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Sometimes people wonder if having references is a must-have. Having no references may not always be a deal-breaker. It is possible to land a job on your own. But having references is always an asset. Fact is, nowadays asking the candidate for references in a recruiting process is standard practice. If your finalist competitor in the recruiting process has good references and you do not have any references at all, which candidate would you choose, if you were the hiring manager? A good reference can be a positive deal-breaker – in any job, on any level. So, from this point of view having some reference persons on your list is most recommendable.
I believe that anyone intuitively understands the purpose of a reference check, but people may still sometimes feel a little uneasy when asked for references, especially if this is the first time. When getting the question: “Do you have any references?" for the first time, all kinds of thoughts may spin around in our head simply because we do not perhaps fully understand what a reference check means. Why do they want to check me out? Don’t they believe what I tell them? Do they think I have hidden secrets? I did not get along with my previous boss. What if he badmouths me? Can I give him as a reference? I once made a mistake in my previous work. What if this comes up? I am not sure I know what my colleagues think of me. And so on.
I believe most have a pretty good understanding of what people think about them, so I would not worry too much about what people will say. I have done hundreds of reference checks, and I have never talked to anyone who deliberately badmouthed a candidate. I feel people try to answer the reference questions to the best of their ability, honestly and with no bad intentions. In the absolute majority of the reference checks I have made the reference statements tend to reflect and strengthen the understanding and opinion we already have of the candidate. So, if you did not get along with your previous boss, or if you once made a mistake, do not feel too strongly about this. If this is the case, put the issue on the table, say so to the hiring manager in the recruiting process. We have all met persons we do not get along with, and we all make mistakes, so this is not necessarily any deal-breaker.
Also, things are not black and white. We may honestly feel we have done well, while our boss may have a slightly different view, or we may feel we have just done our job, while our boss and all our colleagues think we are super-good.
Why a reference check in the first place?
In a reference check, the hiring manager asks questions about the candidate from the referee because he/she wants to get a more detailed understanding of the candidate. The hiring manager may have met the candidate only for, e.g. two or three 1,5-hour interviews. Hence, it is quite understandable that he/she, on top of this, also wants to discuss with a few reference persons who have known the candidate for a longer time. To get more acquainted with the candidate. If the hiring manager asks for your permission to call your reference persons, he/she already feels that you are a good candidate and a potential winning candidate. Remember this.
Even though the ways and habits may differ in different countries, the reason for and the purpose of doing a reference check is the same everywhere. Simply put. We want to check if this is the right person for the job. Can he/she do the job? Does he/she fit into our company, our people, our ways and habits, our customers? What is his/her professional expertise like? If a manager level job – what is his/her management style, leadership style like. Are there any risks?
Important note: It is essential to understand that the questions asked are not only about checking if we are the right person for the job. Equally important, it is about checking if this is the right job, the right company, the right team or e.g. the right company culture for us. It is not a very good idea to land a job in a company where we do not fit in. I have said in a previous article I wrote some time ago that we are like a piece of a puzzle. In some places, we fit perfectly, in some other places not at all. So, even if the reference check may lead to you not getting the job, this may be in your best interest, even if it might not feel that way at the moment.
The most important thing
A reference check is only done with the prior explicit permission of the candidate in question, never without permission. Doing a reference check is a confidential discussion and is always made with the best interest of both parties in mind. A reference should support both parties when making an employment agreement. A reference statement is always confidential and is only given to the hiring manager. Sometimes there can be a recruiting service provider doing the reference check.
When thinking about whom to give as a referee, keep in mind, that a reference provided by the direct superior, a colleague or subordinate, has perhaps more weight than a reference given by someone interacting with the reference person only occasionally or from a distance. The further away from your job, the referee is, the less input this person can give of your job performance. The nature of the reference discussion is determined by what kind of relation the reference person and the referee have. Is the referee a present or previous employer/ superior/colleague/friend or a customer or a business acquaintance? So, one obviously must customise the line and tone of questioning according to the relationship in question.
The reference questions
It is only natural that a reference discussion includes talking about what we are like, about our strengths and weaknesses, what we are good at in our job, what perhaps not, about our achievements and maybe our “failures” too (if there are any). If I would give a list of referees, previous superiors, colleagues, customers, candidates I have worked with over the years, I am positive they would tell a lot of good things about me. However, knowing myself, I am also sure they would comment on some of my weaknesses or bad habits too. I do not expect my referees just to praise how good I am at everything I do; neither would I want them to do so. I expect them to describe me as they see me. It is in my best interest that they do so. When the hiring company knows me “in and out”, my pros and cons, and if I become the winning candidate, they can better plan my onboarding and maybe even customise the job description to fit me more accurately.
