Selective service

If you are a management-level employee at Advanced Bionics LLC, it’s probably not because Jeff Greiner made you that way.

Whether he’s hunting for management talent internally or externally, the first thing Greiner acknowledges is that there is only so much he, the president and CEO of the 650-employee cochlear implant development company, can do to mold the next generation of leaders. Ultimately, you need to be a judge of competency and character, not a creator of it.

“What I’ve learned in the last 20 years is that the selection of the people is the most important thing. If I’m selecting people who have 20, 30 and 40 years of experience, I’m selecting people whose values and personalities are already shaped, so there is little I can do other than select the right people,” Greiner says.

Smart Business spoke with Greiner about how you can learn to identify the best leaders in your organization and why you should look to hire leaders, not create them.

Know your limits. The notion of a leader shaping the team is overblown. The notion of a team’s performance being determined principally by who they are as people, in terms of their character, expertise and energy, is probably not stated enough.

You see the tremendous number of leadership books out there. Most of them are pure crap in terms of the leader’s ability to shape people. What is not crap, and I’ve never read the book, I’ve just learned it as I’ve gone, as a matter of principle and a matter of my own life experience, is the notion of going out and trying to shape the team into a greater team. The notion is you take C players and you make them B’s, or they’re not on your team anymore. That is a correct idea. If I do that with my leadership team, as such that people have the kind of character, expertise and commitment that is necessary for us to be successful or I get them off the bus, that is a correct notion. But the idea that you shape them, that you influence them tremendously on a daily basis and change how they operate, is way overblown. It’s basically not true.

Twenty years ago, I thought I was really good at the selection process. But I guarantee I haven’t been any better than a 50 percent success rate. I’m talking about building a company from scratch. When you’re building a company from scratch, you have to go outside, you have to go through the interview process. You can ask all the questions you want, but until someone is out there doing the work, you’re not going to be sure if they can do it with the kind of expertise that you need. You’re not going to see that until someone is in a place where they have something to win or lose. That’s when you really see their character, so gaining that kind of picture of a person is really a tremendous challenge.

As for people on the inside, that is all about identifying the characteristics that you want in a leader and observing them over time. Internally, your record should be 80 to 90 percent success when it comes to internal leaders, because you’re observing them constantly, you’re seeing them over time.

In our organization, we have vice presidents, directors and then managers. Whether someone at the director level can become a vice president, you ought to be able to make a choice in that regard. That is a much easier task to identify people within the organization who are going to do what you think needs to be done, than trying to build something from scratch and hiring the right people.