How to extract the hopeless hopefuls

17th January 2003 at 00:00
GOOD principals are supposed to be good pickers. They should be experts in the art of selecting new staff. They have to be good at it because the staff they choose will be doing the work, while the principals busy themselves with strategy and the external perspective. Pick a duffer and you might end up doing the hard stuff yourself.

The trouble is that selection is not at all natural and, very often, anyone but the fittest survives the standard selection obstacle race of application, meeting staff, PowerPoint and interview.

All of us, more often than we might care to admit, have ended up with people who, with hindsight, we should not have appointed to a job even as Prince Charles's toothpaste squeezer, except to further the republican cause.

In the interests of harmony in my own college, I am prepared to boast that I haven't made a single detectable appointment error in the past six years, apart from the choice of a building firm which erected the steelwork for a five-storey building 18 inches too far to the left. If you are going to get it wrong, get it wrong big-time. So, if you are prepared to struggle on with me, I shall reveal my guide to spotting the bad guys and taking on only those who will give you very few sleepless nights.

First, there is the advertisement for the job. A lot of unnecessary suffering can be avoided at this early stage. A simple codicil saying "No redundant bank managers, ex-RAF officers, brigadier colonels or former Andersen accountants need apply" will not only save hours of time at the initial screening stage, but avoid the possibility that you might end up actually meeting one of these hopeless hopefuls. If this is not politically correct enough for you, try to make sure that candidates are at least able to have a stab at what FE might stand for.

The application form presents information on candidates in a consistent way and is there for the convenience of the selector. A CV is done for the convenience of the candidate who is busy applying for every job this side of a lap-dancer. Someone who sends in an empty application form with a CV attached is putting his convenience before yours. Do not appoint this person. Appoint and they will give you the impression they are undertaking voluntary work and that you are privileged to have them around. Get your retaliation in first.

Evaluating the letter of application is easy; first, count the number of times the word 'I' is used. Then list the achievements claimed. Multiply the two together and if the number is greater than 12 you are dealing with either an egotist or a liar and possibly both. Bin it.

Second, has the candidate talked about the job specification and how he or she would deal with it or have they waffled on about their beliefs in best educationese? Finally, any candidate who says he or she has excellent communication skills, hasn't, or they would say they speak and write well. Never appoint anyone who uses "utilise', especially one who promises to "utilise his communication skills" in your service.

Which brings us to PowerPoint presentations. These are now mandatory. And deadly. Microsoft is undoubtedly devising things which will eventually turn us all into dependant robots and PowerPoint is the advance guard.

Let us be clear. The point of slides is to enhance what the interviewee is saying - it is not to act as a prompt sheet or, worse, a script. If you want the listener to have bullet points of what you are saying, give him or her a handout.

But the centrepiece of the selection challenge has to be the interview. In most cases, this is the untrained talking to the ill-prepared. A good interview is a lively exchange, and occasionally they happen. A bad series of interviews is like five hours trapped in a corner with the party bore bent on explaining why the ballcock gave mankind an evolutionary advantage over cockroaches.

Witness a recent encounter for a senior post. I ask the candidate what she has learned, professionally, in the three years since we last met. She starts to tell me what she has achieved. I interrupt and restate the question: what has she learned? Again she tells me what she has done; less politely, I repeat the question; the penny drops, audibly. "Oh, yes," she says, completely without irony, " I have learned how important it is to listen to people". No, of course I didn't give her the job. That went to the bank manager with the great CV.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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