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When it comes to executive hiring, one error in judgement can quickly snowball into a multi-million dollar mistake. Sadly, as the head of an Executive Search firm, I see it all too often. The selection team brings in a candidate with exceptional credentials – someone who “checks all the boxes” – gets mesmerized by the individual’s accomplishments or skills and fails to pay heed to the red flags.

HR experts estimate that the cost of a bad hire is as much as 7 times the individual’s annual salary. At the Vice President or C-Suite level, soft costs alone can be catastrophic with lasting, sometimes irreparable, damage to productivity, morale, business relationships (clients, customers, suppliers, distributors, etc.), and market position.


An interview is underway for the VP of Sales position at ABC Surfactants. Elise Watson, the Chief Commercial Officer, is conducting the interview for Mike Jacobs. Mike has an excellent resume; some of his tenures were short, but he is a high-performer skilled at achieving major growth from both new and existing customers and who experienced increased responsibility with each new role. He had both a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and his MBA. He had done well on his phone interview, as well, and ABC was nearly ready to present him an offer. Before doing so, though, they needed to go through the formality of a face-to-face interview.

Truth be told, knowing the interview was little more than “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s”, Elise found herself distracted. She heard Mike’s answers, but mentally she was fine-tuning the annual budget and thinking about the presentation she would be making to the CEO in a couple of hours.

“Mike, could you give me an example of a project you were involved in which required a significant amount of self-direction?”

She hated asking the question. Mike had started a surfactants business from the ground up which had recently been acquired by one of the largest chemical corporations in the world – there was no doubt he was experienced working without supervision. Still, these were the questions the hiring team had agreed upon for this position, so she stuck to the script.

“A couple of years ago, a colleague and I started our own company, AlphaOmega. I was in charge of commercial operations and Chuck handled all the technical stuff, and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet,’ as they say. Within a year of launch, I had achieved $20 million in sales. I have always enjoyed roles which allowed for a great deal of self-direction. I hate being bossed around, and I like things done in a certain way; that’s probably why I’m already on my third wife. I really excel when I am given the freedom to take control.”

Answers as Aesop's Fables

Did you catch the implication that Elise missed?

Behavior-based questions like the one above require candidates to support their personal claims with specific examples illustrating their past performance. Anyone can claim to be good at working with significant self-direction; it’s much harder to provide supporting evidence. In order for these questions to be effective, however, the interviewer has to really listen between the lines.

Consider candidate responses to behavior-based interview questions like Aesop’s Fables. There is a nice story, but you are really looking for the moral wrapped up inside that story. Hopefully the moral is in line with the characteristics you were trying to elicit with the question. Oftentimes, however, there will be even more to learn. In Mike’s case, the moral of his story is that although he is skilled at working independently, he is not nearly so good at taking direction from others and potentially struggles to allow his subordinates the same freedom of choice he demands for himself.

Marital status alone should never be a deciding factor in whether or not you hire a candidate. You can’t ask about it directly, nor should you. In this case, though, Mike offered up information that gives real insight into what kind of employee he would be – “I hate being bossed around, and I like things done in a certain way”. Being able to pursue and achieve objectives with minimal direction and oversight is one thing – but multiple divorces because of control issues is a major red flag. It also helps to explain why Mike’s tenure tends to be short – he may be a high performer, but he’s not much of a team player.

There is no substitute for paying attention.” -Diane Sawyer

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 your eardrums. Listening is another thing entirely – the acquisition of information. What I’m referring to – Active Listening – even goes a step beyond that. Active listening occurs when you hear beyond the speaker’s words and listen for the real meaning, context, intent and feelings behind the message.

When it comes to evaluating potential candidates – especially at the executive level – no skill is more critical than active listening. According to some studies, though, we only actively listen about 30% of the time; that means we are missing out on as much as 70% of the information people convey in an interview. And when we miss this crucial data, we fail to spot warning signs and red flags.

Becoming an Active Listener

Make no mistake: active listening takes effort. It requires focus, concentration, and a lot of practice. You have to consciously remove distractions and learn to process content and evaluate implications more efficiently. It will likely require some physical changes to the listening environment and a little mental reprogramming. However, that effort will prove extremely worthwhile – not just in improving your hiring process, but in all your interpersonal relationships.

