How to Hire the Right Candidate

In response to last week’s article, “What Predicts Success? It’s Not Your IQ,” a commenter asked: “How can we better gauge emotional intelligence competencies while interviewing potential candidates?”

Who better to answer this question than my colleague and Leadership: A Master Class participant, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz. According to Claudio, the interview process should be the same whether you’re evaluating an external candidate for an open position or a colleague keen for promotion. You need to use the right assessment techniques and involve the right number of highly qualified and properly motivated interviewers.

What are the right assessment techniques?

Solid assessments require a combination of well-structured behavioral interviews and proper reference checks. Find out whether the person has previously demonstrated the behaviors you are looking for in similar settings in the past.

For instance, if a leader will need to strongly influence others not under his direct control, ask questions like:

– Have you ever been in a situation where you had to influence others who were not under your direct control?

– What was the situation?

– What was your exact role?

– What were the circumstances?

– What did you do exactly?

– How did you do it?

– What were the consequences?

Conduct thorough reference checks following the same line of questioning. Carefully decide who to call depending on what information you need. For example, former bosses will have more insight into a candidate’s strategic or results orientation, while peers are best for gauging influence, and subordinates for assessing leadership.

Who are the best assessors?

They are not “naturals,” but individuals who have been properly schooled in assessment. Educational institutions and organizations often leave people woefully unprepared. In a recent survey of executives attending a Harvard Business School program on talent management, 75% reported that they had not received assessment training.

The results of such neglect can be dramatic. Research has shown that, while the best professional interviewers have a “validity” (correlation between assessment and performance) of .7, the worst have slightly negative validity, being in fact worse than flipping a coin. As a leader, it’s your job to educate yourself and those around you on the best practices, since making good people decisions is not an art, but a craft that we all can learn.

Amazon has, for example, hundreds of dedicated internal recruiters, great training programs in assessment, and even a legion of certified “bar raisers,” skilled evaluators who hold full-time jobs in a range of departments but are also empowered to participate in assessing – and vetoing – candidates for other areas.

How many people should assess a candidate?

Say you aim to hire only people whose performance puts them in the top 10% of your candidate pool. Even if you were 90% accurate in your assessments (and nobody is that good), you would end up hiring the wrong people 50% of the times.

If, however, you add a second interviewer to assess only those candidates you had independently approved, your collective error rate would drop to 10%, while a third filter would bring it down to just 1%. Stop there! Because while adding successive filters reduces your risk of picking the wrong leader, the more filters you add, the greater your chances of making a “type II error” – not hiring the right candidate for the wrong reason.

How can you motivate yourself and your team to pick the best?

Amid our daily urgencies, the hard work of careful assessment often falls by the wayside. We fall back into trusting our guts (which really means our unconscious biases toward the similar, familiar, and comfortable.) Remember that managers should focus on measurable metrics, and give everyone incentives to make better people decisions. Systematically review your organization’s key hires and promotions to evaluate the judgment of those involved in the process. This will help you not only encourage good assessments but also confirm who among you are the best assessors, stay engaged with the hired candidates and, if necessary, give you the impetus to undo a bad appointment.

As Capital One’s CEO Richard Fairbank put it several years ago, “At most companies, people spend 2% of their time recruiting, and 75% managing their recruiting mistakes.” A small investment in learning how to better pick your candidates now will bring you huge personal and organizational dividends in the future.

Claudio’s latest book It’s Not the How or the What but the Who – Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best is available now. You can also watch my conversation with him about talent strategy here.

Additional resources:

American Management Association’s course Developing Your Emotional Intelligence (onsite or online throughout the summer)

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters: A compilation of my Harvard Business Review articles and other business journal writings in one volume. This often-cited, proven-effective material has become essential reading for leaders, coaches and educators committed to fostering stellar management, increasing performance, and driving innovation.

Resonant Leadership: Inspiring Others Through Emotional Intelligence: This master class by Richard Boyatzis (co-author of Primal Leadership and Chair of Organizational Development at the Weatherhead School of Management) offers you the tools to become the leader you want to be—including exercises to reassess valuable and effective techniques.

Leadership: A Master Class: The eight-part video collection includes more than eight hours of research findings, case studies and valuable industry expertise through in-depth interviews with respected leaders in executive management, organizational research, workplace psychology, negotiation and senior hiring. Corporate and educational licensing available.

Photo: creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by quinn.anya

Additional reading:

Eight Must-Have Competencies for Future Leaders

Leader Spotting: The Four Essential Traits

Teach the Key Ingredients for Leadership Success

What Makes a Leader?