As You Hire For Your Team, Consider Human Fractals as Predictors of Success

Fractals are pretty cool. Wikipedia defines a fractal as a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern displayed at every scale. The visuals among us find them fascinating, whether viewed via microscope or binoculars.

For those into interviewing and assessing candidates (and for the candidates themselves), they’ll blow your mind.

When interviewing plumbers, generals or candidates for any job, look for the Leadership Fractal. This is the ability to visualize a problem and execute the solution on a consistent basis

Examples of ‘Leadership Fractal’

Let me begin with a story about a plumber to demonstrate how what I call the “Leadership Fractal” can be used to accurately assess on-the-job performance and upside potential.

The other day, a plumber and his assistant came to the house to find the cause of a major leak. After about five minutes, the plumber told his assistant there were three possible causes of the leak and how together they would figure out the cause. He said it would take about ten minutes.

He then told me in detail what he would do in each case and the approximate cost. I told him to proceed. The problem turned out to be relatively minor and he was finished in less than an hour. Exactly as predicted.

Even if the problem was major, there was no question in my mind he could have solved the problem. The ability to visualize and solve comparable problems is one example of the Leadership Fractal we experience every day but rarely recognize.

Here’s another example (or three), from history this time.

I remember reading in General Grant’s autobiography about the process he used to plan the Overland Campaign to end the US Civil War. It started with a visualization of the series of battles that would likely be fought over the course of the next nine months and what he would do depending on the moves and countermoves of General Lee.

While the cost was dear, the end result was victory as predicted. Grant demonstrated the same Leadership Fractal during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. It’s also what Eisenhower did to plan and execute the D-Day Invasion and what Lt. Colonel Custer didn’t do at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Some more recent and relevant history establishes the idea that when interviewing plumbers, generals or candidates for any job, look for the Leadership Fractal. This is the ability to visualize a problem and execute the solution on a consistent basis. The fractal part has to do with the growth rate of the accomplishments and their repeated success.

Two questions to ask

I use two questions to figure this out. One digs deep into the person’s past accomplishments. The other looks forward to determine how the person would go about solving a realistic, job-related problem. 

Here are some examples of how the two questions can be used to assess performance, fit and potential.

Many years ago, I was representing a senior manager from a Big 4 CPA accounting firm for a Director of Accounting role with one of the major entertainment companies in Southern California. The VP Controller – the hiring manager – knew the candidate was top-notch, but was concerned she didn’t have any hands-on corporate experience.

The candidate persisted, though, and put together a 12-month detailed plan of how the entire accounting department needed to be reorganized. This included staff and system requirements and how the reporting systems had to be massively upgraded.

She was hired based on this plan and her track record of making similar, but smaller-scale, projects work while at the CPA firm. None of us were surprised that she successfully implemented the program as described and was subsequently promoted. 

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