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Should direct reports interview their new potential leader?

Having a potential new leader be interviewed by their would-be direct reports (subordinates) can be useful, but can also come with potential issues. There is no cut-and-dry answer, but I suggest at least giving serious thought before proceeding.

Let’s start with the pros of having direct reports interview their future manager:

Pros

Skills assessment: A direct report may be able to assess the candidate on a very different set of skills than other interviewers, such as higher-level managers, peers, or HR. This could include areas such as technical skills, technical leadership, and direct management, or “managing down”, skills.

Engagement: Allowing direct reports to interview their future manager gives them a seat at the table, a sense of ownership and engagement, and a vested interest in their future leader’s success.

Team fit: No one is likely to know better than a current team member how well a future leader would “fit”.

Minimize the disruption: If there is going to be friction or clashes between the new leader and the direct reports, perhaps better to find out in the interview, with an easy exit, than when they join and have to deal with messy (and expensive) disruptions or a separation.

 

That being said, I think it is best to be cautious when asking potential direct reports to interview a future manager. Here’s why.

Cons

Which team members to pick? There are likely multiple folks on the team. Having them all interview the new leaders may not be feasible. Maybe you can pick the most senior person, but maybe your selection causes friction in the team too (“Why don’t I get a say!?”).

Misalignment of needs: Direct reports may over-focus on the things important to them, or on things they have been burned on from prior managers. A direct report may pick a likable candidate, instead of an effective one. In general, the things a direct report may want in a manager may be very different from what the team needs. And the team’s needs should be the focus.

Power Dynamics: The interviewer has more power in the interview. A manager has more power on the job. It can be strange to invert things. For example, and this is key…

What if a No Hire vote still leads to a hire? If one direct report interviewer says no, but everyone else in the interview panel is a strong yes, you may well move to hire since it is common to not have unanimity. If so, you have immediately created a difficult situation and dynamic. A direct report explicitly saying they don’t want to hire will now have to report to the very person they said no to! That gets the relationship off to a very difficult start and can put you as the senior leader in a difficult situation.

What is the right answer? There isn’t one.

It is situation-dependent.

Sometimes picking one direct report (typically a senior member of the team) can be the right thing to do.

Other times, an incumbent can be a better representative for the team. For example, perhaps the current manager if they are moving to a different role/team will be well-positioned to know what the team needs, and can cover both people and technical leadership questions.

You as the hiring manager, peers (folks in a similar role to the one you are hiring for), and senior leaders will form the core of an interview panel for a new leader. Think carefully before adding direct reports too.

 

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