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A road warrior’s leadership test

Richard Hadden Published on 30 April 2015

I’ve long heard the story, perhaps apocryphal, that department store founder J.C. Penney once filled a key executive spot in his company based on the food salting habits of those being considered for the job.

As the story goes, Penney held a dinner attended by those whose names were, unbeknownst to them, on the short list for a vice-president position. Penney’s advisers made a unanimous recommendation to the magnate, and so when another man’s name was announced as the new vice president, the inner circle was naturally perplexed.



“Why did you pass over the gentleman we recommended?” they asked. “He clearly has the most experience and the best qualifications.”

“He’s not the right person for the job,” Penney said. “He put salt on his potatoes before tasting them. We need someone who isn’t so quick to judge and who makes more carefully researched decisions.”

Whether the tale is true or not, it bears a lesson.

In more modern times, Bill Marriott, board chairman of the hotel chain his father founded, has said, “It’s more important to hire people with the right qualities than with specific experience.”

A friend of ours, the owner of a successful and growing business, rants along with us when we decry important hiring and promotion decisions that focus too much on “qualifications” and give little if any regard to character, personal qualities and leadership behaviours.


This guy, in fact, rarely fills a management position in his company, whether with an internal candidate or an outsider, without first taking a business trip with the prospective leader.

“You want to learn about a person’s character?” he says. “How they treat people? How they react under pressure? How they influence others to do things? Just watch them when they’re on the road.”

It starts at the airport. “Good leaders are unfailingly considerate,” he tells us. “A guy who won’t step out of the aisle to let others pass and hogs more than his share of the overhead bin space isn’t going to make a very good leader in my company.”

He also watches how the person handles flight delays, missed connections and other circumstances beyond our control. “That says something about their maturity. If somebody falls apart when things don’t go as planned, and especially if they berate an airline employee over something that’s not the employee’s fault, I’m probably not going to promote them or hire them.

“If, on the other hand, I see someone respond with good grace, and even a bit of problem-solving, I’m going to be a lot more interested in them helping me run my business.”

This fellow was once traveling with a junior executive whom he was considering for a senior position. They were having lunch in a nice restaurant right before making an important client presentation. Time was tight, and the service in the restaurant seemed a bit, um, relaxed.


Sensing that the lunch could drag on longer than the time available, when the waiter finally arrived to take the pair’s order, the younger guy said, “I had really hoped to have a leisurely lunch today, but unfortunately, I haven’t left enough time for that.

You guys do such a nice job with presentation here, but it would really help us today if you could just bring everything as soon as it’s ready, and then bring the cheque.”

The waiter complied and banked a nice tip.

Our friend was impressed. “He could have told the waiter to ‘get a move on,’ but instead, he took responsibility for the time crunch and made the request in a way that the waiter could hardly object to.

Bottom line is: We finished in time, delivered the presentation and made the sale. He knows how to influence people to do what he needs without manipulating or abusing them. That’s huge in our business. He got the promotion, and he’s been a great leader.”

Our business-owner friend pays particular attention to how candidates treat service professionals. Those who treat servers, valets, bellmen and others like professionals, with respect and appreciation, are going to get a lot further in his business than those who condescend, demand and forget to say thanks.

“Of course, it’s not the only thing I look at,” he tells us. “Obviously they’ve got to be good at what they do, but when I’m looking for someone for a leadership job, how they treat service providers and fellow travelers tells me a lot about how they’re going to lead in the workplace.”

OK, so maybe you don’t have the opportunity to make a lot of trips with the potential leaders in your organization. In what other situations do you get to test the mettle of those who would take on the mantle of leadership?

It’s well-known that Southwest Airlines uses a values-based approach in determining who does, and does not, get to play on their team. The most qualified 737 pilot, who’s rude to the receptionist when he or she comes for their interview in Dallas, doesn’t stand a chance of putting on a Southwest uniform.

We’re always advising leaders to listen. To that, we’d add a further observational activity – watch.  PD

Richard Hadden is co-author of the book “Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk.” He delivers keynote presentations to management audiences, and his company conducts leadership training and employee surveys.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

—Excerpts from Fresh Milk from Contented Cows e-newsletter, June 10, 2014

Richard Hadden
  • Richard Hadden
  • Co-founder
  • Contented Cow Partners, LLC