In my career as a headhunter, I’ve interviewed thousands of people. Most of the blatant impostors don’t get past the resume review stage, but occasionally there’ve been people who in an interview just don’t seem to have it altogether (here are a few examples), or something just doesn’t add up with what they’re saying and what their actual track record is saying. Here are some warning signs to look for when you’re interviewing.
1) Numbers don’t lie, or do they?: Our firm works primarily with Director through SVP level candidates on the revenue creating side of our clients’ business. As such, it’s imperative that we learn about tangible accomplishments, and that they’re justified with precise data. When a candidate throws out eye-popping numbers, such “improved product revenue by 120% over 3 quarters”, the obvious follow up question is, “Wow! How did you accomplish this?”. The real performers will clearly roadmap the process that led to these numbers, the pretenders will offer packaged clichés or not be able to articulate their role in the performance improvement.
2) Nice shoes, nice shirt, nice hair: There’s an acceptable level of complimentary dialogue between hiring managers and candidates, often this small talk will lighten up the nerves so everyone can perform their best. But when a candidate goes overboard with compliments in a way that borders on sycophancy and consistently works flattery into the conversation, it becomes a warning sign that this might be someone who’s disingenuous- that they believe in charming their way into a deal. Our clients aren’t typically purveyors of snake-oil, and as such would rather to hear about a disciplined and consultative sales strategy than the compliments on their lap-top bag.
3) I think I smell a rat: Not everyone gets along, that’s life. However, there is an appropriate way to address past issues with employers. If a candidate is snide or consistently negative when discussing prior employees, and if they discourage reference calls with former employers, somethin’ ain’t right! The exception to the reference rule, of course, is when a candidate is still employed and is interviewing confidentially. In this event, we ask “If an offer is extended, would you be agreeable to us performing reference calls prior to putting in your resignation?” The expected right answer is, “Sure, if we get to that point, that’s not a problem”, anything else is a little suspect.
4) Money first, details later: When a candidate makes lofty salary demands prior to interacting with a hiring team and understanding the organization or the role, they might be in this for the wrong reasons. Most ultra-talented folks who are indispensable to their employers treat an interview as an exploration of an opportunity to do their best work, not a pursuit of the best paycheck. Oh, by the way, most of those who match themselves with the opportunity over the paycheck have longer tenures and ultimately, make more money. Imagine that.
5) Made you look!: There’s no place for trickery in an interview. When a candidate deftly steers interview topics away from critical performance needs, instead talking about strengths in areas that aren’t relevant to the role on the table, there’s cause for some concern. Top performers are confident enough to enthusiastically announce that they lack experience in an area, and express ideas on how they believe they can conquer this area in the future, they don’t try to distract you from this missing piece by sharing their handicap on the golf course.
As an Executive Recruiter and a Sr. Consultant charged with training internal recruiting groups on how to effectively grow teams to peak performance through recruitment and succession, I must track the trends of what key characteristics and skill sets employers look for.
Over the last 5 years, some of the buzz words that I’ve seen come and go (and sometimes stick around far beyond their welcome), have included:
- In Senior Sales roles: Rainmakers, Mobile Book of Business, Proven Closer
- In Finance, Audit, and Accounting: Big 4 Experience, Analytical by nature, Problem Solver
- In Executive Leadership Roles (Director and up): Visionary, Entrepreneurial, Strategic
The trend with these idioms is clearly aligned with the tasks at hand for people in the positions. While the terms themselves may have become cliché, they remain
Like any professionals, Executive Recruiters “talk shop”. Folks like to get together and chat about their wins and losses. And because there’s a significant sales component to this role, we’re judged more by our wins than our losses. As such, when talkin’ shop, it’s sometimes hard to discern what information being shared is accurate. Imagine a Ford Salesperson standing next to a Chevy Salesperson talking about the number of units they sold in October and what the Gross Margins were on their deals, it’s similar here. Before I co-founded Élever Professional, I was with a Fortune 500 Staffing firm. Former colleagues from those days often call me with reports of such gaudy sales figures that I wonder how they can fit them all in a 24 hour day. I typically leave these conversations with a chuckle and a 30 minute deficit on my calendar. Click here to read more
Recently, I left one of these conversations concerned about the state of the industry. A former Sr. Director with a large staffing company called me to let me know that their own firm had decided to shift from a generalist and staffing mentality to an industry focused Executive Search firm. Their plan was to do away with temporary staffing altogether and build upon their recent success with a client in their new “area of expertise”. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want to be like me. Hey, no offense, Pal. None taken.
By me, they were referring to my firm’s long term commitments to a small and select number of clients, rather than a large and expansive pipeline that covered the gamut of search requisitions, from entry level admins and mail clerks to CEOs. They’d closed a significant amount of work with one client and realized that there is money to be made in a relatively under-serviced field, and they were going to re-brand and go after it! What’s the problem with that? There’s a large addressable market with a proportionately small competitive field. Smart business decision, right? There is no problem there, fundamentally, but as I asked key questions in an effort to learn about their commitment to this field and their relative success, red flags began to unravel in every direction. Here’s an unofficial transcript, sensationalized for your reading enjoyment. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (or guilty):
Our Executive Search work is done primarily in Software, Mobile, and Interactive media and as such we’re often engaged in nationwide searches that require a Skype or other Video Conference call. With each virtual interview that we facilitate I offer coaching and general pep-talks to our candidates prior to their call so as to leave them well prepared for what is naturally an awkward venue. Below I’ve shared some common concerns and natural insecurities that people share, especially those who aren’t regular users of video conferencing.
Please hold, we’re having technical difficulties: Nothing will create a feeling of anxiety and cause a candidate to lose focus on the task at hand more than a broken stream or technical difficulties. I recommend using a wired internet connection where possible and your best hardware. Don’t pull the 2002 Dell Dimensions out of the closet and hope for it to perform with 2011 Software applications. Most importantly, test your equipment AND your Skype software prior to your meeting.
Prior to founding Élever Professional, I worked in the executive search program at Manpower, Inc., (NYSE: MAN), so I’ve had a great deal of experience recruiting for large corporations. In 2011 the firm I founded, Élever Professional, stopped taking on new enterprise clients. Due to a low success rate, a lack of efficiency, and a perceived lack of willingness to engage the true top performers in the field it became clear that our resources were better allocated to smaller, more nimble companies. We’re aggressive, diligent headhunters. We only go after the top talent. We believe that success depends on mutually transparent communication. The hiring philosophies and procedural requirements of large corporations just don’t align with our mode.
I should offer the pretense that the actual infrastructure at most large companies is so super-efficient that it’s not crucial to hire and recruit the top 10% in a given talent pool. Often the most talented individuals require “freedom to roam”, which doesn’t work within the mega corporate machinations. Few brilliant ideas are heard, few creative concepts for improvement ever make it out of the presentation stage, and implementation of those ideas and concepts takes forever. It’s maddeningly cumbersome for those who want to aggressively make a mark and turn the world on its ear.
The takeaway: Here are 3 common recruiting mistakes we see on the enterprise level. They’re also easy to commit by start-ups and SMB’s, only the repercussions for growing organizations carry much more weight and can prove costly.
If an executive recruiter from Élever Professional calls, answer the phone. And if you’re an executive worth your salt, the chances of us calling are 300% greater in 2013 than they were this time last year. We’re pretty nice people. We love dogs of all sizes, wine, organic gardening, baseball and sail boats. Some of our people even play Frisbee Golf. We’ll be thrifty with your time and respectful of your privacy.
Ok, so we may not call. In many cases we’ll send an unobtrusive introductory email or an old-fashioned letter. It looks something like this: