All management recruiters are in the business of trying to help companies get their arms around what Peter Drucker believed was the final frontier in competitive advantage: Attracting, hiring and growing great people....

So much has been written on the subject -- yet so many companies get it wrong, which is why it's still a reliable source of competitive advantage.

And it's not like I have all of the answers.  But I do read old-school management books by guys you may have never heard of.  Like Richard Sloma -- who wrote "No Nonsense Management" way back in 1977.  Mr. Sloma had a cult following among management students who enjoyed his clear, unvarnished way of handling issues.  In particular, Mr. Sloma had a knack for distilling complex issues down to one or two key points.

The World's Greatest Interview Question

For example, Mr. Sloma had ONE, single job interview question that he used for learning almost everything you need to know about an interviewee's managerial competence.  Are you ready?  Here it is ...

"What was the worst mistake you ever made;  and what was the worst damage you did to your employer's P&L and balance sheet?"

According to Mr. Sloma, you immediately learn four critical things about a candidate from his or her answer:

  1. The magnitude of the mistake directly identifies the level that the candidate had in his employer's hierarchy.  Mr. Sloma always reasoned that candidates cannot make big mistakes at low levels [although I did once, but that's a story for another post].

  2. The magnitude also demonstrates the extent to which leadership was exercised.

  3. Since few people repeat a mistake once made, you learn the depth of experience gained by the interviewee.

  4. Finally, the elaboration in the answer reveals character traits -- especially the extent to which the mistake was palmed off as someone else's fault.

All of this makes perfect sense.  Executives who get great results often lead great, big projects -- and the bigger the project, the bigger the risk.  And sooner or later, even the most successful executives are bound to taste failure.

It's like my dad used to tell me: "Sometimes you gotta go out on a limb because that's where the best fruit is."

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Harry Joiner is an executive recruiter specializing in integrated marketing and "new media." He has been featured in MarketingSherpa's Great Minds in Marketing series and received coverage in the Wall Street Journal's Career Journal Online. According to Viral Garden's weekly rankings, Harry's weblog is one of the top 25 marketing weblogs in the world.