Ten Executives Discuss What They're Looking for When They Interview Candidates

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Posted by Sherrie Gong Taguchi on June 19, 2011
Ten Executives Discuss What They're Looking for When They Interview Candidates

For my book, Hiring the Best and the Brightest, I interviewed a number of executives who had many enlightening points to make about the interview process. Following is what ten of them said about interviewing; their comments will give you insight into the various philosophies and approaches used by interviewers.

Heather Killen, SVP Worldwide Operations, Yahoo!
Killen believes that to build a great organization, you need to hire "people that are smarter than you in particular areas." She treats each interview as a conversation. When interviewing candidates for senior-level openings at Yahoo!, Killen tries to find out "who somebody really is-how their head works." She says, "Initiative, intellectual curiosity, personal authenticity, and a reasonably high tolerance for ambiguity are important characteristics [in hires]."

Wes Smith, COO, Del Monte Foods

Smith looks for "where someone wants to go" in his or her career-but also looks at where he or she has been, not just in terms of recent jobs and education but in terms of life lessons. He says, "It's incredible how many smart people with excellent credentials are really clueless about what it might take to get people to work together. Considering that later in their career they will be responsible for managing hundreds or thousands of people, this becomes a significant issue. Personality, and the perception that a person could work well with others, no matter what their economic lot in life, counts for a lot. Any sign of elitism is the kiss of death."

John Helding, lecturer, Stanford Business School, and former senior director of Worldwide Recruitment for Booz Allen Hamilton
"My favorite and most frequently asked question of MBAs is, 'What's the best practical joke you've pulled off, and why?' In that question I am looking a sense of creativity, a willingness to have fun, and at a deeper level an ease with others that's made evident by a willingness to joke around and take some risks. Moreover, the question breaks down some of the seriousness and tension in the interviewing room. And as a bonus, I've gotten a more than a few good ideas for my own practical joke endeavors!

"In a more general category, I like to get a sense for how MBAs deal with graphical representations of relationships. Simply put, can they understand, interpret, and, more importantly, convey the meaning and the 'so what?' of a chart. So much of what a manager or a consultant needs to do consists of understanding numeric relationships and then conveying the key message to others. I'll place a relatively simple chart in front of first-years and ask them to explain it to me as though I was a client new to the concepts. This helps me identify individuals who are comfortable with analytical analysis and who can explain such relationships to others."

Erik Lassila, Managing Director, Clearstone Venture Partners
Lassila hires executives, including CEOs, for his portfolio companies. He says, "I want to find out if this is the person who really made things happen in his or her prior positions. Sorting the doers from the posers might be the hardest task of interviewing. Also, I always ask why the candidate wants the position-not because there is a right answer, but because: 1) I want to hire a person who will probably stay for awhile; 2) if the candidate is just kicking the tires, I know not to focus too much time and energy on him or her; and 3) I want to know the candidate is capable of making purposeful decisions. I am always open and honest about the pros, cons, risks, and rewards of a position. It's an incredible waste of time if someone leaves a job because it's not what he or she bargained for. Also, openness and honesty are fundamental to building a working relationship based on mutual trust and respect."

Ken Kam, President and CEO of Marketocracy and former cofounder and partner of the Firsthand Funds ($4.6 billion technology value fund)
Kam likes to ask interviewees to talk about their history-about how they got to where they are, what they want to do now, and what they aspire to in the future. In the course of the interview, Ken listens for the major decisions they've made and asks them to help him understand how they made those decisions.

Louis Amory, Partner, Bain and Co.
"I enjoy what I call the 'little sister' test for candidates with brilliant backgrounds-MBAs or PhDs, for example. I select one of the most specialized items on their resumes-for example, their PhD thesis-and ask them to explain what it is as if I were their 6-year-old sister. It is a great way to test their ability to explain, synthetically and simply, very complex things. This skill is key in our business.

"[In terms of the interview process, I try] to have a clear assessment on the candidate by the end of the interview. Ten minutes before the end, I pause and ask myself, 'Am I clear [on how I feel about the candidate]?' I then try to focus on identified issues. I am often very direct, saying something like, 'I still need to be convinced on dimension x. Good candidates turn around this tricky situation.

"The most difficult part of the interview for me is identifying the deep motivational drivers of the candidate. Bain does not have standard 'selling' approaches." According to Amory, the best interviews are in-depth, nothing-to-hide discussions.

Terry Krivan, Director, Tech Museum of Innovation
Krivan's favorite questions include:
.  Describe a difficult situation that, with 20/20 hindsight, you would have handled differently.
.  If hired, what do you think will be your greatest challenge in assuming this position?
.  Describe ways you have shown your support for your work team.
.  Other than money, what rewards make you happiest at work?

Paul DiNardo, Managing Director, High Technology Group, Investment Banking Division, Goldman Sachs
"The underlying philosophy is that we select our people one by one. In a service business, we know that without the best people, we cannot be the best firm. Once you establish that a candidate has the necessary skills, it becomes a matter of assessing interest and fit. Our focus is on having candidates see a wide variety of interviewers. This approach provides both the candidate and us with a diverse set of perspectives upon which to base a decision. Most important, it enables a candidate to get a great deal of insight into the culture and determine whether there is an appropriate fit.

"As for favorite questions, there are as many as there are interviewers. I pay particular attention to a candidate's description of her or his developmental needs. Many candidates attempt to turn these into strengths or virtues-for example, "I work too hard."-which can show a lack of thoughtfulness or self-awareness. Those candidates whose answers demonstrate that they are aware of their challenges, and are open to addressing them, help rather than hurt their candidacy.

Jim Beirne, Director of Recruiting - MBA Programs and Marketing, General Mills, and former Wharton director of career services
"While we use behavioral-based interviewing most of the time, I find that many applicants come in with too many prepared answers, and sound like politicians; no matter what question you ask them, they are going to give you a prepared answer. To get more to the core of the individual, I'll ask, "What motivates you to be as successful as you are?" followed up by, "Can you walk me through how you set your goals?" These questions get to more of the essence of the individual.

Andy Miller, SVP and CFO of MarketFirst

Miller uses a behavioral-based interviewing style and team approach for interviewing his direct reports, including summer MBA interns. He probes in the following areas: strengths ("give an example and tell why others may consider it a strength"), weaknesses, accomplishments, motivation, examples of stressful situations, and ability to handle conflict.



Sherrie Gong Taguchi is an author/educator, a former VP of recruiting in industry, and Director of the Stanford MBA Career Management Center. Her book,
Hiring the Best and the Brightest . A Roadmap for MBA Recruiting (on Amazon.com), has been praised by job seekers for providing valuable insight and preparation on how to make it successfully through the recruiting process.

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