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, April 30, 2012

It's YOUR Interview - Tell YOUR Story

When coaching job-seekers for an upcoming interview, I often emphasize the use of specific examples.  It is easy to say “I am a great salesman.”  But it is much more informative to say, “I increased the sales in my region by 25% last year by deepening the penetration of our product line within the existing customer base.  Here’s exactly how I did it.”

 Preparing multiple narratives that illustrate your strengths, your knowledge base and your accomplishments is mandatory interview preparation. 

 But what if the interviewer doesn’t ask the questions you are prepared to answer?   Instead of asking about your impressive sales statistics, she asks you to describe an experience in which you faced an ethical dilemma – or struggled to meet a tight deadline – or resolved an interpersonal office conflict? 

 If you visit this site often, you know that I consistently advise candidates to listen carefully to the questions asked during a job interview as a means of discerning exactly what the situation is and what information your interviewer is seeking.   This will help you direct your presentation toward what is most important to the interviewer.  This does NOT, however, prevent you from telling the story you want to tell.

 I have said many times that some interviewers are not qualified to conduct a meeting for a number of reasons.  With such individuals, you have to strike a balance between answering the question asked and imparting information supportive of your capabilities and experience.  Balance is critical.

 I suggest that you prepare several (at least 8-10) narratives ready to deliver at a moment’s notice.    Select events from each of your former employers and each portion of your career that demonstrate a personal strength, a learning experience, or a notable accomplishment.  You should not be looking for day to day matters but significant successes within the day to day.   Prior to the interview, practice telling your stories so that you are comfortable with them.  Write them down if it helps.  Commit the concept to memory and the details will usually follow.

Then, when the interviewer asks a rather sterile question, you can answer that question using a story that demonstrates aspects of your capabilities.

For instance, using the previous example of a sales career, the agile candidate might respond to the deadline question:  “Because of the unprecedented size of this particular sale, I had to talk to my production engineers and make sure they could accommodate my client’s deadline.  I didn’t want to make a commitment I couldn’t keep.”  To the conflict question:  “Two of the decision-makers at my client disagreed about the purchase.  I was able to do some research and provide the information that made both of them comfortable to proceed.”  Both circumstances support one’s ability as a problem solver versus an order taker.

Your interview presentation should not be etched in granite.  Rather, it is like soft clay that can be molded and shaped to the questions asked during your interview. With some resourceful thinking, you can answer your interviewer’s questions while also delivering the story that you want to tell.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ten to Win

Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a number of individuals at the St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church Jobs Ministry.  I took this opportunity to pull back the curtain on the wizardry of the executive search process.  Speaking on behalf (unsolicited) of all headhunters, I outlined what headhunters look for in a candidate.  While I am not sure all of my colleagues will agree on every item, I am sure that all will agree that each item has a major impact on whether or not a person will be considered a viable candidate for further consideration.

Over my career in the search business, I have met what seems to be hundreds of thousands of candidates.  In reality, it certainly is in the thousands.  My observations contribute to the basis of my list.  Since establishing my own firm, I also sit in the sessions when my client (the hiring person) meets my candidate.  The observations from actual interviews have been invaluable in determining why many candidates do not continue in the process.  This experience forms the basis for my list of what I look for in a candidate.  To the list we go.

1.      First impression.

How you appear as far as appropriate clothing choice, eye contact and a firm hand shake may sound shallow, but you could be digging an unnecessary hole if you neglect one of these.  Bottom line is: Do you look appear as though you fit the role?

2.      Engagement

During the meeting, are you showing energy? Have you prepared by researching the company and the role?  Are you listening to what is said and responding appropriately with questions or agreement?

3.      Communication skills

Are you able to speak in complete sentences, focus on the subject and convey your thought in brief, cohesive answers?

4.      Presentation of Case

Like a litigator, can you present your experience and actual examples of performance that support your candidacy? 

5.      Accomplishment

I am not looking for someone who has brought world peace to New York or cured cancer.  I am looking for someone who has performed very well in his/her career and has been promoted based upon accomplishment.  Specific examples of accomplishment are critical.

6.      Questions

Questions are your friend.  If you are engaged in the interview, you should be asking questions about the company if for no reason but to confirm what you have learned in research.  Your questions provide great insight into how you think.  Voltaire said “Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  If you have no questions, you are probably going home early in the process.

7.      Suitability

This is a no brainer.  Are you suited for the job based upon your industry and experience?

8.      Decisiveness

I personally look for a person who is capable of making a decision and can provide examples of doing so.  Too many managers today are incapable of making timely decisions. 

