Episode 255: February 18, 2013
by Stever Robbins
My pal Bernice is in a quandary. Thanks to her special patented brand of fertilizer, her plant store, Green Growing Things, is growing faster than she ever expected. Now she has an estate! She needs an estate planner, especially because she and Melvin will someday have kids (she hasn’t told him, yet. She doesn’t want to rock the boat until they’re married). But she’s never hired one before. For that matter, she needs a bookkeeper, a lawyer, and a delivery person fast! But how should she choose her team?
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Don’t Judge a Book By its Cover
You think I’m joking? Your mother was right when she told you never to judge a book by its cover. I once watched a procurement office choose one vendor over another because they were better dressed. “They looked more professional,” the procurement officer said. I knew the product involved and it was clear that one team had spent their money on substance, while the other team has spent their money on suits. The suits got the job, and we got screwed, because they were only semi-skilled. If you think business attire connotes anything about competence, just remember that every single mortgage officer who knowingly wrote bad loans in the mid-aughts was wearing a suit. Suits mean nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Besides, if she judged by clothing, she’d never pick me. I look silly in a suit.
Now let’s do a quick review: What do suits mean?
What you want is competence. That means you want them to know what they’re doing. Gauging competence isn’t easy, since they’re the expert in their field and you aren’t. With some professions, like doctors, they can seem very confident, but you won’t know about their competence until you wake up in a bathtub full of ice, missing a kidney, and they don’t even notice that the stitches aren’t lined up correctly.
One way for Bernice to get an idea of an estate planner’s competence, for instance, is to interview several estate planners. Ask them all open-ended questions and compare the answers. In particular, she can ask open ended questions that will cause them to educate her:
What are the important qualities I should be seeking in an estate planner?
How would I know if someone had them?
Tell me about a time you saved one of your clients from making a big mistake.
The similarities and differences between the three sets of answers will give an idea of who’s the most competent.
As rule of thumb, I listen for the person who makes the most distinctions about their topic area. You ask estate planner #1 how to set up your estate, and he answers, “Pretty much everyone has a will. You should just get that and you’ll be fine.” Number 2 says, “There are wills and there are revocable living trusts. Revocable living trusts let you go through probate faster.” Number 3 says, “There are wills and there are revocable living trusts. Wills are public and require you to go through probate, which can take a long time. Trusts speedily bypass probate, let you control who gets what, and they’re private, so Uncle Sandy doesn’t need to know you left Aunt Sandy the mansion. Plus, trusts are also harder to challenge in court.”
Estate planner number 3 gets my high marks not because I necessarily need a revocable living trust, but because the answer reveals an understanding of the nuances of the different choices.
Knowing the Limits of Their Own Knowledge
Nuance often means competence. But lack of knowledge can also mean competence. One of the problems with smart people (except me, of course) is that they often believe they’re smart, even in areas they know nothing about. All you have to do is spend five minutes reading any online debate and you’ll see this instantly.
One way to find out is to ask outright, “What kind of problems are you less capable in? When should I hire someone to supplement your skill set?” If they claim universal competence, either they’re totally amazing and incredible, or they’re overconfident with a troublesome lack of self-awareness. Which one is more likely?
Ask About Adjoining Areas of Knowledge
Even if they aren’t self-aware, you can ask about related knowledge. Listen for when they realize they’re out of their depth. If they realize it, that’s a good sign.
Bernice can ask her estate planner, “Will you help me choose investments for the money in my trust?” If the planner says yes, she should probably run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. While it’s certainly possible that someone could be both an expert investor and an expert estate planner, it’s unlikely. They are very different skill sets.
I once had a doctor give me an opinion about a certain alternative medical treatment. When I asked specifically, it turned out the doctor had read none of the research and knew nothing about the underlying science. On what was the opinion based, I asked? “You know. Hearing stuff around. Besides, the whole alternative treatment is clearly bunk.” Uh huh.
Beware professionals who don’t know when they’re out of their depth!
Whether the doctor approved or disapproved of the treatment wasn’t the issue. The issue is that they were willing to render an opinion with no knowledge whatsoever. That means when they’re out of their depth, they won’t know it. (The research, by the way, showed that the treatment in question works and is now considered quite legitimate.)
In my life, I’ve been burned by this several times. Here’s a list of oversteps I’ve seen in my career, each of which led to pretty disastrous consequences:
Lawyers adding their business judgment into proceedings.
Businesspeople adding their legal judgment into proceedings.
Venture capitalists who think they know how business works.
Bookkeepers having opinions on tax law. (CPAs are trained in tax law, not bookkeepers.)
Programmers deciding marketing strategy.
(As I write this list, I’m crying, thinking of how wonderful my life could have been if I hadn’t listened to these so-called professionals. Sniff, sniff…)
Some people truly do have competence in multiple areas. Your open-ended questions will bring that to the fore. But when you hear someone rendering opinions outside their area of expertise well, trust but verify.
Bernice is all excited to go interview her new estate planner, bookkeeper, and lawyer. She knows not to trust suits unless they’re backed by competence. She’s going to make sure all her candidates demonstrate real knowledge of their content, and that they also demonstrate knowledge of their limits.
But there’s more! It’s not enough to hire competent people. You also need to hire competent people you can work with. In the next episode of this series, we’ll continue choosing who to work with and dive into the emotional realms. Emotion. Oh, boy. I just l-o-v-e emotion!
This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I work with entrepreneurs to stay on top of growth and find new revenue opportunities. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!
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