Many employees hold their breath when those oh-so-confident MBAs march in. Alas, the models, simulations and case studies that worked so well in graduate school rarely work as well in the real world. All the ideas I'm about to share are real-world-proven, in contrast with much in the MBA programs. At the risk of hubris exceeding even that of new MBAs, I submit that by following these principles, you will improve more as a manager and leader than if you had a $100,000 sheepskin. And if you emphasize the points in this column in your job-application cover letters and interviews, I dare say you'll boost your prospects almost as much as you would with that diploma.
Hire smart. Encourage respected employees, colleagues and friends to refer outstanding candidates. As you look at résumés and conduct job interviews, you should generally value intelligence and drive over experience and degrees. Rather than asking standard interview questions, such as "What is your greatest weakness?" ask candidates what they would do in situations they're likely to face on the job. Instead of calling three references, who rarely criticize a candidate, ask your finalists for ten references. Call all ten at night, when they won't be at their desks. Leave a voice mail explaining that you're hiring for an important position and want the reference to call back only if the candidate is truly outstanding. Unless you get at least seven callbacks, you should probably move on.
Next, cut your losses. If within one to three weeks you sense that your new hire isn't excellent -- and attempts at remediation or clarifying your expectations don't quickly bear fruit -- it's usually wisest to let her go. She's unlikely to become the outstanding employee you need. Great managers spend their time on higher-payoff tasks than remediating weak employees.
And speaking of your job, it's to inspire, not micromanage. Develop a worthy agenda for your work group -- incorporating your supervisees' input, if possibleÑand inspire them to act on the agenda. I'm not suggesting that you merely give motivational speeches. I'm suggesting that you become a role model, and that means working hard yourself. Also, be generous with deserved praise, sending copies of "attaboys" to higher-ups. Free your employees to do their jobs with a minimum of rules, policing and accountability paperwork.
Listen up. Most people think they communicate well, but they don't. You must be so clear that a junior high school student would understand and appreciate what you say. You must be so concise that someone with ADD would still be paying attention when you finish. You must listen more carefully than you ever have before. If you must criticize, do it in a way that allows the person to save face. For example, "I've noticed [describe problem, and be brief]. Do you think that's a valid concern? And if so, what do you think should be done?"
Master the art of the meeting. Meetings cost a fortune. Even assuming no travel costs, there's the participants' salaries and benefits, and the work they'll have to stop in order to attend. So call meetings only when the cost is really justified -- for example, when a problem requires instant group brainstorming. Meetings in which people give nonurgent reports usually aren't worth the money. Use e-mail. When you call a meeting, invite only those likely to contribute most, and e-mail the outcome to everyone else.
Do the right thing. Finally, act ethically at all times. Unethical acts send exactly the wrong message to everyone and corrupt the workplace. In the larger sense, unethical leaders lead to the devolution of civilization. We all want to feel as if we leave the world better, not worse.
Columnist Marty Nemko, PhD, is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies. Visit his Web site at www.martynemko.com.