Here are some general tips to help you become a better active listener:

  • Get control over internal distractions. The speed at which our brain works is both a blessing and a curse – we can speak approximately 150 words a minute, but we can think more than 800 words a minute. When our mind is not fully engaged in an activity, it tends to wander – and active listening stops. The challenge is to find ways to put distracting, tangential thoughts on hold. If you know there are specific issues weighing on your mind that may prove to be distractions, you may simply want to make a list of these topics before the interview so you can return to them once the meeting is over.
  • Plan ahead. Before beginning a discussion, ask yourself: “What do I need to learn from this conversation?” By consciously considering content beforehand, you open your mind to listen for critical information. In an interview situation, you can do this for each question you intend to ask; you may also wish to note potential follow-up questions based on answers you may expect to receive.
  • Write down important information. Taking notes is essential to active listening. Since you can’t turn off your brain, you can instead use a notepad to capture what’s going through your mind. Taking notes actually helps you stay more focused and frees your brain to listen.

Active Listening Tips for Hiring Managers

During a typical interview, most hiring managers will spend almost 80% of the time talking. An active listener, however, spends 80% of his time listening. If you want to get better information about the candidates you are evaluating, put these active listening tips into your interview routine:

  1. Listen to verify interest in the position. The most successful executives are passionate about their work. As an active listener, you are looking for evidence that the candidate is excited about your company, your industry, and the specific position they are interviewing for. Throughout the interview – not just at the beginning and / or end – you should hear excitement in the candidate’s tone and words. Listen for information on trends in your industry, the candidate’s fields of expertise and interest, and potential suggestions for dealing with challenges your firm faces.
  2. Listen for examples and experience. The best predictor of future performance is past performance. Pay careful attention to how candidates respond to your questions; you should listen for specific examples of when the candidate has demonstrated the kind of behaviors that will be necessary for them succeed in the open position. For example, if you’re looking for a visionary leader, you want to hear clear examples of times when the person exhibited visionary leadership. On the other hand, if you ask a question and only get a review of management theory in response (not supported by specific examples), you may have a candidate who is not truly qualified.
  3. Listen for qualities that may bring negativity to the job or the team. Rarely will candidates come right out and tell you they are lacking qualities you require, nor will they be open about what other baggage they may bring along with them. This is where you have to learn to listen between the lines of their examples. Listen for instances that suggest gossiping, overconfidence, a lack of assertiveness, a tendency to procrastinate, scoffing past employers, bragging, etc. Odds are that a person who exhibits this kind of negativity is not a team player and could become a destructive force in your company culture.
  4. Listen for additional attributes that could benefit the company. Just as active listening can help you uncover negative qualities a candidate possesses, you may also discover they have additional positive attributes that weren’t initially part of your ideal candidate profile. Making a list of any such traits you encounter in candidates may help you differentiate once you have narrowed the field down to two or three highly qualified finalists.
  5. Listen for what is important to the candidate. This may be one of the most important – and one of the most overlooked – aspects of interviewing. Hiring, especially at the executive level, needs to be a two-way street where both the candidate and the employer are gaining something from a mutually beneficial relationship. What are the candidate’s career goals? What motivates him or her? Find the answers to questions like these to make sure the candidate’s priorities match the realities of the job. If you neglect to ensure a good fit between candidate interests and what the position offers, you are much less likely to make a successful hire.

Counsel for the Candidate

Of course, active listening isn’t just for hiring managers! If you’re in the job market, active listening is critical to landing with the right organization.

As a job seeker, you want to learn about the company’s expectations, the opportunities you will have, and the microculture of the team you’ll be joining. In short, you want to make sure that working for this employer will be the right step in your career. Here are a few active listening tips for job seekers:

  1. Focus on learning rather than just selling yourself. This advice may sound flawed; after all, isn’t the point of a job interview to sell yourself? However, whenever you’re worried about “looking good”, you tend to be more nervous, ask fewer questions, and miss important information. In short, trying to sell yourself makes it harder to effectively sell yourself. Instead, go into the interview well-prepared, knowing as much as you can about the company and its industry. Use this knowledge to ask insightful questions about the organization, the work environment, their perspective on industry trends, and the measures of success they have for candidates. Use all of this information to validate that this really is the best opportunity for you.
  2. Show that you are actively listening. Maintain eye contact and exhibit good posture. Provide cues that you are listening and interested by nodding in agreement, taking notes, and asking follow-up questions. Reflect important statements back to the interviewer and expound on them: “What I hear you saying is that this is a very fast-paced work environment, and it is easy for employees to fall behind. I have always preferred a hectic work environment to one that is subject to lulls. My previous employer had a similar environment. I pioneered a new program for time management that was ultimately implemented throughout the organization and resulted in a 50% reduction in missed deadlines.”
  3. Listen for important names and other key details. During the interview process, you may learn new information about people in the firm, organizational challenges, or competitive issues. If you are offered the job, you may want to refer to this information to help you evaluate your acceptance decision.
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