Many mission-critical decisions surrounding the Flint, Michigan, water crisis in 2015 were poorly made and serve as lessons for leaders of all organizations.

Always Hire People with Good Critical Judgment and Who Will Do the Right Thing

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on November 20, 2018

Steve Jobs, the late founder, chairman and CEO of Apple, is quoted as saying: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

I would add: You should hire smart people of high emotional intelligence with common sense and good critical judgment who will do the right thing, recognize the brutal facts of reality, are committed to delivering a great customer experience, and will lead with the right tone at the top.

Many mission-critical decisions surrounding the Flint, Michigan, water crisis in 2015 were poorly made and serve as lessons for leaders of all organizations, as outlined in the updated excerpts of a January 2016 article I wrote on the crisis that follow.

To reduce costs, in March 2013, Flint’s mayor and its city council made the decision to switch the long-term source of Flint water from the Detroit water system to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would construct a pipeline to transport water from Lake Huron to Flint. In April 2014, to save $5 million during the remaining two-year period until the construction was complete, Flint switched from Detroit to the Flint River as an interim source of city water.

The water from the Flint River has a high salt content and therefore is very corrosive, causing lead and other heavy metals to leach out of aging pipes delivering water to homes. The addition of an anti-corrosion agent to high salt content water is a well-established and common practice to reduce heavy metal leaching from water system pipes. The cost would have only been $100 per day, but it was not done.

More than half of the population of Flint is African-American, and nearly half of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Were the demographics of Flint a factor in the decision to switch to untreated Flint River water, as some individuals suggested? If these government and environmental officials experienced the same type of water coming from the faucets in their homes, corrective action would have been demanded and immediately implemented.

The lead levels in water sourced from the Flint River within some homes were found to be several orders of magnitude higher than what was considered acceptable. It was estimated that as many as 12,000 residents of Flint had elevated levels of lead in their bodies. Many of these were children, who could suffer developmental issues and a range of other health problems.

In a January 2016 Washington Post article headlined, “The poisoning of Flint,” columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote, “When complaints persisted, officials assured residents that the water was safe to drink, repeatedly disregarding clear evidence that it wasn’t. But when elevated levels of lead showed up in children’s blood this past fall, the government was forced to admit there was a problem.

“[Michigan Governor Rick] Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, acknowledged the [Snyder] administration’s deplorable response in a July 2015 email, writing, ‘These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state, we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).’”

Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5, 2016. He has also acknowledged his role in this crisis. “Accountability” and “austerity” has been Snyder’s political narrative.

Was austerity partly to blame for the Flint water crisis? Due to the weak financial condition of the city, Snyder had appointed a series of emergency managers to oversee the finances of Flint, and it was one of these emergency financial managers that signed off on the switch to Flint River water. What was he thinking?

The Flint Advisory Task Force appointed by Snyder to investigate the crisis has stated, “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) failed to adequately and promptly act to protect public health.”

What is the current status of the water crisis in Flint? Testing has indicated that lead levels in Flint water have now dropped below federal standards, so bottled drinking water is no longer being distributed. Those responsible for the crisis are still being brought to justice.

Tone at the top and institutional culture play a critical role in the success of any organization. Michigan government and regulatory leaders were horribly lacking in both. They did not fulfill their responsibility — protecting the people of their state.

Whether a government or regulatory leader, the CEO of a company or head of a nonprofit organization, these leaders’ constituents — the public, employees customers or stockholders, are counting on them to do the right thing. The Flint water crisis is a lesson in how not to act as a leader.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

8 Important Traits for New Hires

8 Important Traits to Look for When Hiring New Employees

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on April 30, 2018

What are the traits business leaders should look for in future employees? Based on my own experience as a former CEO and as a board member observing the hiring practices of other leaders, I offer the following advice. Hire people who:

1. Differentiate themselves from their peers. What has a job applicant accomplished in previous positions that differentiates them from other job applicants? Have they taken the initiative to do things that went beyond their job description? How have they moved the business of their previous employer forward? Are they a team player, and do they help others within the organization achieve their objectives?

These are the characteristics of employees who are your change agents. They will differentiate your business versus your competitors.

2. Have a proactive, can-do attitude. What is the applicant’s track record of accomplishing new things? In deciding to implement a new strategy, how did they go about assessing risk? Inquire about initiatives that the applicant has undertaken and that have failed. How did the applicant handle failure, and what did they learn from it?

People who have never failed have never accomplished what they are capable of, nor have they built the internal fortitude to move on after inevitable failures.

There are people who see a world of possibilities and abundance. There are others who see only limitations and scarcity. You want to hire the former.

3. Possess the skills to do the job or can rapidly develop them. It doesn’t help your organization or the job candidate if there is a significant mismatch in know-how or credibility to do the job. If you want to place a high-potential individual into a stretch position, ensure they have the needed resources and advisors available to help them be successful.

4. Will help you become the preferred provider to your market. This is the Holy Grail of any business: to become the preferred provider of products or services in your geographic market, that is, the provider everyone wants to do business with.

To achieve preferred provider status, employees need to be focused on providing a great customer experience. This builds repeat business and is a real competitive strength, as outlined in an October 2016 article, “Six ways to become the preferred provider to your markets.”

5. Have common sense and good critical judgment. Stories appear in the news and on social media about an employee who makes a bad decision while dealing with a customer, harming the company’s reputation. Hiring people with common sense and good critical judgment will minimize the likelihood of this occurring.

On occasion, an employee may need to violate an organization’s policy when it’s in the best interests of the company. In a September 2014 article headlined, “When an employee violates company policy for the right reasons,” I describe a situation when this occurred. You need to hire people with common sense and good critical judgment, so they know when to violate the rules. Celebrate these employees, rather than terminate them.

6. Are committed to continuous improvement. The only constant in life is change, and those companies that don’t embrace change and continuous improvement will fall behind their competitors.

Hire people who are committed to continuous improvement. You certainly don’t want to hire continuity people. They will stifle your business.

7. Are people of integrity. You and no one else within your organization will trust an employee who lacks integrity and ethics, regardless of the great results that individual has achieved in previous positions. Hiring such a person is a recipe for disaster.

Do your due diligence on a potential employee’s reputation. An April 4 article headlined, “Dealing with toxic individuals in the workplace” describes the damage that these people can do. Avoid hiring them.

8. Can develop other leaders. Even if the job you are filling is that of an individual contributor and is not a formal leadership position, that individual should still have leadership potential. When serving on a team, an individual with the needed knowledge and expertise may need to step up and serve as the leader for a particular initiative.

While this article shares advice to business leaders on the traits they should look for in new hires, the advice is also for those who want to improve their attractiveness to potential employers. For those seeking a new job, it will put you at a competitive advantage versus other applicants for any job for which you apply.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.