Anyone who wants to explore what kind of questions are typically asked in a reference check can have a look on the Internet. You can find numerous articles, and suggestions of reference check questions. What to ask in a reference check. The 50 most asked questions in a reference check. What not to ask in a reference check. It is always good to get perspective, but do not take everything you find for granted. It can be anybody’s opinion.
When needed, we check the facts about the candidate. Fact-checking is such a diverse subject that it would require a long article of its own if we want to go into the details, so I here only shortly comment on this aspect.
The need for fact-checking varies much between countries. Finland, where I have lived and worked all my life, is a very transparent country. It is of no avail to any Candidate to give inaccurate facts about his/her education, career history or income because most of this information is publicly available and is rather easy to check by almost anyone.
In many other countries this kind of information may not be publicly available and therefore it is essential here to pay more attention to check these facts. In some countries, this may be very challenging and time-consuming indeed. Comparing countries like, e.g. Finland, Sweden, USA, Russia, China, Japan, Saudi-Arabia, India, everyone understands that the need for and how to do the fact-checking varies.
This is a good place to remind everyone about a critical point. Always stick to the facts. You can always choose your words and how you tell your story in a recruiting process, but never alter the facts. If you lie about something, no matter how “little” and get caught, it has the potential of destroying your career.
Regardless of country or culture, there also exist jobs, where fact-checking always is a must-have, e.g. for national security reasons. So, fact-checking can also be an integral part of the reference check discussions.
There are different countries, diverse cultures, and consequently also diverse ways. How the reference check is made and by whom varies because the ways, values and habits are different in different countries. The legislation is different. What is allowed in one country may not be allowed in another country, and vice versa. What is proper to ask in one country may not be appropriate in another country. How references are checked and how they are used in recruiting processes vary from company to company in the same country, and even down to the very persons doing the reference check. So there exist no “one only way” to do a reference check. That said, a reference check is always a very sensitive task and who asks, what to ask and how to ask is important, and to know how to do this “right” is equally important everywhere.
The Candidate’s point of view
I also advise all candidates to make their reference check of their potential future employer company. Internet is a good place to start, but there are also usually business magazines you can study. If the company has web shop activities, check the customer experiences and ratings. Check the company values. Do they coincide with your values? Check the finances. Try to check the company’s “future”. Will it still be there after three years. Some companies have excellent marketing and excellent employer branding. They might even be on “the most popular employer of the year-lists”, but the reality can be very different, revealing, in fact, a company that is mistreating its employees. As the saying goes, “Not all that glitters is gold”.
Try to find as detailed information as you can. If possible, also of the department, the function, the team, especially the superior, you are interested in. If your potential future boss has been in this position for, e.g. seven years already, is there any risk, he/she moves on shortly after you start? If you like this person, and he/she is one of the very reasons you are interested in the job, you need to try to check this out somehow. This is not a theoretical scenario. I have met persons, whose boss changed employer shortly after they came aboard, and then the new boss was not anymore to their liking and vice versa.
You can, e.g. on LinkedIn, try to find previous employees you can confidentially talk to and ask what kind of working place the company is. But remember, when doing your check, just as there are no perfect persons, there are no ideal companies either, so use your common sense when evaluating what you find. However, if you find too many “warning lights” in a company, maybe it is worth thinking twice about going there.
You can easily write ten pages about reference checking if you want to go into details. I know because I have done it elsewhere, but here, in this blog article, my purpose was only to highlight some basic facts relating to reference checks in recruiting. I hope this gives the reader some insight into the subject.
At least in an executive-level job hire checking the references should be part of any company’s best practice, a must-have. (Why not in any job, for that matter.) If I would apply for an executive-level job and no one would be interested in checking my references I would start to wonder if there was anything wrong with this company - because checking my references is also in my best interest. Do they hire all their people without checking any references, would be my next thought. And this would for me be a big red warning light.
Due to my background, people keep asking me about what I feel a cover letter and a CV should be like, so here some words on the subject. In my mind, there exists no one and only right way to write a cover letter or a CV. There likely are as many opinions about this as there are persons on this planet. Also, there are sometimes differences between different cultures, even between companies. Here the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
People like to customise their cover letters and CVs according to what they feel is in their best interest. And why not! A cover letter and CV should reflect the person they tell about. So also, here, keep in mind that this is only my opinion. Do pay attention to what others are saying, you might learn something, but always make up your own mind about what you feel is right.
First a general comment
Some people advise putting your focus on the CV and feel the cover letter is not needed at all. I beg to disagree strongly. In my mind, the cover letter and the CV are two very different things, both are important, and both are a must-have, almost like the two sides of a coin. Without both sides, you have no coin.
The Cover Letter
When you are young and do not yet have a “career”, no problem, put your best effort in the cover letter. A well-made cover letter can tell a lot about your potential.
