Finding good managers in a competitive market

How difficult is it these days to hire good managers? The inside word is that with the low employment rate, finding good people-period-is more challenging than ever. And locating those who have the ability to manage is even more difficult, simply because of the law of supply and demand.

"The competition for people is greater than it used to be," says Doug Cash, senior vice president at Tennis Corp. of America (TCA), in Chicago. "There are more clubs out there."

In the Chicago area alone, Cash notes, several new companies are looming on the horizon. "People in the industry itself are going to be at a higher premium," he believes.

"On a scale of one to 10, I would say the difficulty [of finding people with management potential] is around seven," says Lauren Eller, human resources director for Fitness Formula, also in Chicago. "I will qualify that by saying that this also depends upon what's happening in the economy, the business world and employment, in general."

Given that the competition is keen, how can you make sure you get the advantage when it comes to pinpointing-and hiring-someone with management potential? Here Cash and Eller offer some guidelines:

The Search
* Find a good candidate pool. "The only place we go to for general managers is trade publications and an industry recruiter," says Eller. "For a fitness director, we might send out feelers to other clubs. Often resumes come in, and we keep them on file. We also post employment opportunities on our Web site."

At TCA, "the No. 1 way is through contacts in the industry," says Cash. "Referrals are our best source of good employees." In addition, TCA places ads in national publications and lets headhunters know about openings.

Cash also recommends an emerging tool in the hunt for candidates: the Internet. "We posted a position for a new director for human resources on the Internet and within 60 seconds had six responses," he says.

* Promote from within. "I would always do that if I had the choice," says Cash. "It creates a culture of advancement." And says Eller, such a culture builds loyalty.

At TCA, the goal is 70 percent promotions and 30 percent outside hires. TCA develops management candidates slowly by giving them more and more administrative and management functions "to see if they can handle the job rather than taking them cold turkey into management," explains Cash.

TCA has what is called a "future stars" list. Supervisors are asked to identify potential stars on their staffs. Promising employees are encouraged to take courses at TCA University. A person may take courses in budgeting, team-building, or hiring and firing. "You start learning management skills and progressing up the ladder," explains Cash. Of course, he adds, "a little luck is involved; there have to be openings. But because we're a big company, we have openings."

The Resume
* Look for certain qualities. "A leader will be growth-oriented," says Eller. "He will have a clear vision of himself as well as have a good grasp on the company's vision and the club's vision. A leader will also have or be working on a balance between work, home, spirituality and outside interests."

* Be on the lookout for versatility. It helps if someone has some sales experience, some fitness background and some management experience. See if the person has moved from one position to another with an increase in responsibility, in accomplishments, in training. "You can tell from somebody's resume how active they are, how passionate they are, how committed they are," says Eller.

* Read between the lines. "Resumes are fairy tales," says Eller. "Anybody in their right mind can write a very good one. The skill is in reading through the fairy tale and getting to the meat and potatoes. That really only comes during the interview."

So how do you get to the meat and potatoes? Look for telltale fairy tale words: Created such and such a program. Increased club membership. Reorganized the sales department. And so on. Eller's advice: Ask specific questions. Where did the idea come from? Describe the process you went through. Who helped you? Who was involved in the project? "If the project was their baby, the person is not going to have trouble and is going to be proud to tell you all about it," says Eller. "If she only did a little research and helped, she will have trouble."

Interview Shrewdly
Determine if your candidate has management potential by asking some basic questions. Among them:

* How do you organize your day? How do you prioritize? "I'd like the candidate to tell me he sets time aside to walk around and touch base with his staff," says Eller. "I'd like to hear that he sets time aside to return calls during the day. Certainly it helps to have a Day Timer to help keep him organized. Specifics are a must during the interview."

Eller believes that a good candidate will make the point that if he is unclear about his priorities, he would check with his superior. Finally, "he should be proactive and know how to delegate some of the work and to whom," says Eller.

* How do you give orders or directives? "I'm looking for an answer that shows me the candidate is respectful, that he knows his staff is there to support him and hold him up," says Eller. "In turn, he is there for guidance and leadership. Everyone is on an equal footing, and I want a high level of respect with every order, every directive, every conversation.

"A lot of folks use the title of manager as an opportunity to be lazy and forget their manners and forget that the folks who work with them and support them deserve as much respect as they expect."

* Give an example of an order or directive that wasn't carried out the way you intended it to be. "The answer I want is: 'It was my fault for not communicating the right way,'" says Eller. "If someone said she'd never had a problem, I'd have a problem with that."

* What experience do you have working as part of a team? "Ask the person about his life experiences," says Cash. Has he worked with a team to reach a goal? Even participating in team athletics shows that the person understands how a team works.

* What is your theory of management? Cash asks a candidate how he would train a new employee; how he would coach her on a daily basis; how he would discipline a employee; how he would hold her accountable for her actions.

"There are as many different styles of management as there are personalities," says Cash. "I'm looking for an answer that tells me you have to manage people the way they need to be managed to get results. It isn't the same for all people. You don't manage salespeople the way you do an exercise physiologist, or a tennis pro the way you do a front-desk person. There has to be flexibility and knowledge."

* Were you ever a supervisor, manager or director? Ask the candidate: Did you ever have to fire someone? Did you ever set up a compensation package? Probe for specifics: How did the person set up the package? "It's amazing how many people stumble on that one," says Cash. Another question you can ask: Give me an example of how coaching an employee helped him achieve results and when it didn't.

* Give an example of the last meeting you held. What did you do? According to Eller, this isn't the response you want: "I e-mailed everybody and told them that the meeting was scheduled for such and such a date. I told them they had to do this for the meeting." A better tactic: "I asked everybody about their availability. I put together an agenda and distributed it before the meeting. I asked so and so to prepare something."

* What have been your biggest challenges in managing other people? "Managing people is not an art or a science," says Cash. "If someone has never had problems with managing, I'm not sure they've ever done it. I've been doing it for 30 years, and I've had a few problems with it."

Making the Hire
* Establish expectations early on. "I ask the candidate about his history of compensation," says Cash. "This gives a clue as to what the person expects. Eventually I'll ask what his salary expectation is. I know what I have to pay for the job so asking that question early lets us both know we're on the same page. If you've established this from the get-go, there won't be any surprises when you're finally ready to make an offer." And keep in mind, a compensation package includes salary as well as bonuses and benefits.

* Ask for references. And check them. Cash asks for 12, versus the usual three or four. "I don't call the first eight names," he says. "I figure the candidate is going to give me the best ones first and struggle with numbers eight through 12. I may call the first eight eventually, but I start with the end of the list."