Growing Great Companies


Listening Between the Lines

Avoid catastrophic hiring mistakes by simply learning to listen.

Was it a multi-million dollar mistake? Maybe it was more. And sadly, as the head of an executive search firm, I see it all too often. What I’m referring to is when employers hire a resume rather than a person. They bring in a candidate with exceptional credentials, get mesmerized by the individual’s accomplishments or skills, and then simply fail to pay attention during the hiring process.

An Illustration

Consider this scenario. An interview is underway for the VP of Sales position at ABC Surfactants. Elise Watson, the COO, is conducting the interview, but mentally she’s still fine tuning the annual budget and thinking about her presentation to the CEO. During the interview, the candidate casually mentions he hates being bossed around – probably why he has gone through four wives. Distracted by other thoughts, Elise misses the implication. This job works for a demanding boss and the sales force are mostly very experienced long term employees. This is not the right candidate – even though the companies he’s worked for are impressive he’s rarely stayed with a company more than a few years – and Elise is about to give her stamp of approval to what’s likely to be a disastrous hire. 

While this story is merely an illustration, I’ve witnessed similar situations many times in the real world. Poor decisions are made simply because people fail to process what they are hearing. And these decisions are expensive! HR experts estimate that the cost of a bad hire is 2 to 7 times the individual’s annual salary. But when you’re hiring a C-level executive or a technologist to drive your R&D, the costs of a hiring mistake can be catastrophic with lasting and sometimes irreparable damage to productivity, morale, client relationships, and market position. The hard and soft costs of a bad executive hire can easily run into the millions.

So how do you avoid a disastrous hiring mistake? All you have to do is listen.

Do you know how to listen? I mean really listen?  Hearing is one thing – the physical vibration of sound waves on an eardrum. Listening is another – the acquisition of information. But, what I’m really referring to goes a step further than that. It is called active listening. Active listening occurs when you hear beyond the speaker’s words and listen for the meaning; and even more so when you search for the context, intent, and feelings behind the message.

“I think one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention.”

– Diane Sawyer

When it comes to evaluating potential candidates, especially senior level talent, no skill is more critical than active listening. Yet according to some studies, we actively listen only about 30% of the time. In other words, we are missing out on as much as 70% of the information people are conveying during the interview process. And when we miss this data, we fail to spot warning signs. As Diane Sawyer once said, “I think one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention.”

So how do you become an active listener?

A Guide to Active Listening

Make no mistake; active listening takes work. It requires focus, concentration, and practice. You have to consciously remove distractions and learn to process content and evaluate implications more efficiently. Actively listening will very likely require some physical changes to the environment and a little reprogramming of your brain. But the effort will prove to be extremely worthwhile—not just in the hiring process, but in all your efforts to manage people.

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