In any Executive Search process, there are three parties involved, the Executive Search Firm, the Client Company and the Candidate. Even though they all go into the interview room with a different perspective, they all have a similar approach: They all want to give a good impression to the other party, and they all want to do well. How you prepare for an interview, depends on, e.g. what the interview is about, who the interviewer is, how the interviewer is like, how you are like, what the people taking part in the interview want to achieve etc. We all have our ways to prepare ourselves. Not being prepared is not an option. Otherwise, the interview may become unstructured and unfocused, and lead to the interview ending to your dissatisfaction.
Let us look at an imaginary Executive Search process from the hiring Client Company’s point of view. (However, nothing is stopping a Candidate reading this article from turning the table and look at this from a Candidates point of view.) There are a lot of steps in an Executive Search process. Every step and issue should, of course, always be meticulously planned and executed. We have now reached the Client Finalist interview stage in our imaginary Search process. The first Candidate, one out of four finalists, is waiting outside the interview room. How can we make certain we recognise which candidate is the right one for us? (If you are a Candidate, you think the other way around; How can I recognise if this is the right job and the right employer for me?).
When recruiting senior executive management level people, the Candidates are usually interviewed by many, the most “important” interviewer being the superior of the person coming aboard. Tens, maybe hundreds of questions, are asked, both by the hiring Executive and the Candidate, in the course of the interview. Each Candidate is often interviewed many times. So there is a lot to keep in mind when interviewing and making up one’s mind as to which of the Candidates is the best one.
When searching for, interviewing and evaluating senior executive management level people, there is much information to process. When I, as Research Manager, did research in an Executive Search process, I often found it useful to narrow things down and to focus on what is essential, that is, the important key factors and the must have factors. This kind of approach forces you to think and advance in a logical, structured and systematic manner, and as said, to focus on what is important and a must have.
In all simplicity, this translates into a checklist where you write down the key factors and must have factors in your project, whatever it may be about, e.g., research, a sales presentation, a Client reporting or as here, an interview. When interviewing Candidates, I sometimes used a “Candidate interview checklist”. There is no one and only “standard” checklist. It can be long, or it can be be short, but it must always be well thought out and fit the purpose. Below I show you just one example.
My “Candidate interview checklist” is a two-part checklist:
In Part ONE, you write down all the important key factors and issues you want to talk about and check in the interview. It is like a memory-checklist if you will, so you do not forget to ask something important.
In Part TWO, you write down the Candidate must have factors. Here you compare your understanding of the Candidates after the interviews vs the must have factors. Every job has must have factors. In some jobs, they may look so insignificant that it is difficult to notice them. In other jobs, they are “super evident", like, e.g. if you want to become an astronaut on a mission to Mars or a technical security director for a nuclear power plant. Also, every Senior Executive Management level job has must have factors.
Part ONE - Important key factors to be discussed when interviewing the Candidate
- Personal traits, general behaviour, style, attitude, anything extraordinary to mention.
- Ambition level, goal orientation, career potential vs career ambition.
- People person or matter of fact person.
- Key motivation factors, must have factors, absolute motivation kill factors.
- Core expertise, the substance, professional strengths, weaknesses.
- Management/leadership skills, also vs expectations regarding their boss.
- Independent actor or a team player.
- Decision making: easy/difficult, fast/slow, a loner, or pays attention to other’s opinions.
- Delivery ability, timetables, quality of work, trustworthiness.
- When the going gets tough, stress endurance, behaviour, can he/she cope?
- Nine to five worker vs never going home in the evening.
- Can he/she prioritise, focus, also let go and relax when needed.
- Extraordinary achievements/failures.
- Why did he/she come aboard, why did he/she leave?
- Strategic skills, conceptual skills, problem-solving skills.
- Analytical skills, mathematical skills, detail oriented or sees the big picture.
- Verbal, writing, listening.
- Ability to focus on the point, the ability to make everybody understand.
- One to one/one to many situations, in the customer interface, in the management group, credibility.
- Humorous or not. May sometimes be a very important factor.
- Hobbies, any job relevant hobbies, some can be of use in the job, some the opposite.
- Alcohol use, anything negative in this respect.
If you feel that your are talking to a potential winning Candidate, please remember to ask for references already now. Some persons feel uncomfortable about this. This is perfectly normal and may relate to e.g. confidentiality issues or bad experiences, so remember to point out that you will not contact anyone without his/her explicit permission. Some do not give their previous superiors as references, even though this would feel a good thing to do. If so, ask, can you talk to their previous superiors? If not, ask why. There may exist a perfectly acceptable reason for this, which is good to know to avoid making any wrong assumptions.
Part TWO - The Must have factors
Below my suggestion for must have factors. There are only four of them. If the answer to any question below is no, the Candidate is out. This is what “must have” means. If you start compromising here, it is not a must have factor. Every employer decides for him/herself what the must have factors are in a job.
Does the Candidate have what it takes to do the job, e.g.:
Does the person possess the must have skillset required, be it, e.g. about some specific professional expertise, management skills, leadership skills, technological expertise, market experience, a unique understanding of some industry ecosystem or simultaneously a needed combination of all these?
Can I, the hiring superior, get along with the Candidate, e.g.:
Are our chemistry, our way of thinking, and working a close enough fit? Do our leadership styles fit?
Do we agree on the strategy and on how the job should be done?
Are our overall expectations of each other a close enough fit?
Can the Candidate fit into our company culture?
The hiring “superior” liking the Candidate may not be enough. There are other key people in the company too that the Candidate must get along with. It does not help if you get the best person in the universe if he/she does not fit into your company culture. Getting a potentially disruptive person into the executive management team might make the other key persons leave the company. Of course, if you are specifically looking for a person whose job is to change the company culture, this question gets a different meaning.
We can get the best Candidate, but am I convinced that we can keep him/her?
Sometimes we get an opportunity to hire a superb top-level Candidate, a person any major market leader company in the world would be glad to have. Good as this feels, it may be worth reflecting a little about this.
Why does this guy, who could choose any company in town, choose us? Are we certain we can offer what he/she is looking for? To be certain, check that nobody, e.g. in the interviews said things about the job or company that are not true or over-promised something, by mistake or even worse, by purpose. That we have told everything just as things are. If not, the truth will be revealed the very first day on the job and what might that do to the motivation of our new world-class top-level executive.
I have during my career met more than one top-level Candidate who has come to my office two weeks after having started in his new job, telling me that the things were not at all as he was told in the interviews and that he wants to find a new job as fast as possible. Should this happen to you, the world-class top-level Candidate will find a new job easily, while your company reputation and credibility will get a heavy blow.
Even assuming that everything has been done by the book, you will not remain in safe waters for long. Because, I can assure you that many hiring companies in the market will be calling your new world-class top-level executive regularly (via their Head Hunters), even though he/she is new in the job. “There is no harm in asking; you can never know if he/she is interested in this job opportunity” is what they think. And sometimes they think right.
Bottom line: Can you hire the right people? Can you take care of them, guide them, support them, train them, develop them, reward them but, above all, can you keep them? It is not much use in hiring top talents if you cannot keep them. If your top executives move on to another employer every two-three years, there is something you do wrong. Find out what!
Therefore answering the question – “Am I convinced that I can keep him/her” is of some relevance here.
If you are interested in learning more, read my book How to recognise Excellence in Executive Search. Anyone dealing with Executive Search, who has this book is one step ahead of those who do not have it.