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.”
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.
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.
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:
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:
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: