a brilliant student might have an adversarial relationship with a professor and be knocked down for disagreeing, or a family emergency or health crisis might prevent you from doing your lab work in a science class – but the “good students” who “get everything right” know that what it comes down to is that, if necessary, they have to game the system, that learning is not as important as grading.  Nobody will meet you face to face and discover what you’ve learned unless your mask looks good enough beforehand.  Considering how some of the most powerful and influential people in business do their hiring, the lesson is that it’s far better to cheat and buy a term paper and get an A, than to do honest work and get a Scarlet “C.”

Which is why it was such a relief to read this exchange with hedge fund manager Meridee A. Moore:

Q. How do you hire?

A. We look at grades and scores, of course. We want the person to be competitive. Also, if the person has had a rough patch in his or her past, that’s usually good.

Q. Why?

A. Well, if you’ve ever had a setback and come back from it, I think it helps you make better decisions. There’s nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period when things went wrong. You learn that events aren’t in your control and no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, you have to anticipate things that can go against you.

It’s also important to be a good communicator. Our strategy involves negotiation, and you have to understand management’s perspective, the judge’s idiosyncrasies, the different professionals and principals involved, and what they might do in a bankruptcy. When I screen for people, if they have a good sense of humor and are engaging communicators, they tend to be good negotiators and seem to be better at reading the qualitative side of human decision-making.

Imagine that!  People skills are important!  Who knew?  It’s reassuring to know that the upper echelons of some industries, at least, aren’t closed the minute you sneeze during your SAT and mark the wrong box.  I especially loved this part:

Q. What are some other screens?

A. We give people a two-hour test. We try to simulate a real office experience by giving them an investment idea and the raw material, the annual report, some documents, and then we tell them where the securities prices are. We say: “Here’s a calculator, a pencil and a sandwich. We’ll be back in two hours.” If an analyst comes in there and just attacks the project with relish, that’s a good sign.

Q. Is this one of those impossible tests, where you’re asking them to do seven hours of work in two hours?

A. Yes. But you’d be amazed at how well people do. After two hours, two of us go in and just let the person talk about what he’s done. The nice thing about my being trained as a lawyer, and never going to business school, is that I’m able to ask the basic, financially naïve questions, like: “What does the company do? How do they make money? Who are their customers? What do they make? How do they produce it?” That throws some people off.

Q. Really?

A. Often, analysts go right to the financials and forget to think about the company’s business model. If the person avoids answering the basic questions and instead changes the subject to talk about the work they did, that tells me the person is a bit rigid. Instead of trying to respond to what’s being asked, they’re trying to get an A on the test.

At any rate, much more to write about my trip and a remarkable artistic experience I had (Thou Shalt Not Call it a Tiny Epiphany), hopefully tomorrow morning.


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