9.      Recoveries

Life is a series of wins and losses.  Your decision-making abilities are judged by your win/loss ratio.  In addition, I am very interested in your losses and what you did in response.  My experience is that you learn far more from losses.  What you do in response to a failure provides insight into what you will do in tough times.

10.  A sense of humor

Generally, my client will be spending 40-plus hours each week with the successful candidate.  I look for a person who is seeking to be successful and enjoy life. Humor is a great ingredient.

Each assignment I undertake will add one or two additional criteria but all assignments include these benchmarks.  While you don’t have to hit each one out of the park, you cannot ignore any of them.  High scores on each of the criteria will greatly increase your chances of success.


In a selfish plug of our book, From Interview Disaster to Interview Master, during my presentation (Really, the book perfectly addressed at least two questions during my presentation.), I noted that the book was available for $4 on Amazon in Kindle format.  Some said that they didn’t have a Kindle.  I am pleased to say, you don’t have to own a Kindle to take advantage of the pricing.  There is a Kindle app which is free, that you can download to your PC/Mac which will allow you to take advantage of the electronic publishing resource.  It works for most if not all e-books. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"What Does Purple Taste Like?"

As part of their interview preparation, many job-seekers turn to books with titles like The 8 Million Most Common Interview Questions or Answers to Every Conceivable Interview Question a Sadistic HR Person Could Dream Up.   While such books may help provide reassurance to an apprehensive job candidate, it is impossible to anticipate every imaginative question an interviewer might conjure up in the course of an interview. 

I offer as evidence, “What does purple taste like?”  This was an actual question asked of a family member who once interviewed for a position with a young, up-and-coming social media company.   Grapey with 6% alcohol?  Like a breaded vegetable hidden beneath tomato sauce and parmesan cheese?  Toasted Barney on a sesame seed bun?  Who knows the correct answer?  She admits that she didn’t.

And I’m guessing that all the interview books in the world wouldn’t have come up with a suggestion for that one.

In my book, I devote a chapter to tough interview questions that have been posed somewhat regularly in the job interviews I have observed.  A few examples are:

¾    Why have you changed jobs so often?

¾    Where do you see yourself in five years?

¾    What are your salary expectations?

¾    What do you like to do outside of work?

There are better and worse ways of answering these and the other questions covered in the chapter.  I can certainly advise you on what has and hasn’t worked for other candidates.

But the fact is, your interview will be unlike any other interview.  It will be unique because your experience, your strengths, your weaknesses, your work examples, your perspectives are uniquely yours.  So while I can provide some recommendations on what to say and what to avoid saying, I cannot nor should anybody script your interview for you. 

I occasionally will observe a candidate who has a memorized general statement of his career to date, his strengths, career desires and how excited he is to become a contributing member of the company’s workforce.  It is like taking a test without reading the questions. A shotgun blast of personal history is unleashed to cover all possibilities.  Here is a hint:  it rarely works; I may go so far as to say never.

Instead, I suggest a way of thinking that will help to answer most interview questions.  It involves listening carefully to what is said by each person you meet in the interview process.  The statements made by the interviewers and the questions asked of you will provide the best insight into the needs of the potential employer. The more you learn, the more comfortable you will become tailoring your answers to demonstrate how you will nicely mesh with your interviewer’s priorities. 

Of course this wouldn’t have helped with the purple question.  But another piece of advice from my book is:   “Keep in mind that poise, confidence and sincerity can work wonders in masking imperfect responses.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Congratulations! You're a Manager.

It has happened.  After years of being the lowest frowning face on the totem pole, you have earned a promotion to management level. You now have underlings.  You are the boss of someone.   After you shake hands and thank your boss for the opportunity, it’s time to call your spouse or BFF and make dinner reservations at a nice restaurant.  Have that second drink (unless it’s a Long Island iced tea – stick to one) and enjoy the affirmation of all your hard work to date - because tomorrow, everything changes.

Not everyone makes a good manager.

When I first started in the search business, one of the largest regional offices in our nationwide firm had a partner who was knocking the cover off the ball in sales.  Richie was producing two to five times the revenues of his partners.  Obviously, we all wanted to know how he did it.  What was his secret?  Could it be duplicated?

Company management was also intrigued by Richie’s success.  After a brief investigation provided no insight into his methods, they decided the best thing to do was make Richie the manager of his office.  This way, he could teach his revenue-generating secrets to all of his partners.  Instead, what resulted was the most precipitous drop in sales that any office in the firm had ever experienced.  So what went wrong?  Well, pretty much everything.

Richie’s biggest thrill was closing a deal.  He liked working with the clients.  He enjoyed the thrill of the search for the right candidate for a position.  He really enjoyed being known as the biggest biller in the firm.  Once he became manager, he continued to enjoy all those things.  In fact, he continued to be the biggest competitor to all the people who reported to him.  Do you see a problem here?

