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Selecting Top Management Talent

Carl Robinson

I recently was asked to give a presentation to a group of CEOs about how
to select top management talent. Given the expense associated with
recruiting executives and the high cost of making poor choices you would
think executives would want to do this well. However, I am continually
amazed at how frequently senior HR folks will tell me that they have a very
difficult time getting their bosses to follow “best practices” in the selection
of executives. That may explain in part why “33 – 50 % of executives
selected for senior positions fail…” according to the most current
research. Usually the failure has little to do with the executive’s basic
competencies but more to do with the wrong matching of executive to a
job. “Wrong person – wrong job…usual cause for failure…” according to
Randall P. White, adjunct professor at Fuqua School of Business, Duke
University and a well respected consultant to Fortune 25 companies.

In my work as an executive coach, as a consulting psychologist hired by
companies to conduct executive evaluations and as a former management
recruiter, I have interviewed hundreds of executives. I am continually
amazed at how often they will tell me that when they were interviewed by a
CEO or a Venture capitalist, as a frequent example, that the interviewer
spent most of the time talking and mostly trying to sell them on taking the
job. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Below are the 11 Steps for selecting top management talent I give to all
the CEOs I coach:

1. Have a well-thought-out recruitment process in place – Be Systematic.
Don’t shoot from the hip. Prepare in advance and follow the steps below.

2. Identify the interview team and ensure everyone who will interview the
candidate has been trained on interviewing techniques. Interviewing well is
a learned skill.

3. Develop a role expectations description based on criteria that everyone
agrees upon. It’s important to have all the interviewers on the same page
about what is required. For example, if one person thinks a certain
personality type is needed while another thinks differently they will be
cross-wise when they compare their evaluations.

4. Ask behavioral, open-ended questions based on the position
requirements to guard against “would do” vs. “have done.” It’s usually not
very helpful to ask candidates “can you do x?” 9 times out of 10 they will
say yes because they think they can. Remember, “the best predictor of
future behavior is past behavior.” When you’re spending big bucks you
want to hire people who have a track record doing what you need done.
So ask something like, “Tell me how you handled dealing with x?” If you
are looking for “creative,” “out-of-the-box” types you will need to ask
questions that explore how they were creative in the past. If they have
been creative they will likely continue to be…under the right
circumstances. One caveat; you better provide a healthy work
environment or even the most creative person will wither.

5. Decide who will ask the candidate what questions. It’s usually best to
divide the questions based on interviewer competency. For example, let
finance people ask the finance questions. .

6. Prepare interview questions in advance. Take notes so that you won’t
forger what they said. I guarantee that you will either forget what the first
interviewee said or mix his/her responses with subsequent interviewees if
you don’t take notes. Ask each candidate the same questions so that you
can compare answers and more accurately and yes…more scientifically,
compare candidates.

7. First date; don’t go too far too fast. Don’t make a hiring decision based
on your first interview. Take your time. Compare candidates.

8. Make the candidates feel comfortable – they reveal more if they aren’t
on guard. Sure, if you make the interview feel like an interrogation you’ll
know how they respond to questioning under pressure but it’s unlikely
they’ll tell you much revealing about themselves because they will be on
the defensive. So, if you want to hire tough but defensive
people…interrogate away.

9. Always allow enough time in the interview for the candidate to ask
questions -- the number and caliber of their questions will tell you a lot
about how they think.

10. Do extensive reference checking (minimum 6) using prepared
behavioral questions to verify “have done vs. will do.” Make sure the
candidate has actually done what they say they have. And at the CEO
level, be very careful not to fall for the “halo effect” (see below), a very
common interview “selection bias error.”

Research has shown that interviewers commonly fall prey to one or more
types of “selection bias errors.” So, don’t fool yourself…be systematic so
that you are not fooled by your “gut feelings” which might actually be
unconscious selection bias errors. Being systematic and following the
above steps will also help you more likely counter “selection bias errors”
such as the following:

Primacy effect - picking a person because they are the freshest in your

Order effect – more often than not, people think the first or last interviewee
was the best even when the middle one was the true star.

Subjective weightings – check those biases at the door, e.g., male/female,
color, height, school, country club, accent, how they are dressed, etc. You
get the picture.

Self-image hiring – Just because they think like you doesn’t make the
candidate a terrific choice. Halo effect – Especially for CEO candidates, be
careful about the impact reading about a candidate in the press or seeing
them on TV may have on you. Or…if a Venture Capitalist says…”he’s
doesn’t have what takes to be a CEO” meaning he or she is charismatic.
Too often interviewers are bias toward “charismatic” personality types
even though there is no scientific evidence to support that charismatic
leaders are more effective.

11. Used scientifically validated and sophisticated pre-employment
assessment tools. Assessment instruments have come a long ways in the
last 20 years. Used appropriately and with the proper training, assessment
instruments designed for selection can help you pick top talent well
matched to your company. Pre-employment tests, validated specifically for
your organization can also be developed. These types of instruments can
help you clearly target the critical characteristics and traits necessary for
success in your organization, helping you hire candidates who will perform
at a high level. One of the added benefits of using pre-employment tests is
that they are not prone to “selection bias errors.” The assessment
software programs don’t fall for the “halo effect” or “order effect,” for

Last tips…

You must sell the candidate on the job and company but don’t talk more
than 20% of the time. Let them tell their story.

Don’t over inflate the company– truth in packaging! For example, if your
company is struggling, don’t gloss it over. There really are people who
would prefer to take on that type of challenge than to work for a mature
predictable company. Match the person with the right job by telling the
truth about the job/company.

Don’t ask “yes” or “no” questions.

Remember – Recruiting is a Marketing Event for the company and for you!
Treat all candidates respectfully because even if they aren’t hired they will
remember how you treated them and they may just refer to you a top-flight
candidate and save you big recruiting bucks! Furthermore, they might
choose or not choose to become a customer some day depending on how
you treated them. Lastly, your interviewee might be your interviewer some


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