In the cover letter, you should try to add a personal touch. Here the focus is on you as a person and tells about the person behind the CV. At best, you can create a “personal brand” that makes you stand out. E.g.:
A CV is a pretty clear-cut document. A CV is a summary of your professional career - hard facts presented clearly and logically.
Don’t make this too complicated. Ask yourself, what would you like to know about a Candidate if you were the Head Hunter or a hiring manager? There is nothing wrong with presenting yourself and your career in a favourable light but don’t write a CV describing a superman, just an accurate summary of yourself. Superman is seldom the best choice for any job. As far as the layout is concerned, there are hundreds of examples on the Internet. Study them for perspective, then choose a layout you feel fits you best.
The header list of a CV is simple:
Career history, (list your work history in chronological order.)
Salary & benefits & notice period
Memberships, positions of trust
Don’t just copy your employer’s standard job description. Personalise and customise. Describe your area of responsibility in a way that gives the reader an adequate and diverse understanding of what you do. Include volumes and numbers, also the number of subordinates (if you have any) who report to you. Also, e.g. your achievements, value-added product or technology knowledge, market knowledge, special expertise, use of time. Important: Never only say you always reach your budgets and goals and that you are darn good in your job. Always give evidence-based examples, hard facts and figures, of what you have done.
You could also consider commenting on your career moves very shortly, i.e. why you left the previous company and why you landed the next job. Any interviewer will ask you about this for sure. Having this information in your CV informs the interviewer of this already in advance and eliminates any prior wrong assumptions. Not a must-have, though.
Always remember to say a few words about your employers. Don’t assume everyone knows who they are. Even if people may know a famous brand does not mean they know the metrics of the company.
Important - Don’t leave any gaps. Also, if you are unemployed, say so now in the CV. This is no deal-breaker. If you “hide this” and only reveal it in the interview, it might be. “What else did you not tell about” someone might think.
Include your hobbies and positions of trust. Sometimes they may have a positive impact. A CV should preferably be two, max three pages long. Focus. Photo or not? No deal-breaker neither way. If you do include a photo, please not one with you in a pub or on the beach.
Some general advice:
Finally, if this is the first time you are writing a cover letter and CV and you do not quite know how to do it, or if you just are not good at expressing yourself in writing, no problem. Ask someone to help you. There is nothing wrong asking for advice and second opinions. During my time as Head Hunter I must have asked thousands of people for all kinds of advice over the years. When there was something I did not quite understand or know how to do, I found someone who did know, then contacted this person and asked him/her for advice.
Important: The above said, do not let other people write your cover letter and CV. Ask all the advice you want but do the writing yourself. Otherwise chances are that the person in the cover letter and CV is not you.
If you are interested in Executive Search, I can from experience and the bottom of my heart say: There is no more interesting, educational, fascinating, challenging and rewarding work on this planet. Five years in the Search Industry is like five years in a top-notch business school. And from here onwards, it only gets better. When you get more experience, also the challenge will grow, slowly but surely. At best, a career as a Head Hunter can carry you all through life. My career lasted over 30 years, and I have not regretted a single day.
For a Head Hunter, the professional development curve is only upwards. From every new search assignment, you learn something new, from every person you meet or call, you learn something new. You learn to know different industries, companies, products, services, technologies, markets, people. You learn to understand what it means to be, e.g., a marketing director, CFO, production director, human resources director, finance director, division director or a CEO of a big company. Also what kind of person is suitable for these positions. You meet the most interesting top business leaders, from all walks of life, who share their knowledge with you. When you have learned enough, the business leaders will start asking your opinion about matters. And you know that your work is important.
Finally, one day, you stand in front of a billion-dollar company CEO, and when you say, “this is the way things are”, he/she will listen. To get this far, you must have a strong interest in the business world, and you must work hard. Nothing comes easy. It may take ten years, even more. There are no two identical search assignments, no two identical clients, no two identical candidates, no two identical years. When the business world, companies, technologies, products, services, markets etc. develop, you as a Head Hunter are right smack in the middle of everything, with the best seat in the audience, and you develop too and stay tuned with everything that is happening. But only if you give it your best try. Any less is too little.
The most challenging search assignments and situations are the best ones. Here you ”really” learn what the work is all about. Albeit it does not feel this way when you are up to your neck in trouble. However, you never give in, you never abandon or fail your client, not your candidates either. As the day finally arrives when you have successfully completed this assignment, it feels fantastic. I did it! If you want an international experience, you can best get it from international Executive Search Firms. That said, also small, locally operating Search Firms can offer excellent high-quality service. Size is not necessarily the defining factor.
At the beginning of my career, I wished I could have found a book from where to learn about Executive Search. I never did find such a book, so I decided to write the book myself. I put everything I had learned and experienced about Executive Search during my 30 years career in this book.
Simply put, EQ means the ability to understand and manage your own emotions. People with a high degree of EQ know what they are feeling, what their feelings mean, and how these emotions can affect other people and vice versa. We all already know this, everyone thinks. Do you? Easy to check. Just ask yourself five simple questions and be honest with your answers.
Do you have a good understanding of:
If your answers to all the questions above is an unconditional YES - CONGRATULATIONS! You are superhuman, a perfect human being. You obviously always manage your emotions and behaviour optimally.
For all the less perfect readers, I kindly ask you to check your behaviour. In hindsight, can you recognise any situations, where you feel you could have done better? I did my behaviour analysis and found many situations, where, both at work and home, my behaviour was far from optimal. I realised that if I had had a better understanding of how my EQ can affect my behaviour, I certainly, many times could how done better, should have done better. Below just some examples. See if you can find anything familiar to you?
Nowadays, new EQ coaches pop up like mushrooms in the rain, offering their services, so obviously, there is a need. But this is not nuclear science; everyone can self-study the concept of EQ. Start by writing EQ in Google. After reading a few hours about emotional intelligence, you will have a basic understanding of what EQ is. You already know a little better, how your emotions can affect your actions and other people and how to consciously pay more attention to managing your emotions and behaviour “more optimally”. Do not stop here. The more you study this topic, the better your understanding of your EQ will become, and the more likely you will learn to manage your feelings and behaviour in a way that is in your best interest.
I am again going on my yearly hiking trip with my friend, and want to share this experience with you. Experienced hikers already know everything I am about to say, but this is meant for all the first-timers, so they know what to expect. We are going three weeks from now, but I already know from experience what to expect. It will be good! As an example, I will tell you how our hiking trip was last year when we visited the very same place where we are going this year too.
We start from Helsinki railway station with the night car train to Kolari (1 000 km north from Helsinki). Then we drive to Kilpisjärvi (järvi = lake), which is in the most north-western corner of Finland, bordering to Sweden and Norway (1 300 km from Helsinki). The target of our hiking trip is a Norwegian mountain area 30 km to the west of Kilpisjärvi, a large and stunning area with snow-topped mountains. And how do we get there? Well, we walk there through the wilderness. There are no roads, houses, or people. After you step over the main road (the only road) in Kilpisjärvi and take a few steps further, the wilderness starts. The only way to move around is by walking. We are now at our starting point.
I put on my hiking shoes. Gosh, I did not remember they were so heavy and clumsy. And the backpack then. After 50 hiking trips into the wilderness of Lapland, we certainly know how to stuff and load our backpack. Max. 20 kg it is. Yet, for some reason, our backpacks always seem to weigh 25-27 kg. So also this time. Well, you always have to include a six-pack of beer and a little whisky. But it does not feel so bad when I lift the backpack on my back. It feels good to be on a hiking trip again.
After 300 meters, I notice that I am already all sweaty. Well, If you carry an almost 30 kg backpack straight upwards along a mountain, you sweat, don't you? After 5 km, I start paying attention to how sore my shoulders are from carrying the backpack. I am not used to this yet. My shoulders are already aching. I wonder if I will be able to sleep at all next night. It feels that bad. We still have 8 km to go today. Back at the train in the restaurant, when we had some beers, in our minds we flew like birds over the mountains. Now, we can barely walk 1,5-2 km per hour in this rough terrain. We do keep pauses, but we have to walk on; otherwise, we will not reach our destiny tonight. Many are the moments when I think "who was the darn idiot that got the idea to come here in the first place".
Finally, late in the evening, we get to our destiny, tired and exhausted. Every single muscle is aching. We put up our tent and start the fire. Then we wash in a mountain stream. Please put on the cold water, let it run for five minutes, and you get some impression of how ice-cold the water in the stream is. And you have to go in pretty deep. How can you otherwise wash? God, what an ordeal. I would not wish this for my worst enemy.
But I do know from experience that washing in the ice-cold stream is worth all the hardship.
Because, after the washing, when you are clean and fresh comes the first "really good feeling". No tiredness or pain anymore. The scenery around us and how good we feel are like made in heaven. Now we sit by the fire and roast our sausages. We have a beer and some whisky drinks. Our minds are as relaxed as the surface of a completely calm lake. Not one single negative thought enters our minds anymore. This is just the very reason why we came here. And from here on, it only gets better, day by day.
Every hiking trip includes some exciting experiences. The next day we are upon a one km high mountain. Snow-topped mountain peaks everywhere, as long as you can see. How can the world be so beautiful, we think. We enjoy the moment and take a short nap up on the mountainside. When we wake up, there is a thick fog. You can barely see two meters ahead, and there are steep mountainsides around us where you can fall hundreds of meters if you take a wrong step. Does anyone remember the way we climbed up here?
