Hire power; power hiring

What with the turmoil in the economy and the availability of numerous seasoned executives, you might think this is an easy time to find staff. But that’s not exactly the case.

The increasing complexity of job requirements and the increasing variability of experience in roles with the same title unfortunately make the likelihood of a successful match somewhat elusive.

At the same time, the costs of the wrong pick, both organizationally and financially, may be higher than ever. In the current hiring environment, you’ll need to probe even further to gain sufficient insight into candidates’ potential for organizational fit and impact.

Knowing what you want; getting what you need

To give yourself the best chance of success, try to think of your interview prep as a self exam: Review your track record with past employees and what made them more or less effective. The interview is your best tool for discovering if a candidate can not only perform the job, but do it within the context of your particular environment.

One organization I work with has a collaborative work style and a highly matrixed organization chart; everyone is involved with everything.

The company hired an energetic, “can-do” executive who was used to working independently and making decisions unilaterally. Her style was a departure for the organization, and it took her over a year on the job before she really understood how much she needed to include others in the decision making process.

This executive’s speedy style and need for prompt closure on open issues did not match the organization’s style of reflection and group discussion. But because it was noted during the interview process, senior management was prepared for the difficulty of the transition.

You must also be careful not to try to hire the exact opposite of whoever held the job before. Another group I work with wanted something completely different from the charismatic, motivating but mercurial and dictatorial director who was departing. They hired a sweet, chatty, laissez-faire fellow who lacked the sense of intense engagement and galvanizing presence of his predecessor.

Each mode had obvious plusses and minuses. The optimal candidate would have maintained a significant portion of the predecessor’s strengths while offsetting the weaknesses. It’s always risky being seduced by a fabulous interaction style that appears to compensate for everything that was wrong with the last guy, because many of his strengths might be missing as well.

Press for success

In the beginning, it’s best for your questions not to be too personal even if what you’re trying to do is “warm up” the conversation. It’s too easy to be swayed or lulled by the candidates’ likeability or charm and lose focus on screening for the existence and pertinence of the relevant skills and experience. Don’t encourage too much personal digression on the candidates’ part either, and notice if the majority of “off-script” remarks are about his or her private life.

More people are tending to get their social and emotional needs met in the workplace, so candidates’ sense of balance is important; take note if they give you too much information about their iTunes purchases, their parents’ health issues, their grandkids’ accomplishments, or the ups and downs of their marital life.

In addition to probing deeply about relevant work history, here are some sample areas of questioning that can help draw out aspects of a candidate’s approach or beliefs that may mesh with or disrupt your culture and work environment:

  • Candidate’s perceptions of the job and environment

    What do you see as the opportunities and advantages of this job in comparison to your current job? What about the risks and disadvantages?

    What are the greatest strengths you would bring to this job? Would your references give the same answer? What about your subordinates?

  • Candidate’s ability and propensity to lead

    Describe your philosophy of leadership. Now describe your own leadership style. Would your subordinates and colleagues agree?

    Describe how you have set goals for others. How did you follow up on their progress and performance in meeting those goals?

  • Candidate resilience and potential for growth

    What are the areas of development that you have identified for yourself, and why do you think this job will help you get the development you’re looking for? Would your references give the same answer? What about your subordinates?

    Please give an example of a time when something you were trying to do did not work out well — and what you learned from the experience.

    What obstacles do you foresee if you stay in your current job, and how will you overcome them? What would need to change at your current job for you to want to stay there?

    What was the most political situation you faced recently, and how did you handle it?

    How have you changed on the job over the last two or three years?

In our self-esteem-based culture, more managers appear to have inaccurate, although deeply held impressions of their own efficacy. The follow-up questions about others’ perceptions may move some candidates closer to realistic self-appraisal.

At the least, you’ll be gathering additional content to use in your reference checks. We’ll take up the topic of checking references in the next column.

Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates (www.lizkislik.com), a Rockville Centre, NY-based consultancy.