Upper management, in its wisdom, had made Richie a manager, a position for which he had no training, aptitude or desire; and in doing so, had diverted his efforts from what he did best – recruiting and sales.  His sales plummeted and the sales of his staff did not increase.  It was a lose-lose for the company, for Richie, and for his staff.

Back to you.  You are now sitting in your office regretting that third drink last night and contemplating the responsibilities of your new managerial role.  Your first inclination, like Richie’s, may be to do what you have been doing very well for the last two years.  That would be your first mistake.

As a new manager, your focus must completely change.  The individual achievements that gave you great professional satisfaction in the past must be relegated to the past.  You are now responsible for your direct reports.  You must provide an environment in which they can learn what you already know, as well as the freedom to generate their own ideas.  It would be so easy to give them all the answers or do the project for them, as you have all that experience and can certainly accomplish a task faster than a newbie.  Don’t do it.

In your new role, your job satisfaction must be rooted in the growth and success of the people that report to you rather than in your own achievements.  Their achievements become yours.  You must strive to keep your reports challenged and learning, praising strengths and pointing out errors, always with an eye toward improvement and increased productivity.  If you do your job well, you will have moved smoothly from the ranks of individual contributor to successful manager.  Believe me, it is a very small club.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The "Strategy of the Month" Problem

Some years ago, my (delightful) business partner was an advertising copywriter for one of the most significant retailers in the world.  The buzz among the copywriters, who buzzed pretty constantly, was that today’s company-wide advertising plan would be tomorrow’s former advertising plan, which just might re-appear as next year’s advertising plan du jour.  In other words, don’t throw out your work – it might come in handy somewhere down the line.

Today that retailer still exits but is struggling to determine/identify/develop/come upon/trip over a strategy that will allow it to re-energize its business and generate a profit.   As demonstrated anecdotally in the above paragraph, this struggle is not a new problem.  The problem was well established years ago.  I will call it the “Strategy of the Month” problem.  One only need follow the business pages to witness the periodic make-overs of this once dominant retail giant.

A cursory review of successful companies will quickly expose the presence of a consistent strategy that has been executed well over time.  A strategy is a realistic path toward the future determined by a management group or individual based upon the available resources and unique strengths of the business.  For a strategy to have any chance of success, it is imperative that it be shared with all employees, zealously integrated into every decision, and measured against predetermined interim goals.

Strategy is not something that is limited to the very top of the ownership/management pyramid.  It should be part of every manager’s operating credo.  A department manager’s strategy will be based upon the expected contribution from his/her department to the entity as a whole.  Every direct report must know the overall goal of the department and how his or her efforts or lack thereof impact the outcome.

Think of a college basketball team.  The goal is to win games by playing a balanced game based upon the talents present in the individual players.  In all probability, if I as a coach envision my 7-foot center pulling down rebounds and blocking shots, I really don’t want to see him lining up 3-point shots on a regular basis. (Notre Dame fans of a few years ago will know what I mean.)  It is the coach’s responsibility to continually educate that center to stay close to the bucket.  And it is the center’s job to try to execute the coach’s plan.  If either the teaching or the executing is absent, the strategy goes down in flames and the team is relegated to a March without the madness.

Success is guaranteed no company, but you will scarcely beat lottery ticket odds if you are a company operating without a strategy.  There are many books that detail the various permutations of the strategy concept.  Since this is not a book, I suggest the following steps as a frugal man’s start point.

1.     Develop a strategy for your area of responsibility whether it is a Fortune 500 company or the maintenance department for a manufacturing facility.

2.     Develop operational plans in detail as to how you are going to execute the strategy.

3.     Share the strategy with all employees.  Listen with big ears to the feedback from the employees as they will either execute your plans or your business.  Change the plan or the employees as necessary.

4.     Once the strategy is adopted and implemented, adjust the plan for reality.  No strategy can account for everything that will happen in your marketplace.  Adjustments for new data are very acceptable.  All such adjustments must be transmitted immediately to all the employees so they can make changes and more importantly, know that they are still on a defined course. 

5.     Manage to the plan every minute of every day.  Wide divergences from the plan will be noticed and will cause employees to lose direction very shortly.

6.     Measure everything that is important plus some items that may not be critical.  Without measurement, there is no accountability. 

While you can and should make adjustments to your strategic plan, be sure to give the strategy time to work.  A strategic plan with monthly re-writes is not a plan at all, but a worthless sheet of paper blowing in a windstorm.  Such a “Strategy of the Month” will result in disappointed investors and/or disengaged or confused employees. Neither of these bodes well for management.