No! Well, no problem. We stay put where we are, so no-one falls down the mountain by accident. We put up the tent by a small mountain stream, light a fire, and relax. After all, why not. We drink a whisky, or maybe two. This is an excellent place to be, I mean, a perfect location: no houses, no roads, no people, no nothing for tens of kilometers. We are entirely on our own. We finally feel one-to-one with nature. We can almost hear the wilderness talking to us. This too is why we came hiking, to experience this feeling. I do not know how you could feel better than this.
The next morning when we wake up, the fog is gone, and we can find our way down from the mountain, and then continue up the next mountainside. The next day I slip and fall into a creek and get soaked. No problem, my clothes will dry up as I walk. And so our hiking trip goes on. Every day a little better. But after five days we are out of food, out of whisky, all our clothes dirty and shabby, so it is time to go home. When we hike back to Kilpisjärvi, all I can think of is how nice it will be to get into a hot shower. However, when we get to Kilpisjärvi, we first go to a café to have a coffee and doughnut. When we enter the café, I pay attention to how clean and orderly everything is. I can feel the pleasant smell of the perfume from the lady at the cashier's stand. She is looking at me with her eyes wide open. Well, why not. I am an experienced hiker who just has returned from the wilderness; I probably must be looking a little like Indiana Jones, I think.
Then I pay attention to another strong smell, like a dead rat, and I notice that this smell is coming from me. Even though we have washed every day and changed clean underwear, my hiking jacket and trousers smell of five days of sweat, dirt, and smoke. I look into the mirror in front of me, and my skin which I thought would have a tremendous suntan after five days in the sun, had, in fact, a greasy yellow look. On top of this, I had a five-day stubble, because I had not shaved. So I looked like a genuine drunkard who had slept the whole last week in a ditch.
No wonder the cashier lady was looking at me with her eyes wide open. I probably don't look like Indiana Jones after all. Well, you must just overcome these kinds of hardships, I think. After a coffee and doughnut, we head for the showers, where I stay for over 30 minutes. Then we have a pizza and a cold beer. Then another cold beer and then suddenly, as if by magic, all the hardships of our hike are forgotten. Only the memories of the beautiful sceneries and wonderful moments and experiences we had are left. What a fantastic hike we had, we think. Once more, it surpassed all our expectations. And so, in our car on our way back home, we already start planning our next hike to Lapland.
It will be a good hike. This hike will take place three weeks from now.
We have for long known that technology, robotics, automation, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will change the world big time. Now we have one more parameter in this equation – COVID-19. This and "the COVID-19s of the future", will force the world to develop new ways and methods to minimise the impact of these viruses.
Our behaviour and values will change as a result of COVID-19, creating a demand for all kinds of new services and products, most yet unknown to us. This again creates opportunities for new business ideas. The business world all over, also the recruiting industry, is thinking about what these new services and products could be.
The job market, how you search for a new job and how people are recruited in the future, will change. It may not be enough to pay attention to only your "next job". Maybe you need to look further into the future already now before you land a job. Because that "next job" may not be there anymore after five years.
The Executive Search Industry is not immune to changes. Virtual meetings and interviewing candidates virtually will likely increase, also in the Search Industry. It is not always easy for a person to take a 3-4-hour break from work to visit a Head Hunter, so to start the process with a one hour "get to know" virtual interview with the Head Hunter might not be such a bad idea. Of course, person to person interview is, in my mind, a must-have, if we continue in the recruiting process.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) is also likely to enter more strongly now. The benefits are indisputable. By 1) doing talent sourcing 2) locating, processing, and analysing information faster 3) providing better business intelligence 4) screening and assessing candidates, AI increases efficiency and reduces time to hire.
Already today, CV:s are screened by robots, and you can be dropped from the recruiting process without a human ever seeing your job application. Already today you might get to an interview, only to realise that you are interviewed by a robot and also dropped by the robot, without ever talking to a human being. This is increasing. I find this scary. I feel we should draw a line somewhere, both for ethical and professional reasons.
Our ethical, moral concepts, motivation, behaviour, feelings, ambitions are based on, e.g., our characteristics, culture, political views, religion, race, gender, life values, desires, education type/level, sexual orientation. Can AI truly understand this dimension of the human mindset?
Then the professional dimension. I like to think that the hiring Client wants a Business Partner with outstanding business acumen. A real-world live Search Consultant, who interacts with Top Executives, learns who they are, learns to know them, learns from them and continuously so - instead of a robot, an algorithm.
I also believe any hiring Client or Candidate prefer having a top-level Search Consultant deciding who is to become a finalist Candidate in a search process, rather than a robot doing it. While databases, Internet, LinkedIn, and AI can take you a long way, they will, in my mind, never replace an experienced professional Search Consultant in Senior Executive Management Executive Search. I like to end by quoting myself.
