A Person Could be the Biggest Unforced Error of All

Tennis players often get to choose their doubles partners. In the world of business, you can’t always choose the people you work with.  As a new employee or manager, you are assigned to a particular team or unit. However, one of the big responsibilities that comes as you rise into the ranks of management is the authority to hire new teammates. And it is in this critical area that managers often make the biggest unforced errors of all.

Bad Employee

The best managers understand this. Under Jack Welch, less than one percent of GE’s “A” [best] managers jumped ship,  demonstrating how well GE hired and developed people under his leadership. The legendary CEO Alfred Sloan, who turned General Motors into the world power it became in the 1920’s, 30s, and 40’s,  would spend hours interviewing potential managers for positions that seemed insignificant from his vantage point on the org chart.  However, when Peter Drucker asked him why he spent four hours interviewing a manager for his Toledo plant, Sloan answered unflinchingly:  if I don’t spend those four hours now, he said, I will have to spend 400 hours cleaning up the mess. And that’s time I do not have.

Hiring bad partners or colleagues is obviously not restricted to sports and business. In my new book, The Unforced Error, I use the example of  Sarah Palin. At a time when the Republican candidate was five to seven points behind his Democratic challenger, McCain panicked. Even though his strongest case for voters was his experience—veteran senator, war hero, foreign policy experience—he abandoned all of that when he chose the inexperienced Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. The junior senator from Illinois, in contrast, ran a near-error-free campaign. At first, Palin energized the base. However, when Katie Couric interviewed Palin in prime time, the Alaskan governor choked. Not being able to answer what magazines or newspapers she read was a huge unforced error that proved to the world that she was not ready for prime time. When she said she could see Russia from her living room as evidence of her foreign policy experience her fate was sealed. Soon after her numbers sank and along with it any chance for a Republican victory. While very few of us get to run for any office at that level, the story illustrates how choosing the right people is one of the most important decisions any manager ever makes.

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