Hire people who can think
I am often encouraged by surveys of the attributes executives look for when they hire.
An increasing number recognize that education, certifications, and even experience are insufficient. The so-called soft skills are of critical importance.
The surveys say that hiring managers look for communication skills and an understanding of the business as well as, or even ahead of, what the resume has to say about the candidate.
But I don’t see these attributes rated highly enough:
- The ability and willingness to challenge traditional thinking
There’s an old story about the candidate who told the hiring manager he had ten years’ experience performing a particular job. After a few questions and answers, the hiring manager observed that “You don’t have ten years’ experience; you have one year, repeated ten times.”
I have been very fortunate over the years to have brought onto my team some exceptionally talented, intelligent, curious, imaginative, leaders.
I like to think that I was able to select these stars with an unconventional interviewing technique that enabled me to see whether they would be able to think. This excerpt from World-Class Internal Audit: Tales from my Journey, describes my experience and approach.
Too many auditors are trained not to think. They are told to follow an audit program or checklist that somebody else created (in some cases, the checklist may have been developed some years earlier when the environment was different, and in other cases taken from a textbook without specific tailoring for the organization being audited). One of my tasks, as a manager and developer of these people, was to break those chains and insist that they think for themselves.
I had to find a way to assess each candidate’s intellect, curiosity, imagination, and ability to learn during my interviews with them. The standard questioning based on the resume would not work, especially as candidates were generally prepared and trained by the executive recruiter on how to answer such questions.
When I interviewed with the chairman of the Tosco audit committee, Michael Tennenbaum, I learned a lesson in non-traditional interviewing. It didn’t help that I had been told that this brilliant man was eccentric, driving a pink Rolls Royce Corniche to and from his aerie office near Beverly Hills (he was a Vice Chair with Bear, Stearns) and at the age of 74 skied a grand slalom course at Vail. I entered the meeting with the great man already a little intimidated, but I was somewhat prepared for the barrage of questions about why I had twice postponed my interview. He tested my ‘mettle’ and whether I could stand up to him and for myself. (This helped him assess whether I would be able to stand up to management should the need arise.)
I was not ready for the next line of questioning. Instead of asking about my prior experience, he asked me what I read. He explored how my mind worked, whether I was open to new ideas, could work with management and not just be a thorn in their side, and whether I had the intellectual ability to contribute as a direct report to the audit committee and an advisor to top management.
When I interviewed potential new hires, I wanted to obtain the same kind of insights into their mind – brilliant or stale. So, I developed a style of interviewing that many find unusual. It has multiple benefits: in addition to helping assess people’s ability to think, it gets past the barriers created when recruiters train their candidates how to answer questions during an interview because I ask questions they cannot predict.
The essence of the interviewing technique is to help the candidate first become comfortable by asking them questions about their resume and why they have applied. They are ready for this and confident in their replies.
Then, I describe a situation (based on a real life experience that they should understand, at least in principle) and ask how they would approach an audit. If they ask for an audit program, that would conclude the interview. But, if they ask questions to improve their understanding of the underlying risks they would earn points of respect.
It doesn’t matter whether they come up with the same approach that I would take, or even if they overlook an important issue. What matters to me is whether they are able to think through a situation they have never encountered and suggest an audit approach that makes sense and demonstrates that they have an intellect and can use it.
I have been told that candidates are not able to read whether I am satisfied with their answers and whether they are doing well in the interview. But they do say that I make them feel comfortable and stretch their ability to think ‘on the fly’. That is what I am trying to achieve and it seems to have worked well over the years.
In hindsight, I have been blessed to have had the support of some brilliant people over the years. I am very proud of the teams I have led. Of course I have made mistakes and some of the hires didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. But, most of the mistakes occurred when I made the mistake of placing too much trust in an individual’s resume and too little on their intelligence, or placed too much trust in a direct report to hire well without ensuring that they understand how to assess intellect, curiosity, and imagination.
I welcome your comments.
How do you hire?