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.

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.

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