What All Great Leaders Have
By Justin Menkes
Collins; 306pp; $27.95
The Good Makes a persuasive argument that the mark of a great leader is superior reasoning skill.
The Bad Offers only a sampling of interview questions that could separate the talented from the also-ran.
The Bottom Line A stimulating treatment of an important topic.
Why is it that one newly minted executive becomes a spectacular success and another a miserable flop? For decades, hiring managers and corporate boards have exerted considerable energy trying to figure out what separates future business stars from the also-rans. Is it charisma? Emotional intelligence? Or simply a profound knowledge of the industry in which they work?
None of the above, argues Justin Menkes. In his thoughtful Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have, the Los Angeles psychologist and business consultant makes a persuasive case that the real answer is superior reasoning and problem-solving skills that enable the executive to cut through the fog of conflicting data and "create a solution tailored to suit each situation at hand." The author cites Jack Welch, David Packard, and Sam Walton, among others, as leaders who thrived because they were great critical thinkers, possessing the elusive intelligence of the book's title. Menkes offers a stimulating analysis of an important topic, but brace yourself for an unsatisfying conclusion.
Far from being a dry human resources tome, Executive Intelligence provides a stimulating overview of how the definition of intelligence has evolved over the years. Menkes distills mounds of complex research and restates it in accessible language. He then supplements it with interviews of such successful CEOs as Avon Products Inc.'s (AVP ) Andrea Jung and Dell Inc.'s (DELL ) Kevin Rollins, who discuss their own hiring philosophies and leadership styles. One example of Jung's critical thinking: her decision, while head of product marketing, to consult with and cultivate Avon's all-important sales reps rather than simply forcing change through a top-down edict. The largely female sales force was balking at a shift to higher-priced lines of perfume, which they feared their current customers wouldn't buy. At meetings around the country, Jung asked reps just how many of them actually used Avon products themselves. Most were forced to concede they didn't and quickly came around to Jung's belief that the company's wares had become too downmarket.
Menkes believes the traditional job interview is a poor method of finding people with executive intelligence. Interviews, he says, are little more than opportunities for candidates to boast about past achievements, for which they may or may not actually deserve credit. Meantime, the interviewer learns little about how a prospect will handle future challenges. The author also discusses the most popular supplemental interviewing methods, from personality assessments to emotional intelligence tests, and concludes that most are flawed. Interestingly, Menkes argues that even though IQ tests have been condemned for racial bias, they are "unquestionably powerful indicators of executive aptitudes." But these, too, have their limitations, he says, as most consist of multiple-choice questions and don't deal with real-world business issues.
The best tests, he says, measure the ability to accomplish tasks, work with and through others, and evaluate oneself and adapt accordingly. Dissecting each of these traits, Menkes defines 17 critical skills that the best managers use to think their way through problems. Among them are the capacity to distinguish between primary and secondary goals, anticipate probable outcomes as well as unintended consequences, and recognize the underlying agendas of others. The best way to find out if prospective hires have these talents? An oral exam comprising hypothetical business problems, since most business decisions are made in such a real-time conversational setting.
Menkes provides a handful of sample questions and answers. (This offers readers the side benefit of finding out if they themselves possess executive intelligence.) One question asks whether a software outfit facing severe price competition should outsource its programming abroad. Menkes doesn't say there's a right answer. But he gives highest marks to the hypothetical candidate who questions the effect of doing so on the morale of existing workers and notes the risk of becoming dependent on foreign contractors for new-product development, maintenance, and customer service -- all possible unintended consequences.
As insightful as Menkes' book is, many readers may feel left in the lurch. How, one may ask, can I come up with a more complete exam? Well, Menkes' consulting firm, Executive Intelligence Group, develops just such tests for corporate clients. They've got the questions and will share them for a price. That's too bad. The best books in this genre really tell you what you need to know, but here, in the end, Menkes offers up little more than an hors d'oeuvre.
By Dean Foust
Edited by Monica Gagnier