Weeding Out The Egomaniacs

I had the pleasure of dining at Charlie Trotter’s (the best thing about Chicago) a few Saturdays ago following a management retreat I conducted for a client. My client, a brilliant entrepreneur, founded a successful business that operates at the intersection of the financial services and IT industries. Like a true entrepreneur, despite his meteoric rise he preferred to use that evening to plan for more growth, rather than indulge in Trotter’s exquisite dessert wines. As I imbibed, he sat on the edge of his chair and asked: “With 24,000 Lehman employees cut-loose, should we ‘cherry-pick’ among them? If so, I want you to help me. You must have some test to weed-out guys that look and sound phenomenal, but are egomaniacs who would destroy our culture, right?”

I’ve heard “it’s better to be lucky than good.” Well, that night I was lucky (and I felt good too). Why? Because since I could help my client I would, (a) get more dinners at Charlie Trotter’s, and, (b) get to indulge in one of my favorite avocations, screening job candidates for “egomania.”

A decade ago I wrote an article on this subject and have since regularly worked for VC firms (and incubators) to assess the psychological strength of C-level job candidates. Until that night, however, no one ever pressed me to describe how I did what I did. I told my client I use “tests I’ve created including one that I can demonstrate here-and-now.” What follows is a description of what I told my client while sipping a stupendous 2001 Chateau dY’quem.

All my testing is based on what I call “TR’s Maxim Analysis.” Named after former president Theodore Roosevelt who often quoted the African proverb, “Talk softly and carry a big stick,” I am convinced that nothing captures the essence of a healthy young ego better than that directive. Since you cannot use only one data point to assess a job candidate, I created several subtests from TR’s Maxim to appraise strength of character.

1. The Leona Helmsley Test. Do you recall “The Queen of Mean,” a former real estate agent who married mogul Harry Helmsley and inherited his empire when he died? Marrying money does not give someone an inner, psychological sense of strength (“big stick”) since all the power you have is “on loan” from the person who truly earned it (i.e. Harry). What is most interesting, I discovered after using this test for years, is that there is a strong inverse correlation between lacking your own “big stick” and talking loudly (not softly). Leona proved this law whenever she opened her mouth, but never more clearly, and with more of a sense of poetic justice, than when she uttered the words, “Only the ‘little people’ pay taxes.”

Guess what? Leona voiced her view of how life worked to one of her domestic workers who, it just so happened, was a “little person” that did pay taxes and also knew how to use a phone. Although Leona’s chamber maid was so “little” that she needed to declare, for purposes of being taxed, an income that was doubtless less than Leona spent each year on dog food, she “dropped-a-dime” on her boss. That call was the major reason why Leona went to prison on tax evasion charges.

I told my client that to administer The Leona Helmsley Test I always dine out with job candidates to judge how they treat “little people” (e.g. bartenders, waiters, etc.) in restaurants. I then pointed-out the behavior of one of my client’s top Vice Presidents who, early in the evening, berated a waiter because, “My stinking wine glass is always empty.” I told my client that his actions scored 100 on “the Leona test,” and I was certain that the man was a pariah at work. He said, “Right on!,” and ordered me another glass of Chateau d’Yquem.

2. The second test is one I call The Two-Men-Exiting-the-Dojo Test. This test is counter-intuitive and a bit demanding of your time, but well worth the effort if you want to determine which of two “job candidates” is more likely to follow TR’s maxim (the strong silent type) rather than be a blustering egomaniac, disrupting the culture of your expanding enterprise. Your dilemma is that on paper, the two candidates are identical –right down to their mutual fondness for martial arts. That bit of luck enables you to exploit a sure-fire test guaranteed to discern strength of character.

Go to the school of martial arts (dojo) each man attends, and wait for them to exit after a class or workout. In all likelihood, one of the candidates will be wearing ninja pants and a shirt or jacket emblazoned with the Karate school’s logo or some Asian symbols on it. If you are really lucky, the other will be wearing a plain white T-shirt & jeans.

Which one has the stronger character? It’s easy, right; the guy in the T-shirt. Why? Well the little man wearing the Asian-themed garb is someone who, I absolutely guarantee you, has had no more than 12 lessons under his white-belt. This is why he “talks” so loudly: He’s got no “internal stick.” He’s a frightened man, but denies his fears by attempting to convey, “I’m a baaaaad dude” with all his symbols of power.

The guy in jeans will, in all likelihood, have a black belt or even be a sensei [teacher] working to make walking-around money at the dojo until you hire him. This candidate has the inner strength to be dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, eschewing any and all sartorial accoutrements of power because he has an “internal” stick (martial arts skills) that enables him to give most anyone a beat-down should the need arise.

Now I’d like to hear from you: Do people who fail to talk softly convey insecurity to you? Or, if you are 100% certain that you can “deliver,” is bravado like Muhammad Ali’s, “I AM the greatest,” acceptable comportment?