"Who would you choose? An experienced Search Consultant with excellent business acumen - with whom you have developed a good, trustworthy personal relationship over the years - with whom you can talk about anything, also personal matters, discuss business world gossip - with whom you can go golfing, or even share a pint of beer? Or, would you choose a robot, that you know may know a lot of things, but really could not care less about you - and can't even golf."
Technology & social media are reshaping recruiting even as I speak. Some feel Artificial Intelligence is the big game-changer. By, e.g. talent sourcing, locating, processing, analysing information faster, screening, assessing candidates. Chances are this leads to putting ever more emphasis on technology and less on personal relationships.
This raises a question: Will AI endanger or strengthen the Trusted Advisor relationships in Executive Search?
In my mind, for both the Client and the Search Consultant, a Trusted Advisor relationship is as important as ever. We are talking about long-term and mutually benefitting Business Partner relationships, which at best develops into a “Trusted Advisor relationship”.
Some People assume that it is only the Search Consultant who is a Trusted Advisor for the Client and that this is the only dimension of the phrase Trusted Advisor in Executive Search. I feel this is narrowminded thinking. It takes two to tango. In my mind, a Trusted Advisor relationship is not a one-way street.
When you can call a person and ask for advice, consultation, for his/her professional opinion in a for you important matter - if you can discuss everything in the strictest confidence - and knowing that this person is giving you his/her best try to help - what else is this person than a Trusted Advisor. And then, some other day this person calls you for advice and help. Now you are his/her Trusted Advisor. So, it is a two-way street.
Neither is this relationship restricted only to the Search Consultant and the Client. As Research Manager, I paid much attention to developing good personal, trustworthy relationships with business executives. Many, over time, turned into Trusted Advisor relationships. It is impossible to overstate the importance and value of the advice, guidance, information, help and inspiration I got from these relationships.
Which top executive would not like to have a top search professional as his/hers Trusted Advisor, whom to call to consult and ask for advice in a career change situation? So, here too it was a two-way street. When it was my phone ringing, I tried to do my best in return.
To answer my question in the second paragraph above: At best, AI might give us more time to focus on these relationships. However, focus too much on AI, and the opposite may happen. So, in Senior Executive Management Executive Search, if I am forced to choose, I rather put my money on Trusted Advisor relationship management than trade it to AI.
There is no magical formula as to how a perfect interviewer should look like. Two quite different kinds of persons can both be excellent interviewers. This does not mean that anyone can become a good interviewer. Certain things are a must-have for a good interviewer, e.g. proper education, specific characteristics, a respectful attitude, people skills, enough experience and expertise. The mixture may vary, but all ingredients are needed.
You do not have to be a master of every industry and profession, but you must have the general knowledge and also the intellect to understand what the people you are interviewing are talking about. How else can you interview them? The higher the position in question, the more demanding the task of the interviewer becomes. Interviewing a Candidate for a Sales Manager job in a 10 million turnover company is different from interviewing someone for a CEO job in a 1 billion € company.
Good communication skills and good listening skills are essential. A genuine interest in the Candidate and what is discussed in the interview is vital. The Candidate immediately senses if this is an interview of no real interest to the interviewer. A good interviewer is always well prepared and takes the time needed. Everyone understands that the interviewer may ask some tough questions, but this should always be done in a friendly atmosphere.
Experience, both work and life experience are a must-have. Having met and having dealt with many people gives perspective and understanding. And even so, you must continuously keep up with what is happening in the business world. Nobody is born ready into any profession. Neither does interviewing ten or even fifty persons make anyone a master. When you have interviewed 500 persons, you may have got a hunch of what this is all about.
You must also like people if you want to develop into a good judge of human nature. It does not hurt to have some intuition, instinct, gut feeling. Even though it is difficult to precisely define what “gut feeling” is, I rather have this than not. I feel this is your subconsciousness processing what you are hearing and seeing. Certainly, a good thing to have.
Then, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable we are, sometimes our personal feelings, bias, preconceptions, and prejudices may impact on our opinions and actions. It is not necessarily a conscious action. We cannot help reacting to the things we see and hear, so we must therefore consciously pay attention not to let this affect our professional opinions and actions in the wrong way.
There is probably much more required of a top-level interviewer, but this is for starters.
Few technologies hold more promise than AI. And indeed, rightly used, AI has the potential to bring a lot of benefits. However, in the middle of this hype, it is good to remember that wrongly used AI can also potentially bring disaster. Every Industry has its question marks regarding benefits vs potential risk factors, neither as well-known as we would like them to be.
