October 11, 2015

Resume Inflation

One of the recurring challenges my wife and I have experienced, both in business and in our personal lives, is identifying people who are honest about what they have done or can do, versus those who lie or exaggerate their capabilities.

In desperate economic times, more people have learned about resume inflation, or about inflating their accomplishments in conversations and meetings. This resume inflation is at its worst in the entertainment industry, but it exists everywhere. What have we found?

  • We were fooled twice within a relatively short time frame by individuals, who were “Emmy award winners.” They were not lying, but they took advantage of our mistaken belief that the Emmy’s, like the Oscar’s or the Grammy Awards (for recording artists) are only awarded nationally with highly controlled award criteria. The Emmy awards are not only awarded nationally to outstanding TV creative and production talent, but are franchised to 20 regional award-granting bodies. Not surprisingly, the quality control on a group Emmy award in some regions is not as strong as it is at the national level.
  • The second kind of resume inflation exists everywhere, especially within large organizations that have multiple people involved in a successful project. Within any project team, some people make major contributions and others are just marginal players. The entertainment industry also has this issue, because many people get “attached” to a project and secure a credit when they have contributed nothing. Very often, the decision makers on the individual project hand out a credit, instead of paying money. They do not suffer from having done so, but someone making a decision to hire someone in the future is victimized, because they mistakenly believe someone had a bigger role than they did.
  • Another form of resume inflation comes from job titles that have vague or broad definitions. The job title most subject to abuse in the business world is “general manager.” At various times during my 30-year tenure at Pitney Bowes, individuals who did nothing more than sales and service management were given the “general manager” title. This was designed to achieve parity with peers in a particular industry who also had title inflation. It also helped give them stature with customers to secure business. It did not harm us, because we knew what individuals could, and could not, do. However, as these individuals moved on, they often had the ability to confuse a future employer as to what they had done at Pitney Bowes. In the entertainment business, the “producer” title carries the same risk. Someone may legitimately be a “producer,” but the range of “producer” responsibilities varies significantly from project to project.
  • Another challenge with any managerial title in a large organization is the degree to which work is done by someone underneath the individual. I cannot tell you how many times I have discovered that an individual who gets the credit for results has really benefited from someone underneath him or her who did the work, or who was essential to the success the manager realized. The most public example of this was the degree to which Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, benefited from the work done by Frank Wells, his chief operating officer. No one realized the extent of Wells’ contributions to Eisner’s successful run in his first decade at Disney until Wells died in the mid-1990’s. In the opinion of many industry experts, Eisner’s performance suffered significantly after that point, even though he was a highly talented executive, because he needed Wells’ difficult-to-replace skills.
  • Finally, by far the most difficult kind of resume inflation to detect is the success someone achieves under a certain set of conditions that cannot be duplicated in the next assignment. The most common form of non-replicable success is the ability to transfer success achieved in a big organization, which provides significant financial and human resource support for an individual, to a small, entrepreneurial or resource-constrained environment.

At Pitney Bowes, this tended to manifest itself when we moved someone from a high level domestic leadership position to a comparably sized, but more resource-constrained international assignment. In the U.S., a sales management executive had someone preparing all marketing materials for him or her. Internationally, more of the work had to be done by the executive, because there just were not enough people to whom the work could be delegated. The ability of managers to be more hands-on after having delegated work was always put to the test.

I developed some tests to determine the adaptability of the individual:

  • Did the individual have the ability, even in the old job, to stay connected to the detail? Some individuals delegated broadly in the old job, and received reports less frequently from direct reports. Those who stayed above the detail got disconnected from the front-line jobs relatively quickly.
  • Did the individual break through the “chain of command” to understand what was going on in the front lines? Those who religiously respected the “chain of command” and depended on what their direct reports told them tended to be unable to get good marketplace intelligence.
  • Did the manager have informal, non-quantitative sources of data and insight? Those who relied on formal reporting systems tended to have less ability to be attuned to front line conditions anywhere in the world when they had to have that ability.
  • Did the manager leave time for open-ended questioning of direct reports? Those who were overscheduled in their U.S. position tended to create highly scheduled reporting systems in the new job, which shut them off from the flexibility to learn about the new environment.

The financial resource constraints were also important. The transition from an environment in which the individual could call upon more internal and external financial resources to attack a problem or have more forgiveness in terms of errors to a highly unforgiving environment is brutal. The transition from a large organization in which earnings are calculated on the basis of accounting rules, to a smaller organization in which the manager has to focus on cash is also difficult for many people.

One of the strangest accounting-driven behaviors I observed at Pitney Bowes, which, because of changed accounting rules, could not happen today, was the behavior that treated “discontinued operations” as if they did not exist inside a company. I remember a situation, which occurred when I was the company’s general counsel in which we received an inquiry from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. There was some risk of fines and penalties, so I took the inquiry quite seriously. One of the corporate finance executives with whom I spoke told me that I did not have to worry because the company about which the inquiry had been made was a “discontinued operation,” which meant only that its revenues and earnings were not included in the company’s reports on continuing operations. I explained to this executive that the Department of Environmental Protection did not care about the reporting status of the business. We owned it, and we would have corporate liability for whatever happened. Fortunately, nothing happened, but I learned that individuals steeped in an accounting-driven culture have a great deal of difficulty adapting to a cash-driven one.

Perhaps the most important quality at which we must look, when someone presents themselves as a job candidate, is their ability to be brutally honest about what they have done and can do, and what they are not qualified to do. We can always work with someone who acknowledges his or her limitations, because we know what those limitations might be. We cannot help ourselves when someone does not level with us.