Hiring the right people is a tough challenge in today’s pandemic-influenced business environment. It’s been especially difficult for my organization, which has grown by triple digits since the first quarter of this year. As the CEO and last-mile interviewer, I’ve recently had the pleasure (and occasional pain) of interviewing dozens of candidates for executive-level positions. Once they’ve passed all the other hurdles to determine their qualifications, my job is to assess cultural fit in our organization, which means I have the luxury of exploring the “softer” or qualitative side.
I’ve learned a lot about questions I should have been asking for years, and about which characteristics end up being the most important predictors of success.
Warren Buffett once said he looks for three things in people: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And, Buffett noted, if they don’t have that first trait—integrity—you actually don’t want them to have the other two. Without integrity, everything crumbles. When hiring for high standards and culture, as we do at Level Legal, how can interviewers test for integrity and other qualitative attributes?
We’ve all had the experience of hiring a candidate who looks good on paper and nails the interview loop, only to find a very short time later we missed something crucial on the soft side. They might be clashing with the larger culture, or a tendency toward negativity or self-centeredness could be poisoning morale. Here are some tried-and-true (but perhaps not so obvious) tips for separating great candidates from ones who initially show well, but ultimately lead to disappointment. The below qualities are characteristics I’ve learned to look for during the interview process.
1. Are They Actually Listening?
A respectful person listens carefully, not with an intention to later discredit others, but rather to leave room for discourse and consider new information. The trait of good listening often indicates a mindset that is capable of hearing and considering new thoughts, ideas, and opinions—which is essential in leadership. Is the candidate attentive and engaged when you and others speak to them? Do they reflect back what is said to them? Or are they simply waiting for their turn and offering back canned, general answers? If the latter, it’s a sign that they are unlikely to be fit for a leadership role.
2. How Do They React to Being Challenged?
Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman says that if he had a magic wand, the one trait he would eliminate in human beings is overconfidence in the outcome of predictions. Oftentimes we as humans become so attached to our own visions of the future that we do not consider other possible outcomes.
Find something in your conversation that indicates what the candidate believes about the future. Then challenge it with reason. If the candidate becomes defensive and attempts to argue or disprove the comment, this could be a leading indicator of problems down the road, often indicative of someone who may struggle leading others or being questioned.
3. Test for the Excellence Reflex
This tip comes from Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality, one of the best leaders of our time. What Meyer calls the “excellence reflex” is the natural reaction to fix something that isn’t right or to improve something that could be better. It’s rooted in instinct and upbringing, and constantly honed through awareness, caring, and practice.
This is best discerned through a situational inquiry. During an interview, find an example in your own work experience where the proper action wasn’t necessarily the most obvious, but instead required an instinctive move to go above and beyond. This often shows up in a willingness to show caring and hospitality to a customer, vendor, partner, or another associate. The overarching concern to do the right thing—and do it well—is a soft skill it’s very hard to train for. Either it’s there or it isn’t. At Level Legal this shows up in one of our core values: Give a damn.
4. Ask Candidates to Be Patient with the Interview Process
Assess how your candidate responds to multiple rounds of interviews. At Level Legal we have an intentionally thorough process—not for the purpose of testing the candidate but so that we can have as many perspectives as possible in our assessment. Overconfident candidates may expect to be hired after one or two interviews. The goal is not to push the candidates’ patience, but rather evaluate their willingness to learn and communicate.
5. Lean on Someone You Trust
Ask someone you trust in your company, someone who the candidate will perceive as unimportant, to conduct the first interview. Even better if this person is an introvert. After, ask for candid input from the interviewer. Did they feel respected? Did the candidate bring their “A” game to the discussion?
6. Are They a Glass Half-Full or Glass Half-Empty Kind of Person?
Employees should never be happier than their leaders about coming to work. A negative attitude from someone in a leadership role can spread like cancer across your employees and your customers. Hire those who seem genuinely engaged and excited about the role and who have a positive orientation. In the interview, how do they speak about previous employers and previous experiences? How do they talk about possibilities in the future? If negativity dominates, you may want to think again.
7. Ask Questions That Require Verifiable Answers
During the interview, be prepared to ask about prior results. If a candidate cannot quickly answer with examples or data to back up what they say and instead chooses to rely on charm or force of personality, or chooses to divert by asking another question, this should raise a red flag. A strong leadership candidate knows how to quantify and demonstrate their impact in previous roles.
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When it comes to hiring, there are no hard-and-fast rules for separating the wheat from the chaff. I have found these intangible attributes to be important indicators of future success. My hope is that these telltale signs will lead other CEOs in the right direction towards making a rock star new hire who’s there for the long term.