After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Monday, September 26, 2011

How Long is Too Long?

Category:  Tips for Hiring Managers

You dial the cell phone of Paige Turner, aka Candidate #4 in your company’s quest for a regional sales manager.  She picks up on the third ring.  You happily advise Paige that she has been chosen to participate in your next round of interviews!  Unfortunately, Paige has just celebrated her one-month anniversary with your largest competitor, a position she accepted after receiving no initial interview feedback from you.

QUESTION: If you are an employer, what is an appropriate length of time to spend making a decision regarding a candidate you’ve actually interviewed? 

First, let me modify the question.  It has been my experience that a vast majority of decisions regarding candidates, particularly negative decisions, are made during the interview when the candidate is seated across the desk.  Either you are satisfied with the candidate’s answers, or you are counting the minutes until the interview can come to a welcome end.  So, the question of timing is often related to communicating hiring decisions rather than making them.

In my book on interviewing, I advise candidates to wait at least a week following an interview before making contact with their interviewer.  Similarly, I would recommend that my client companies try to provide follow-up information to each candidate within a week of that candidate’s interview.

Based on my own personal observation and a wealth of anecdotal evidence, I can assure you that this does not always happen.  I know one young woman who waited well over a month before receiving a rejection letter from a company, only to be invited to interview again for the same position several weeks later.  In a separate case, a family friend interviewed with one company four times with several weeks between each interview before being ultimately rejected.  It seems an unfortunate sign of the times that some companies NEVER feel it necessary to provide negative feedback.

Several years back, I took an assignment from a company looking for a controller.  As is my practice, I established a relationship with the client, visited the company premises, recruited candidates based on a mutually established position description, and sent several to the company to interview.  At this point, I never heard from the company again.  My candidates called me repeatedly; I called the hiring manager repeatedly; no one returned my call; no one provided any feedback.  Finally, after over a month, I released my candidates, advising them to seek other opportunities. 

(An unlikely ending to this story:  several years later the president of this company contacted me to perform another search.  I was stunned.  And unavailable.)

Of course, there are many circumstances which may require a lengthy interview process or delayed decisions. These include scheduling conflicts with multiple candidates; out-of-town trips by hiring managers; or difficulty bringing a necessary participant in from out of the state or the country.  All of these are legitimate reasons for delaying decisions related to a successful hire.  In these cases, my advice is to:
·         release all candidates who have been eliminated as quickly as possible (but no earlier than the next day following the interview);
·         advise the selected candidates of their status and communicate the reasons for any holdup in the process. 

It sounds like a well-worn cliché, but communication actually IS the all-important factor.  A candidate who has been advised to expect a long wait generally will appreciate the update and demonstrate patience in waiting for further feedback.

Timely communication to both selected and rejected candidates indicates respect for the individuals who have given their time and effort to interview with your company. A little common courtesy to those who seek employment with your company will ensure your company’s reputation for professionalism in hiring, as well as the satisfaction of the person who is ultimately hired.

And of course, early feedback to a candidate of interest will increase the odds that you do not lose that individual to a competing company.

Monday, September 19, 2011

And The Real Kicker Is...

My candidate has now spoken for eight-minutes-and-counting about a portion of his career that is unrelated to the job at hand and of little interest to his interviewers. My pre-interview instructions have been ignored or forgotten.  My current scowl has failed to deter him.  I will soon resort to the SKUD (Soft Kick Under the Desk) method of deterrence.

It is hard to sit helplessly as a candidate steers his interview toward an inevitable crash-and-burn disaster.  Especially when my coaching has been unambiguous in leading him in a different direction.   Nevertheless, it happens.

In the case described above, the candidate had followed two separate career tracks over the course of his eight-year career.  One path had provided him with the background that made him highly qualified to interview for the managerial role he was now seeking.  The other portion of his career, while spent in a prestigious company, had taught him no skills that would be directly applicable to the current role.

During his interview, my candidate came across as eager to go into great detail about the unrelated aspects of his career; less enthusiastic about describing his relevant experience.  This was the exact opposite of what should have happened.

I advise my candidates to focus on the skills and experience that are specifically related to the job at hand and “fly over” the rest of their careers at the 20,000-foot level, providing few specifics.  If an employer is interested in the “flown-over” information, she has the option of asking questions. 

A good thing for candidates to remember: Each minute spent dwelling on unrelated experience is a minute not spent describing important skills that are actually relevant to your interviewer. 

Another good thing to remember:  If you see my foot twitching menacingly, GET BACK ON TRACK.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sell, Baby, Sell

Category: Tips for Hiring Managers

In today’s job marketplace, some employers tend to think of the hiring process as the equivalent of picking their favorite donut from the box on Sunday morning.  (Do I want the chocolate with sprinkles, or the iced cinnamon roll?)  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  The donuts have choices too.

In today’s challenging employment market, there are many job-seekers available.  But when it comes to jobs requiring specific skills and experience, particularly higher level jobs, qualified candidates are not a dime a baker’s dozen.  Believe me, as one who finds the donuts for a living, it often takes weeks of research, recruiting, screening, and the accompanying hand-wringing to come up with five or six top-tier candidates to present to my clients.

