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MANAGEMENT UNLEASHED

In search of intelligence in the business world

How do you assess that an employee is smart enough to solve problems and create opportunities for your company?

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Look at how perceptive your candidate is. All intellect starts with perception... I always choose people first and fit jobs to them rather than the other way round.

ACADEMICS often regard business people as not particularly intelligent. Business people similarly sometimes regard academics as rather theoretical. Both seem somehow right when considered from their points of view. Both are wrong in a world where all our resources must be used with maximum efficiency. The difficulty is knowing what intelligence really is.

So what is intelligence?

For some, it is a quickness of mind. Oscar Wilde was very intelligent because of his speedy repartee. He was always ready with a quick reply. Rasputin, on the other hand, was also thought to be highly intelligent. In spite of his reprobate life, he managed to convince the Tsarina of Russia that her haemophiliac son could be cured - and Rasputin helped to keep the boy alive until the massacre of the Royal Family in 1918. Was Rasputin intelligent?

Well, a great salesperson anyway. And good selling requires intelligence as much as anything else. Mother Teresa of Calcutta fought her religious order, her church and many official bodies to establish her Sisters devoted to the poorest of the poor. She needed high intelligence to achieve that in an age when authority reigned supreme and a little Albanian-Indian nun had no clout. But she had intellect.

Judgment, guesswork and statistics

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Intelligence is all about judgment - a lot of guesswork, luck and bravado. It is a mixture of measuring, forecasting, persuading and courage. Dissect that and you find confidence a major ingredient, too.

There are several forms of intelligence in business. Each one is needed for different things. For example, I needed to develop Cerebos Pacific Ltd very fast or my parent company might have caught up with me and stopped me from doing it. For that I needed some lieutenants who were instinctively opportunistic - people who could see a possibility where others only saw a disaster - or didn't see anything.

I also needed to understand the core of our business. Nobody had done that when I came to Singapore, which is why it wasn't very profitable. Food supplements are not magic but you have to sell a little magic, whatever you are offering. Where does the fact leave off and the magic begin? If you know the answer to that you will make intelligent decisions. I think James Dyson saw where the magic left off and the facts kicked in when making his recent decision to abandon electric cars.

Can you see intelligence in someone you are interviewing?

First, don't over-specify what you are looking for. You do need to know if your new employee will be able to run an engineering shed or a chicken farm, of course. But a good chicken farmer is often an excellent budding engineer, too. Subjecting your staff selection to a rigid process - which is what most companies do - is a great mistake for which they pay dearly later on. I always choose people first and fit jobs to them rather than the other way round.

Second, look at how perceptive your candidate is. All intellect starts with perception. If you don't see the cloud you won't take the umbrella. Intelligent people won't perceive the same things. Some perceive the creases on a face and the gnarls on a hand, lines describing the war wounds of life. Others see peripherals - jewellery, clothes, hairdos - equally telling about a character but from an external perspective. Yet again others hear the shrill or timbre of a voice, while some peer into another's soul by examining body language. The best will scan all these.

Intelligence related to creativity

Intelligence and creativity have at least one thing in common - they share some of the same definition. "The ability to perceive relationships" is the best definition of creativity I know. Intelligence also requires perception even if a person with it may lack the ability to see some of the creatively-inspired relationships. In assessing intelligence, however, I would advocate the "relationship" test every time. Perception is only fulfilled when it is made use of.

What can you do to measure a potential employee's intelligence?

There are some crude numerical intelligence tests but they can be dangerously misleading. Numbers don't always tell the truth. Present the potential employee with two or three well-thought-out role plays and see how they handle them. Getting as near to real life as possible is the surest way to know how well people think.

A big problem, a tiny solution, a client satisfied

Cinema was a big advertising medium in Britain in the 1950s. Individual cinema attendance figures were strictly secret because cinema attendance was taxed. Screen time was bought on the basis of the seating capacity of the cinema. Some cinemas were better attended than others. The market researchers refused to work on it as the sample would be too big to be economic.

What were we trying to decide - absolutes or relatives? As with so many cases, all we wanted to know was which of about five cinemas in each geographical area was better attended. I talked to 750 cinema managers one by one over a drink - about their competitors. People tell you things about the competition that they obviously won't tell you about themselves. I developed a very thorough, qualitative picture of cinema attendance in the areas of interest to us.

The ingenuity of my solution caught the imagination of a director of the Bank of England who also happened to be a big advertiser. It secured us his advertising account. I didn't produce any scientifically accurate figures but from then on it was how advertisers saw the way their schedules should be planned. It was a good first step along the way in my career.

Intelligence and ingenuity go hand in hand to solve problems

Business decisions mostly centre around creating opportunities or solving problems. The former requires the intelligence to see beyond the figures. The latter demands the intelligence to know what data to seek. While the first of these will remain a requirement for a long time, data analytics is rapidly bringing a new look to knowing what to look for.

Now that the options can all be examined by algorithms "thinking" so much faster than any human can and AI can make 90%+ of the choices we would need to make, our decision-making is taking a turn for the more effective at a rate we will find difficult to comprehend.

We will need to develop our intellects equally fast to be able to make the most of it.

  • John Bittleston is founder and chair, Terrific Mentors International

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