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Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light™: The Art of Making the Best Hiring Decisions

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Categories: For the SME, Business Strategy, Management, Marketing

Several times every year, whether it is in the companies I run, or with clients facing the same challenge, hiring becomes a large responsibility. Hiring the right people is one of the most challenging hurdles leaders face in any organization. It can prove to be more complex than most other disciplines of managing a business.

Why? Companies face issues in regulatory law, complexity in products and services, communications and relationship requirements with clients, vendors, and distribution channels, and, frequently, more paperwork than the military! Training people in a position takes time and money. A wrong hiring choice is not easily corrected, especially taking into account OSHA requirements.

I have faced this challenge many times over the past thirty years, helping businesses and large corporations make it through transitions and turnarounds. This usually required replacing or repositioning individuals in the organization. Out of this I concluded that there were eight criteria that affected successful job performance. These seven are:

  1. What is their Primary Motivation?
  2. What are their Skills and Capabilities? (Worked in the industry?)
  3. What are the Cognitive Abilities (Intellectual, I.Q., etc.)?
  4. How great are their “Street Smarts”? (Think on their feet, political savvy, etc.)
  5. What is their Conative Profile (instinctive problem solving makeup: Kolbe A™)
  6. How do they manage Risk?
  7. How much Courage do they possess?

Each of these plays an important role in anyone’s job performance. Evaluating them in an interviewing process poses a great challenge. Let’s start by identifying what each of them mean.

Primary Motivation:
I have found that there are three basic motivations that all of us carry in a job situation. These are:

  • Money for Yourself
  • Ego/Power
  • A Desire for the Good of the Whole

All of us possess some of each of these drives; the question becomes “what is the percentage of each?” The interesting part to this question is that different job positions work better with a different motivation as the primary driver.

For example, if I am hiring someone in a sales position that includes performance incentives, I want at least 50% of their primary motivation to be for the money. On the other hand, hiring for an executive management position requires at least 50% of their primary motivation to be driven for the good of the whole. If the position is one of team leader or department manager, individuals that are fairly well balanced between the good of the whole and ego/power seem to provide the best performance. An executive that is primarily driven by ego/power or money for himself or herself may produce good short-term financial results but have a devastating effect on the corporate culture and long-term value of the company.

Skills and Capabilities:
This element of performance is simply the skills people possess. It should include their education, training, and past job duties and responsibilities. Assessing this element involves determining how people fit their position. What are their professional experiences, successes and failures? How effective are they at problem solving? Are they able to effect change? Do they have appropriate training?

Cognitive Abilities:
How bright is the individual? Are they an encyclopedia of information? Do they grasp new concepts in an instant and leave you feeling they had a 1600 on their SATs? Is their vocabulary broad or do you feel the conversation is taking place at the local sports bar? Cognitive skills can play an important role in the hiring decision. Challenging positions may require a lot of “smarts”, while other roles will leave an individual bored and unmotivated because the duties do not provide enough of a challenge.

Street Smarts:
Street Smarts are different from Skills, Capabilities, and Cognitive brainpower. Is a person effective at managing changing day-to-day reality? Are they quick at assessing your company’s current situation? How effective have they been at assessing and managing “political circumstances” that are present in all companies? Do they have a good sense of how to get things done? Do they know when to take the blame, and how to accept criticism? These factors and many others reflect the level of an individual’s “street smarts”.

Conative Profile:
Conative energy is an evaluation of how people

  • Gather Information
  • Organize Information
  • Improvise Information
  • Use Tools to Create Based on the Information

Kolbe Corp. based in Phoenix Arizona has build a wonderful set of tools that measure the energy one has in each of these “Modes”. The modes are labeled Fact Finder™, Follow Thru™, Quick Start™, and Implementor™. Years of testing and research indicate that these characteristics are “instinctive”, that is, they are wired into each of us, and that they do not change over the course of our lives. This is important to understand, as, based on how much energy you have in each mode, you may “initiate activity”, be “adaptive” at need, or be “resistive” in fulfilling tasks that require action in a given mode. I call them “I Won’t, I Might, and I Will”.

For example, I personally “initiate” in Fact Finder™. This means I love to gather information, do the research, and dig down deep! The advantage? My Fact Finding helps reduce and mitigate risk. The disadvantage? How much information is enough? I can suffer from “paralysis by analysis”. I am also “I Might” in Follow Thru™. If there is a structure, system or process in place, I am happy to follow it. If there is not one and it is necessary, I will create one, but it will tax my natural energy, wearing me out far faster than doing “research”.

I also initiate in Quick Start™. This means I have an easy time coming up with new ideas, sharing a vision, and sounding very inspirational in doing so. I also have a lot of energy for adapting to what is happening around me, as I love change. The disadvantage? If today’s vision is good, tomorrow’s vision will be even better, and since my “vision” was so complete and inspired, it must be “easy” to fulfill it (NOT!).

I am also resistive in Implementor™. This means I have a limited amount of energy for physical activity and building things. I can craft good written materials- just don’t ask me to write three articles a week or bind the 150 copies that will be distributed at my next speech. Guaranteed, pages will be missing, out of order, not enough of them… you get the idea.

There are no “wrong” conative profiles. Each of us are unique and “perfect” in who we are. There are conative profiles that will cause people to have a very difficult time with certain job duties and responsibilities that may force them to work very hard in a resistive action mode.

Managing Risk:
Evaluating how a person views and reacts to “risk” is an important element in any hiring decision. Constant change, whether in regulatory law, tax law, or corporate strategies, seems to be only constant in today’s business climate. Different job positions require different levels of risk tolerance, and it is important to determine if an individual

  • Has a survivor mentality and avoid risk as much as possible
  • Thrives on risk
  • Manages risk wisely

Courage is not the same as risk. Courage is the intangible quality than makes some people able to take on a formidable task while others freeze in their tracks. A person may have great insight in assessing and evaluating risk. This does not necessarily mean they have the courage to act.

Some years ago I was mentoring a Senior Vice President of a major corporation that was going through a significant change. This individual was responsible for 50% of national production. What was his greatest strength? Incredible insight into the risks involved in making the change, and a great communicator with his teams in leading the change. He had an almost instinctive ability to manage risk. What was the greatest challenge? He had a massive fear of being “politically” shot down by others in the organization, despite reporting directly to the president. The president constantly had to assure him he had direct “political air cover” during the time of change.

If you have an initial grasp of the seven criteria, I want to share a simple tool for labeling individuals ratings in them. I call this Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light™.

The premise is a simple one: a Red Light means significant problems. Red Lights only offer 3 options:

  1. You can change the tasks, duties or responsibilities of the position to eliminate the Red Light
  2. You can move the individual into a position in the company that is not affected by the Red Light
  3. You can help the individual find a new career path outside your organization

A Yellow Light means there are some issues, but they probably can be overcome through training, coaching, management, or filling in gaps through a team.

A Green Light means trust and confidence in an individual’s ability to perform.

A simple way to view this would be through this chart:

Name                                                            Position

Joe Smith                                                    Compliance Supervisor 

Primary Motivation                                 Green Light
Skills and Capabilities                                 Green Light
Cognitive Abilities                                 Yellow Light
Street Smarts                                 Yellow Light
Conative Profile                                 Red Light
Managing Risk                                 Green Light
Courage                                 Green Light


Is Joe a good candidate for this job? The answer is NO. Despite many great qualifications, the instinctive (and therefore cannot change) way Joe would address the tasks, duties, and responsibilities of the position result in him constantly working against his natural energy.

Evaluate what a job requires and determine how you candidates rate in Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light™ and watch your hiring success climb the charts!

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