So when a qualified candidate enters the interview setting, it is absolutely essential that a hiring manager understands the necessity of selling the position he/she represents.  Although I often focus on the candidate’s pitch, selling is not solely an obligation of the candidate.  All candidates have options.  Employed candidates have the option of remaining where they are; unemployed candidates may be willing to take their chances on attaining something better if a hiring manager has not managed to sell a position effectively.

A few recommendations on selling your position to a candidate:

·       Choose the most presentable space available as the interview setting.
·       Be sure all interviewers dress professionally.  Business casual is okay; jeans and sports jerseys do not indicate respect for the candidate who has taken the time to come to an interview.
·       Allow enough time for the interview.  Watch-checking or cutting off a candidate before adequate time has been spent is bad form.
·       Act as a host or hostess would act to an honored guest.  Offer coffee or water.  Offer a break if the interview is long.
·       Prepare an informative presentation on your company and the position being filled.  Allow time for questions.  Answer those questions as honestly and thoroughly as possible.
·       Do NOT act as a trained interrogator.  Remember that you and the candidate are exchanging information.
·       Allow the candidate a tour of the working environment, if possible. 
·       Throughout the interview, be friendly, polite, and receptive to questions. 

Common courtesy, an attitude of respect, and preparation will go a long way to acquiring the donut of your dreams.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Getting Past the Gatekeeper – Me

When a company hires me to identify, recruit and screen individuals for a position, that company is confident that my assessment filters will produce the best talent available.  With all due humility, I can say that my clients’ confidence is not misplaced.  So you may wonder “What is it that you look for when you are recruiting candidates?” I answer, again with humility, Mirror, mirror, on the wall…
But seriously.
The short and very unsatisfying answer is, it depends – on the client, the level of the position, and other specific factors relating to each assignment.  By the time I begin recruiting for a client, I have established a personal relationship with that client, a substantial knowledge base about the company and the position, and a “feel” for the type of candidate that will fill the requirements of the role, and be a good fit for the company’s unique character.
But setting aside specifics, I can share with you four general issues that tend to carry some significant weight in my screenings of candidates.
1.       Appearance/Demeanor
Whether I meet someone in the office, an airport, or a restaurant, appearance is always the first hurdle to cross.  Appearance for me goes beyond being well groomed and neatly dressed.  It includes posture (I hear Mother Ward in her Irish brogue “head up, shoulders back!”), eye contact, firm hand shake, a smile, saying one’s name confidently, a good opening line (Hi!  I am Jim Boyle.  I am very much looking forward to our conversation.), and a good energy level.
2.      Engagement
I usually start the meeting with a brief overview of the client and the opportunity we plan to discuss.  As I make my presentation, does the candidate listen attentively?  Does she/he ask reasonable questions?  Is there some sign of comprehension? Of engagement?  Of life?
On the flip side, when the candidate presents his/her credentials, are they delivered with confidence?  Does the candidate provide evidence of his/her ability to excel at the job?  Does the candidate have exciting or innovative ideas relating to the role?  Is the information delivered in a fashion that is interesting?  Is the candidate answering questions succinctly and staying on track? 
NOTE:  Some of my best candidates were selected because of the questions they asked.  I live on questions.   Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  When a candidate asks good questions, I can tell they are beginning to visualize the opportunity and compare the requirements with their experience.  This is always a sign of a good interview.  A person’s questions paint a good picture of his/her capabilities.
3.      Examples
When I first started recruiting, I met primarily with individuals in the early years of their careers.  Their accomplishments included graduating from college, going to work regularly, and breathing.  In other words, they were 90% potential and 10% actual achievement.   
(By the way, the world is a little different now.  Even recent college grads are expected to have a track record of good internships, community involvement, etc., but that’s a post for a different day.)
In higher level positions, clients are looking for individuals who have a record of getting it done: problem solving, innovation, collaboration, leadership, team building, profit generation.  When I sit with an individual, I want to hear examples of situations the candidate has seen and what specific roles he/she has played over the course of his/her career.  Examples should demonstrate individual achievement, not the achievements of a team. 
I am also interested in a person’s failures.  If you have been in business for a while, I am sure you will agree that you learn much more from a lost venture than five easy wins.  I give a candidate extra credit for providing examples of how he/she corrected a mistake, and what was learned from the bad situation. 
4.      Relational skills
As I sit with an individual, I try to envision this person working with my client’s personnel.  Is this individual someone who will bring positive energy to the group or be a swirling drain of negativity?
I listen very carefully when a person describes his/her interactions with co-workers, vendors, clients, etc.  Does the candidate speak with respect for others?  Will the candidate co-exist successfully with people of different perspectives and skills?  Does the person exhibit respect for me, my time, my questions during the interview?
Personally, I like a sense of humor in a person, as I like to laugh.  You don’t have to be a comedian, but an easy smile or laugh (at my attempts at humor) will always win me over.  I could be on a deserted island for a year with a person with a low sense of humor if he laughed at my jokes.  In fact, we’d get along fine.

A final note: There is no guarantee of interview success.  If you don’t know how to count to 1000 in order, you probably will not get a CFO role regardless of how much I love your sense of humor.  But when I meet a candidate with a professional appearance and demeanor, an attitude of engagement, plentiful examples of his/her successes and failures, and excellent personal/relational skills, I will be very tempted to open wide the gates and send that candidate forward to Round 2.