What I Love and Hate About Interviewing Executive Candidates

After 30 plus years in industry, consulting and ultimately private equity and now CEO of Nablis, I have interviewed way more executives and aspiring executives than I can remember. Many of them have been excellent and given me deep insight into some great candidates. Yet, so many over the years have been down right painful or annoying. Like watching a funny, but very uncomfortable episode of the TV show, “The Office”.

Recently, Business Insider published an article, “18 annoying things job candidates do that make hiring managers not like them”. The article was primarily written for younger millennial candidates, but it was amazing how many of the 18 annoying things I have experienced in interviewing senior executive candidates and many of their cohorts over the years.

Let’s Start with Some of My Favorites

The first is, “I am not really sure I want this position!” Yes, candidates sometimes start off early in an interview when asked, “Why are you interested in joining our team and company?” I have heard this enough now to assume executive candidates think this is the way to open an early negotiation because after reading their bio, resume and listening to the executive recruiter we believe they are a genius and must have them. Unfortunately, this approach works well with NBA super stars, multiple Academy Award winners and mega star successful CEO’s. It is not an opening gambit if you have an MBA from a top ten school with limited experience. This is a non-starter. But there are so many more.

One employee memory that I found particularly enlightening was someone I had just promoted to Director of R&D ahead of many of her contemporaries in a large corporation. A few months after the promotion, her mother and father were at a company-sponsored holiday event. Her mother came up to me and told me it was about time her daughter was promoted and when was I going to get around to making her a Vice President. I must admit, I was for a change, speechless. Luckily, the individual was a great asset and just had parents with overactive imaginations. Today, she is retired and a board member of several companies.

On several occasions, I have had the pleasure of interviewing people that read too many stories in Inc. magazine about the attitude you need to have to get a competitive job. Several times I had an ill-informed candidate tell me that he or she did not want the job they were interviewing for as much as they wanted my job — which is not the best way to explain your motivation for joining the company! How about some examples of how they could bring real value to the company, the organization they would be joining, and to the clients?

Let’s Be Honest

Probably one of the biggest problems I have experienced in interviews is lying…not just adding color to their background, but out and out making it up. Today, this can get a candidate only so far, but it happens more than any of us would like to think. Because of legal issues companies cannot go into the necessary depth that could uncover this type of issue. Referencing is difficult so background checks have become increasingly necessary.  Needless to say, whether it gets picked up before or after an offer, it ends the discussion and employment.

Then there is today’s predominance of social media. Yes, dear candidates, companies do check your Instagram, Facebook and other sites beyond just LinkedIn. Hiring executives don’t just look for poor social behavior, but political, religious, and social expressions to determine if you will be a good fit or if you will be a legal liability.

One of my all-time favorite, more painful, but humorous interviews was with a candidate who had five or more years of experience in consulting in the information systems arena for one of the big five firms. He managed to combine many of the grievances hiring managers have into one interview. First, he told me he wanted to leave his current firm because his intelligence was not appreciated enough by his current employer.  He explained he had achieved near perfect scores on his SATs and his GMATs as well as graduated from an Ivy League MBA program. He expressed his frustration that he still was not doing as well as his peers who had attended state universities or lower ranked schools.

When I asked him what he was looking for in a company he told me, he was a “tree person”. He wanted to be in a company with other “large, grand looking trees” so he could “spread his branches and grow” — and “not be hemmed in by the smaller not so smart trees”. When I let him know we had come to the end of the all too amusing, but pointless interview, he asked me when could he start since he was “obviously, the best candidate we could find”. These were his words not mine.

In summary, most interviews cannot match the humor or sheer level of absurdity that these have. Yet, it is amazing that at some of the best undergraduate and graduate schools in the U.S. little or no time is spent preparing potential candidates what it will be like to operate in the real world of business let alone how to get started. Even more perplexing is how many, more experienced executives have little clue on how to position themselves and the value they bring to a perspective company’s hiring executives.

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