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MASTERS OF FIT

How best to interview articulate and savvy individuals

By Professor Preston Bottger and Research Fellow Jean-Louis Barsoux - February 2012

Hiring decisions present business leaders with some of their trickiest challenges. And, given that a survey conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council found that half of the new hires in the top echelons of big business quit or were dismissed within three years, it seems that there is some way to go before they can be said to be getting it right.  

So what can leaders do to improve this picture? By the time the leader interviews candidates, the central issue is rarely one of competence or professional credentials. The leader must try to devise questions that get at the essence of the person.  

Behind the mask

Hiring senior executives is complicated. They tend to be driven, articulate, and savvy individuals. They have conducted numerous interviews themselves, so they know what other interviewers want to hear, and they have the experience with which to craft a convincing story.  

So when leaders interview candidates they are not being called on to assess their competence or professional credentials; that should be done in an earlier stage of the recruitment process. Instead, their job is to look behind the façade and determine the extent to which there is a real fit between the candidate and the organization. This task should be approached along three fronts:  

1. Fit with the job. Of course, the shortlisted candidates must meet the technical demands of the job. But that is just the price of admission. Leaders must use the interview process to find out more about the breadth and depth of candidates' experience – not just their performance at interview, but their actual achievements in previous assignments.  

A key consideration here is whether the candidates have previously worked within an existing business system, modified a system, or created a whole new system. Leaders should ask themselves whether the candidates are entrepreneurial or more comfortable at improving something that has already been created. They should also be clear whether they need to recruit someone who will improve the current system, or who will break it up.  

Another useful question to ask candidates is "what excites you about the proposed job?", as this sort of open-ended query can help to reveal how they perceive the role and whether this converges with the expected evolution of the job. Other issues to assess include how many and what variety of people the candidates have led; how they managed resources and deadlines; and what results they achieved against those deadlines and other pressures.  

2. Fit with the leader. While leaders are conscious of the need to recruit people who are different from them and who can complement their own qualities, they generally have two or three core characteristics that they require in all recruits, whether that's resilience and intellect or creativity and good judgment. Being able to articulate and identify exactly what those qualities are will help leaders to spot the tell-tale signs during interviews. Alongside the characteristics that leaders hold in special esteem there may be others to which they are allergic and which constitute an immediate turn-off, from insincerity to disloyalty.  

Typically, these qualities – both good and bad – cannot be properly investigated head-on, as direct questions tend to signal the expected answer. Instead, leaders are better off asking indirect questions to elicit more spontaneous and revealing responses. It could be a concrete inquiry such as "What are you reading and why?", or a more abstract question of the type favored by Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online retailer Zappos.com: "Who is your favorite superhero, and why?"  

3. Fit with others. In some situations team-fit is crucial and the leader will need to ascertain the candidates' "collaborative quotient" – whether or not they are capable of subordinating their personal interests to the common cause when needed. Leaders should look for the number of times candidates use "me" and "my" in the discussion and see how easily they can come up with examples when asked to talk about projects in which they had to work closely with others. In addition, leaders can use their external networks to investigate what particular candidates are really like to work with – and for.  

The other consideration that comes into play in this category is fit with the organization and its values. The question can be framed in two ways: negatively, by asking candidates what they detest the most in companies or people; and positively, by asking candidates why they have chosen the company. Such questions serve to indicate candidates' values, but also their understanding of the culture and the extent to which they have done their homework.  

A two-way challenge

So far, the emphasis has been very much on how the leader makes effective recruitment decisions. But there are two parties in this process, and it is the leader's responsibility to make sure that candidates can also make an informed decision about the role. The cost and disruption of senior level turnover is simply too high to take a chance on a badly matched hire and hiring mistakes send damaging messages about the leader's judgment and credibility.  

The leader therefore needs to tell it like it is in order to give candidates the chance to weigh up the position – even if that means turning down the offer.  

To give candidates a better chance to make the right call, leaders need to take three precautions: do not oversell the job; spell out their own leadership style in order to avoid unnecessary clashes; and invite questions. This can seem like a lot of time and emotional energy to devote to hiring. But the investment up front remains relatively small compared to the time leaders will subsequently spend trying to fix or extricate themselves from painful or unproductive relationships.  

The leader's challenge is to provide prospective hires with a sufficiently rich view of the context he or she is coming into in order to assess whether he or she can do a job here. Being a 'good fit' cuts both ways.

Dr. Preston Bottger is Professor of Leadership at IMD, where he teaches on the Program for Executive Development and Orchestrating Winning Performance. Dr. Jean-Louis Barsoux is a research fellow at IMD and collaborating with Professor Bottger on his recent book, Leading the Top Team.



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