Home > Audit, Governance, GRC, Risk > Hire people who can think

Hire people who can think

December 13, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

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:

  • Intelligence
  • Curiosity
  • Imagination
  • The ability and willingness to challenge traditional thinking
  • Leadership

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?

  1. December 13, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    I ask unexpected questions on current audit issues to see whether they read and have imagination.I do also ask a question on how they will deal with a fraud committed by a CEO or a question on how they will deal with a leakage by the Chairman of the Audit Committee to ascertain their intelligence and determination.

  2. Gary Starzmann
    December 13, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    Very nice discussion, Norman. I agree wholeheartedly!

  3. Nancy Haig
    December 13, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    Spot on, Norman. We need team members who are curious, bright and articulate ! And guess what ? If we hire based solely on these competencies we will have a truly diverse team – another win !

  4. December 13, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    I so agree with you. These are the sort of questions the professors ask potential students at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Sadly there are organisations that dictate how you interview to ensure a level playing field – fair enough, but when you have to ask all candidates the same pre-agreed questions it can be more difficult to explore the areas you (and I) are interested in. The worst case I came across, when I was an Audit Committee chair, was the appointment of a very dull, unimaginative, traditional thinking, closed and hostile individual. I asked the CAE how he had come to make the appointment. “well, they scored sufficient points on each of the set questions and their score made them the most “appointable”,” he said. Of course, it called into question whether the CAE had the qualities of Intelligence, Curiosity, Imagination, ability and willingness to challenge traditional thinking, and Leadership.

  5. eugenefram
  6. Suresh Kumar
    December 14, 2014 at 8:05 PM

    It is really a good discussion.

  7. December 16, 2014 at 8:43 AM

    Great anecdote. An interesting problem is sheer lack of supply of top talent in the marketplace (people who could actually answer these questions successfully). How can you balance filling a position with finding a great candidate? More specifically, how do you communicate that your position is worth taking if your company doesn’t have the brand recognition or prestige in the marketplace? Sometimes the interview is as much a sales pitch for the company as the candidate.

  8. Deb
    December 19, 2014 at 1:40 AM

    Good idea, Norman. I have audit case study/ies (usually with two alternative scenarios) which I administer as part of auditor interviews. In addition to the thinking prowess, it’s also meant to bring out communication clarity level and the ability to be responsive to the needs of a range of stakeholders who may read audit reports/executive summaries.

  9. Urvil Khakhar
    December 20, 2014 at 9:35 AM

    Nice thought ! Dynamic attitude towards auditing can help align to the business more effectively.

  10. January 7, 2015 at 1:16 AM

    I use a similar 5 characteristics for hiring. Yes, experience and qualifications not enough, but they are essential. They give technical and context to decision making. You can see around corners. I have experienced these attributes being compromised for a higher priority of softer skills with disastrous results. That said, without softer skills you end up too process driven – not seeing the wood for the trees. I believe dynamic thinking needs all three. A rare quality indeed.

    Those of us who are perhaps not in the first flush of youth should reflect on how we think differently today, than say 20 years ago. For the better I hope!

    I think there is a broader argument too (outside this discussion) to consider why thinking requirements are diminishing (education, business skill for job need, market value etc). The UK has seen a substantial increase in skill downgrading in jobs for the masses.

    Great post topic.

  11. Judy
    March 9, 2015 at 5:18 PM

    Very good article Norman. Thank you. I am experiencing this currently, as am being told that they want financial services experience (I have but years ago), and do not care if the person is working towards certifications, have fraud investigations experience, over ten years of audit experience – can perform the functions with minimal to no supervision – that audit and investigation skills are transferable, a person’s intelligence or curiosity, etc.

  12. May 20, 2015 at 7:22 PM

    thanks for nice sharing

  1. December 15, 2014 at 8:00 AM
  2. December 23, 2014 at 9:28 AM

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