Matters Arising: Recruiting at the top

There are many misconceptions about senior executive interviews and what the post global financial crisis world means for top-level recruitment. Stylistically, interviews range from the informal chat to structured behavioural ‘grillings’. The approach generally depends on the interviewer’s preference and personality. How, then, do both sides get the most from the process?
I usually come to decision about chief or senior executive candidate in the first five minutes of the interview. My gut instinct serves me well about 85 percent of the time. The next 90-120 minutes are spent validating my hypothesis.
Many CEOs are similarly quick to make decisions. They don’t, however, have the time or inclination to review their instinctive choices. First impressions are therefore critical.
Neverthless, some basics shouldn’t be forgotten. Candidates should, for example, have an open demeanour, be articulate, dress appropriately and be on time. Obviously they should be prepared to discuss the organisation and its environment, to offer insights and analysis and, ask thoughtful, well-structured questions. Confident yet humble is good; cocky is disastrous.
The candidate similarly uses the meeting to assess the company and the interviewer/s. If they are not using professional recruiter, CEOs or chairmen who conduct interviews should think about the following:

Be prepared Read the candidate’s CV and the search firm’s report. Check out LinkedIn and the web for other commentary. I’m constantly shocked by the number of CEOs who embarrass themselves by asking questions that reveal they haven’t read the CV of the person sitting opposite.

Created relaxed environment Avoid formal, structured ‘question and answer’ approach. Instead, have preconceived set themes in mind that allow you to incorporate questions into an informal and interactive discussion.

Set expectations In first-round interview, couch the discussion on the basis that it is an introductory meeting and there are several people to see in following weeks. This way the meeting can be to cut short if necessary.

Be prepared to talk about the company and role Make the explanation clear, concise and objective. The candidate will be evaluating your insights and understanding of the organisation’s culture, business mechanics and market position. Interviewers should reacquaint themselves with the core business to ensure that basic questions are answered well. I’ve seen unprepared chairmen fail to provide credible briefing to the extent that prospective non-executive directors opt out of the appointment process.

Act appropriately There is, with all senior hires, an expectation that the meeting is two-way process that gives both parties the opportunity to qualify things. I’ve watched chairmen and CEOs adopt “why should we hire you?” attitude in settings where the candidate is highly passive. Scenarios like this usually end with the candidate feeling that the company’s agent is not smart enough to read the tea leaves and the candidate is put off.

Now for the candidate. If he or she got the basics right and made good first impression, what next? Avoid these potential pitfalls.

Detail Take note of the questions and the interviewer’s body language and avoid inappropriate detail unless prompted. Candidates shouldn’t spend too long answering question when the interviewer was looking for very brief response.

Name dropping This is small, interconnected market. It’s amazing who knows who. Be wary of who your interviewer may know and think carefully before boasting.

Success has many fathers Be wary of taking credit for or alluding to successes which are not truly yours. Similarly, don’t pretend there hasn’t been loss or failure. Talk openly about when you got it wrong. Even emphasise what you learned from the experience. Individuals who seem unable to do wrong should start alarm bells ringing.

GFC desperation Show interest in the role and the organisation, but don’t seem over-keen. This can raise concerns about real motivation and potential marketability.
Chairs or CEOs will, hopefully, impress candidates with their compelling presentation of the job, the quality of their questioning, and the time taken to understand the candidate’s abilities, career motivations and concerns.

Now what? Be clear about the next steps and timeframes to ensure expectations are managed. Give validation to people who impress. Highlight gaps to those you seek to counsel out of the process.
Alternatively, use the expectation of an ongoing process to be more opaque and manage candidates after firming up your views. Remember, the process needs to reflect well on both the candidate and the organisation.

Mark Ashcroft is partner at SEQEL, the executive search, board appointments and succession planning firm.

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