I narrow this article down to the recruiting industry and more exact to AI vs the Executive Search Industry because this is where I have made my career. I want to stress that I am here exclusively talking about C-level Searches. Some Firms also search for people to entry-level and low-level positions in general. Searching for a CEO for a billion-euro turnover company is different compared to searching for, e.g. a Coder. The process, professional experience and expertise required in C-level Searches are different. Therefore, also the question marks regarding the use of AI are different in C-level Searches.
In the AI pro-people end of the spectrum are, e.g. all the companies that develop and sell AI-solutions to the Executive Search Industry. Much of what you hear about "how fantastic AI is", comes from the marketing departments of these companies. It feels like they only can see good things coming out of using AI. When asked about potential AI risk factors, they often brush away the question marks people raise as theoretical ones - "Don't worry, we got it under control" is the message. Well, I can hardly blame anyone trying to sell their product. The responsibility of doing Due Diligence when buying a product belongs to the buyer.
There also exists AI pro-people within the Executive Search Industry. Many are ardent AI supporters, praising AI, and so excited about the potential benefits that they are sometimes "blind" to the risks. There also exist people who always want to be first in line when modern technology is implemented and are therefore AI pro-minded. That said, I know from my experience that many Search professionals are not all exactly IT or technology wizards, so the trust in AI is sometimes based more on a strong belief, than fact-based knowledge. Maybe some also believe the AI-company salespeople more than I do. Nothing wrong with that.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Search Professionals who, while not against AI, feel that there are also risks and want to move more slowly. We also have Search Professionals with a different philosophy, who feel that AI should never "replace" an experienced top-level Search Professional, particularly so when talking about C-level Executive Search. There also exist numerous thought-leaders, specialists and scientists, who have the knowledge, experience and perspective to understand what might happen if we get it wrong and who therefore advise extreme care. Many consulting firms, e.g. McKinsey, KPMG, PWC having researched the subject, say the same.
Algorithms have already for a long time been able to predict, with an impressive degree of accuracy, personal things about you using a very small number of your Facebook Likes. Personal means: gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, religion, favourite intoxicants. (Microsoft and the University of Cambridge published some research about this in 2013). It's not news to anyone that advertising platforms like Google and Facebook collect personal information, but we have gotten so used to this, that most don't care. Maybe we should. It is 2020. These surveillance and predictive abilities have developed tremendously since 2013.
During the Corona crisis, Google has released county-level reports in the USA about exactly how the travel patterns have changed over the past few weeks. Google says that the data collected can't be identified or connected to an individual. Except, I have noticed I can barely walk out from a random shop, before I already get suggestions on my mobile phone about visiting similar shops. So, they likely also now when you are at home and leave home. Theoretically, you can "turn this feature off", but for practical reasons few do.
This example alone should send shudders down anyone's spine. These algorithms are today made by humans and can also be used for purposes not in our best interest. This is likely also happening today. What if in the future AI at some point takes control and starts developing own algorithms, that are not in our best interest? Is there any risk that this could happen in algorithms related to behavioural analysis and predictive abilities in recruiting too?
One key argument in favour of AI is its ability to screen resumes without a hint of bias and to identify the best candidates in record time.
AI may well have these kinds of abilities. But the algorithms are human made. Coders are also biased, so who is the one deciding the rules. What if all coders creating the algorithm are Americans? Is it 100% certain that their American culture, life values, and individual biases regarding, e.g. diversity, ethical values, race, gender, politics, are not affecting their algorithm? Does this algorithm have the same reliability also in all other cultures and countries where these parameters are very different? What if all coders are Chinese, French, British, Italian? Does it matter that the AI application is in, e.g. English instead of a person's native tongue? Is there in the algorithm a country-based parameter fixing the cultural differences? I don't think so.
As a human being, the recruiter is always biased. For example, recruiter A could hire a candidate that recruiter B would not even invite to a job interview. A lot of recruitment is done based on feelings, and the criteria are often quite arbitrary (Often used sales arguments by AI-recruiting software salespeople).
The first sentence in the chapter above is true by definition. The second sentence may be well true but is this always wrong? Should we not have the right to choose whom we like working with. In my mind, the element of chemistry and professional expertise fit should also be allowed to have some impact when recruiting, if we are to work very closely with this person. The third sentence is a generalisation, insinuating that most people who recruit don't know or care what they are doing. "A lot" and "often" are words not fitting every company or person. There exist many persons who do not hire people purely based on feelings or based on arbitrary criteria.
AI can undoubtedly bring benefits in screening, analysing and evaluating people in recruiting situations, but a blind trust in AI is bound to create problems. The higher up in the organisation we go when recruiting people, e.g. the C-level, the more complex and demanding everything becomes. This concerns also AI. I can spontaneously think of at least four question marks (there are certainly more):
Despite all my doomsday warnings, I too believe that AI can be of help in screening, assessing and predicting human behaviour. AI can also bring significant benefits in Executive Search by processing hard facts, e.g. proactively sourcing and analysing the recruiting market potential, locating and processing information efficiently, reducing time to hire. What I am saying, is, don't just have blind faith in AI, understand what you are doing, pay attention to the risks involved and tread cautiously.
If I was a Senior C-level Executive, who would I rather have as my business partner and trusted adviser?
Would I choose an experienced Search Consultant with excellent business acumen - with whom I have developed a good, trustworthy personal relationship over the years - with whom I can talk about anything, also personal matters, discuss business world gossip - with whom I can go golfing, or even share a pint of beer? Or, would I choose a robot, that I know may know a lot of things, but really could not care less about me - and can't even golf. I would choose the Search Consultant any time of the day. Who would you choose?
If you found this article interesting, please also read my other article about AI in my blog, that is Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Top Level Executive Search. There I approach AI from a different point of view.
Some think they only have themselves to thank for the expertise and knowledge they have acquired, feeling it is almost an insult should anyone even dare to suggest otherwise. In my mind, a short-sighted and harmful attitude, often even with negative consequences. At worst, hindering a person from listening to, observing and learning from others, potentially missing opportunities and enabling mistakes that could be avoided.
Is there a value in people sharing their experience and knowledge to others, as I do about my expertise, Executive Search, or as other people do about other subjects? I feel there is and greatly so! All the people I have met and worked with over the years, my colleagues, clients, candidates, e.g. have all had a positive impact on me developing into a top professional. They have “shared” their ideas, thoughts, and knowledge with me. If I occasionally “feel tall” it is only because I am standing on the shoulders of numerous other people.
Therefore, when I during my career, acquired experience, and knowledge I felt could benefit the business world, I, in return too, want to share what I know. That said, this is not at all so “grand” as it might sound to someone. To avoid any misunderstanding, I do not pretend to “know better or more” than anyone else. I am just presenting my views and perspective and considering my background, something I feel worth sharing. So I wrote a book about everything I had learned. Now people at least have an opportunity to read my book, should they want to do so. Remember, if you share, others will share with you, and as a result, the business world will become so much more interesting, I promise. It is a good bargain.
Listening and observing - Not doing this may lead to missed opportunities.
I also believe in a pro-active, curious and open mind. I believe in having “big ears”, and in keeping them wide open, so you can listen to and hear what other people say. I believe in having “big eyes” so you can observe and learn from what others do well, and perhaps also not so well, so you can avoid making the same mistakes all over again.
It is always worth checking what, e.g. top professionals are saying and doing, people you know are good in their work. You can look at the person, the whole company or just a particular function, e.g., the HR or Marketing function in a company or the Research function in a Search Firm, depending on what it is you want to check. There are no downsides in doing this, only potential benefits and opportunities.
I was an Executive Search Research Manager for most of my career, and I was very good in my job. So, if I now could get into the minds of the top ten best Research Managers in the world, and check their thinking, what would I expect to find? A person “always knowing what’s best” would probably not find much. But that’s not me. As said, I believe in a pro-active, curious and open mind, and in listening to and observing others. With this mindset, you see a different world.
I would probably find many thinking much like me about Executive Search. But I would also find things I could learn from. New ways of thinking, interesting thinking, imaginative thinking, out of the box thinking, old concepts re-invented into a new, better form. I would find new methods and processes, other ways of doing things, other CRM and business development techniques. I most likely would find many interesting ideas which I could take “back home” with me, and which would help me become better in my work.
I call this benchmarking. Have you ever wondered why some person or company is always so much higher (or lower) on the ranking list than you, or has a very good reputation? Maybe you should try to find out. Do some benchmarking and compare. Without benchmarking you seldom know.
When people share - keep an open mind – otherwise, you might miss the point
When e.g. anyone has had such a long career as I and write a book, someone is bound to say: “Yes, you had a good career, but times have changed. What you say in your book is now “old fashioned”. Nowadays, we do things differently." Times do change, and of course, people always have different opinions, disagree about things, organize, manage, and carry out things differently. There are, e.g., no two identical Executive Search Firm offices on this planet. Calling the information I share old-fashioned is missing the point. Furthermore, the subjects in my book, as presented, are completely timeless – not old-fashioned.
To make my point, below just some examples of the subjects I share in my book:
Have all the above become old-fashioned? I don’t think so.
Always try to see “the forest from the trees” when people share. Don´t let your prejudices be your guide. This applies to any information out there.
Please have a pro-active, curious and open mind. The world looks very different if you have.
Don’t forget to share! It is an investment with very good returns.
Don’t forget to also network. It means more resources, knowledge, experience, and perspective. This can only be of benefit to those involved.