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Work in Progress

This Business Psychologist Has Continued Growth of His Venture in Mind

Michael Klein

Michael Klein

Michael Klein says that many managers — far too many, in his estimation — fall into what he believes is the common trap of “hiring quickly and firing slowly.”

They should, of course, be doing just the opposite, and there are myriad reasons, none of them really acceptable, why they don’t, said Klein, founder of Northampton-based MK Insights and a ‘business psychologist’ by trade. And providing assistance with the concept of ‘hiring slowly’ — and also effectively — is one of many categories of service in a broad portfolio he has developed over the past 15 years.

“People need to really know someone before they let them into the family,” said Klein, who used that term to describe any organization that does hiring. “And I’ve seen what happens when people short-cut that process, avoid assessments, don’t do all the background checks they should do or talk to references, or do just a few interviews. Hiring mistakes can be very expensive and damaging to the organization.”

Helping companies of all sizes, but mostly large corporations, avoid such mistakes is a growing part of Klein’s business. But he also does considerable work on what he called the “development side,” using a wide array of assessment tools to help individuals identify strengths and weaknesses to do their jobs and advance their careers. And he also works with recent graduates and those considering career changes, not to find a job, exactly, but to determine what path to take as they pursue employment that will provide not only a paycheck, but rewards on many other levels as well.

“I had one case with a college graduate who was doing insanely well,” he explained. “She was concerned; there was something off about it. The company she worked for and the job she was doing just didn’t fit her values. So what we did was revisit those, refine them a bit, and determine what she should be doing.”

Klein also does a good deal of speaking on a variety of subjects — he led a workshop at last fall’s Western Mass. Business Expo on the topic “How to Avoid Hiring Mistakes and Develop Your People Effectively,” for example — and recently wrote his first book on a subject he’s researched thoroughly and shaped into a big part of his practice.

Trapped in the Family Business, released last summer, is subtitled A Practical Guide to Uncovering and Managing This Hidden Dilemma, and it focuses much of its attention on those two words ‘uncovering’ and ‘managing,’ said Klein, adding that many don’t know how or why they’ve become officially trapped, and most then don’t understand how to manage that situation.

“To borrow a term from the corporate world, feeling trapped in the business can be caused by possessing ‘golden handcuffs,’” he writes. “These handcuffs are typically financial and other incentives to keep an employee from leaving the company (e.g., stock options, etc., that won’t be accessible if the employee leaves.

“For those feeling trapped in the family business, however, ‘emotional handcuffs’ may be a more relevant term,” he continues. “Guilt, obligation, history, legacy — all of these can play a role in bringing someone into the family business and keeping him or her there.”

For this issue and its focus on the broad subject of employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Klein about the many types of assignments he takes on and the various ways he can assist employers and individuals.


Hire Ground

Klein acknowledged that the phrase ‘art and science’ is somewhat overused, but it definitely applies to the practice of hiring.

And while there is some art, meaning subjective analysis that goes with any attempt to fill a position, there is also a great deal of science, especially in the form of self-assessment tests that can be done to help identify strengths, weaknesses, ability, potential, and other tangibles and intangibles, and which are generating what he considers very accurate results.

The challenge for employers — and one they need to accept with the proper amount of due diligence — is to make use of the various tools in the toolkit to make smart and deliberate decisions. And the motivation for doing so should be obvious, although sometimes it isn’t, he said: mistakes in the hiring process are costly on many levels, including time, expense, and, perhaps most importantly, momentum when it comes to growing a business.

Helping employers make effective decisions and avoid the practice of hiring quickly and firing slowly has become one of many service areas for Klein, who holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers, and is a member of the American Psychological Assoc. and the Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology.

While earning that doctorate, Klein said he was provided with exposure to organizational psychology and human resources, and determined he had both an affinity for that realm and a desire to make it a career. After working in the sales division at MassMutual for several years, helping that company select and develop sales leaders, he decided to go into business for himself.

Thus, he has become part of what he considers a growing trend to bring people with clinical backgrounds into organizational psychology, primarily because of their ability to focus on the individual. “Rather than a focus on organizational dynamics and team dynamics, we’re really focused on individual performance and understanding the individual.”

He told BusinessWest that he and others like him — not a large group — “exist somewhere in the world between clinical psychology and industrial/organizational psychology,” with the latter being a field, involving everything from corporate organizational development to human resources, that began to emerge in the ’30s and ’40s.

Elaborating, he said that those with backgrounds in psychology have been able to forge careers — and create businesses — that involve the hiring process and assistance to individuals with choosing career paths, because they, perhaps better than an employer, can gauge what an individual is suited to do and ultimately capable of.

“There’s an in-depth understanding and focus on individual psychology,” he said of his evolving field. “People like me can help determine what people are hard-wired to do, what they’re capable of doing, what their interests are, what their values are, and how that impacts their work.”

The need for such specialists arose from the general opinion that what Klein called a “mechanistic” view of business wasn’t working and was no longer valid — if it ever was.

“People were using Henry Ford’s assembly-line process,” he explained, “which is that, if you put someone in a role and tell them what to do, this is what they’ll do, without any real understanding of the person, their motivations, how to inspire them, or motivate them, or de-motivate them.

“One of my favorite sets of terms in industrial/organizational psychology is ‘satisfiers’ and ‘dissatisfiers,’” he went on. “There are a certain number of satisfiers that people need to feel motivated and do really well at their job, and they can’t have an overwhelming number of dissatisfiers to take away from their enjoyment of the job. You have to look at both.”

Helping managers and individuals alike focus on those terms has enabled Klein to grow MK Insights and compose a client list that includes UMass Amherst, Lenox Advisors in New York, International Data Group in Boston, TEMAA Financial in Dallas, PC World in San Francisco, and many others.


It’s All Relative

While much of Klein’s work involves assistance to major corporations with the hiring process, a growing service area is work with individuals, from seasoned professionals to MBA candidates, to identify strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivators as these clients consider what’s next for them — whatever that might be.

Some of the work involves career transitions, but it can also focus on recognizing and addressing gaps in a skill set so that they can execute their job description more effectively or become better-suited to the position on the next rung of the ladder.

As examples, he cited work with an executive vice president of a company to help that individual appraise strengths and motivators to more effectively focus his activities and schedule, and assistance to an executive as he examines his blind spots as the likely successor to the CEO.

One current assignment he’s working on involves first-year MBA students at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst and some of the psychological-assessment tools currently being used to evaluate employees and prospective employees in companies across many sectors.

“One was a personality profile, and the other was an emotional-intelligence profile,” he said of the tests, adding that he spent considerable time lecturing the students on how such tests were used in business today before talking with individuals about what their results showed.

“I said, ‘this is what you look like on paper — first tell me how accurate it seems to you, and then let’s talk about what this means to you in terms of your career, what kinds of roles you’d like to be in, and what kinds of organizations you see yourself in. Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur? Do you see yourself working in a large organization?’ We also talked about what it meant in terms of their education and what was going to be easy for them and what was going to be harder for them based on their personality and their emotional and social skills.”

The project is already showing the value of tests not only as a hiring tool, but as a development tool as well, he said, adding that another current project involves a company in Eastern Mass. that contracts with Klein to work with executives and senior managers.

“This testing is designed to give them the ability to step back and make sure there aren’t any blind spots in their personality or their style that they’re missing and that might be impacting their work in a negative way,” he explained. “But we’re also working with them to maximize their strengths.”

Over the course of his career, Klein has handled a considerable amount of work involving family businesses, a large and somewhat complex demographic group that has become the subject of much research — and also books like Trapped.

Klein said he decided to write the book because, in the course of working with dozens of people in family businesses of all sizes and across several business sectors, he came across many common situations.

Indeed, while each story is unique, with its own set of nuances, there are common threads.

“There were individuals who were frustrated with their family-business situations, were emotionally burned out, and didn’t have a clue about what should, and could, be done about it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “As soon as I started calling this particular situation ‘trapped in the family business,’ the floodgates opened, and I found myself talking to countless people in family businesses who were very much aware of this phenomenon, either in themselves or in others — and they found they had no resources for their seemingly unique and complicated situation.”

He said his work within the family-business realm takes many forms, from helping a person decide if he or she wants to stay with that company to, quite often, determining whether it’s best to keep that venture operating when there are indicators that doing so might not be the best business decision.

“There are many advantages to working in a family business — when your name is on the door, you’re bringing your whole self to the business,” he explained. “And you’re working with people you really care about, that you’re related to, and that results in something that you don’t get at other businesses.

“The problem that I have is that so many business consultants, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, focus on keeping the business together and keeping everyone in the business when it’s not necessarily the best thing for anyone,” he continued, “and there are individuals who would be far happier if they could find a way to change what they’re doing or leave the business entirely.”


Bottom Line

Klein told BusinessWest that there is no single test or Holy Grail for evaluating talent and determining if the interviewee sitting across the desk is the proverbial ‘right one.’

The best that employers can do is use the many resources available to them to make smart decisions and, hopefully, avoid those costly mistakes he referenced.

And the same is true for individuals when it comes to deciding on a career (or a different one), or determining whether to stay in a family business or keep it going.

The ability to make these effective decisions comes down to having the needed information and weighing the data in the proper ways. Klein has fashioned his own career out of helping many different kinds of clients make such informed choices.

And that career would certainly seem to be on the right path.


George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com


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