Finding the right executive for the job

Interviewers more concerned about picking wrong person than missing right one
By Ronald Robertson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/31/2010

At their core, interviewers are often more concerned about the risk of selecting the wrong person than missing the right person. In the world of executive selection, the ideal is to reverse this order — an interviewer should first assume she is sitting in front of a prize candidate and, if given evidence to support this assumption, then focus on why the candidate might not be a good fit.

At present, organizations regularly miss out on top talent right under their noses by jumping to negative conclusions too quickly. Even the most experienced do it, rejecting people they consider “not aggressive enough” or “lacking energy or drive to build a company” only to see them go on and be very successful at a competitor.

Interviews are packed with the possibility of error. Simply put, they are artificial discussions. In many instances, they do not and cannot replicate what it is like to work with an individual. At best, all an interviewer can extract is a series of inferences: “Based on the candidate’s responses, I predict he would behave in the following way on the job…”

Even a simple handshake at the beginning of an interview can be highly predictive of an interview’s outcome, according to a study by the University of Toledo. An interviewer forms an initial impression of a candidate and after that, the “halo effect” influences perception — the interviewer may only see what she has a bias to see.

So what, if anything, can be done to overcome some of the fundamental flaws of interviewing when selecting people for key executive positions?

Suspend the tendency to make a quick judgment. If it’s worth the time to interview someone because of his accomplishments, it’s worth the time to find out why his life has unfolded as it has to this point, and how it is likely to unfold in the future. Focus on the reoccurring themes that have resulted in his successes. Simultaneously, try to detect themes that have resulted in failure. Both are worth noting for later validation by references.

Ensure the validity of references. There are three steps here:

• Generate the names of several people with whom the candidate has previously worked but not listed as a reference. Ask the candidate’s permission to call these references. How she responds may provide additional information of value.

• Try to think of someone you know well who also knows the candidate. Information from a trusted source is likely to be more candid than from a stranger.

• If feasible, meet face-to-face with references rather than calling them on the telephone. In-person interviews regularly produce far more reliable information than any other manner.

Identify a position’s core competencies

Conducting an interview and checking references are merely processes for gathering information. Candidates must be rated against the competencies needed to succeed in a specific position.

To determine the competencies that are most important in a position, ask the question: “For this position, what knowledge, abilities and personal characteristics must a candidate have so the organization can achieve its strategic goals?”

As a rule, identify the four to six competencies that are truly most critical.

Then, start the interviewing process to determine three separate dimensions of assessment:

The candidate’s competencies: Does the candidate have the critical skills needed to excel in the job? Will she be able to set the direction and inspire others while exercising proper fiduciary responsibility? Does she have the emotional intelligence and critical self-awareness to read situations accurately and adjust to changing conditions? Will she adapt to the new environment and build a base of support before introducing major change?

The candidate’s interest: Does the candidate really like the job and what’s involved, enough to make the personal sacrifices demanded by the position? Will he commit to remaining with the organization long enough to contribute lasting value? Will family members and significant others support the move, especially if relocation is required?

The candidate’s crucial weaknesses: Does the candidate have a fatal flaw that could undo the value she would otherwise bring to the job? For example, does she have a management style that will be unacceptable or a pattern of behaviour that will not fit well in the organization?

Interviewers are often unaware of the risk of turning down the right candidate. Some, in their eagerness to demonstrate how insightful they are in reading people, “shoot from the hip” and reach amazing conclusions about a candidate based on exceedingly limited data. They think they can see the whole picture by looking at only one or two pieces of the puzzle.

Perhaps the single most important step in avoiding the bias effect of interviews is to simply suspend judgment until more information is gathered. In this regard, evaluating an executive should be somewhat analogous to watching the slow development of a Polaroid photo: With time, the picture becomes clearer.

Ronald Robertson is a managing partner at the Ottawa office of Odgers Berndtson, a worldwide executive search firm. He can be reached at (613) 742-3200 or For more information ,visit

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