David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Screening for Character

post # 183 — September 6, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

I’m of the belief that the overwhelming majority of recruiting interviewing is a complete waste of time. It’s not science and almost nobody has the practiced craft or art to be good at it. We like to pretend that we can find out important things in a one-hour interview, but we really can’t.

Everyone’s heard the phrase “Hire for attitude and train for skill” and I believe it fully. In fact, I’d go further and say that once you have checked out credentials and qualifications, character, not just attitude, explains the vast majority of someone’s long-term performance and whether or not they will fit into your company. And if the goal of an interview is to judge someone’s attitudes, personality and / or character then its going to take a LOT more training than most interviewers are given to detrmine those things. I don’t know too many people, even with etensive training, who could get a smart person to reveal his or her true character in such a format.

The best firms, in my view find a way to ask the people who already know the candidates to pass judgement. For examples, when hiring on campus, smart recruiters ask faculty members to give them the real low-down truth about the different students. Or they ask this year’s hires to tell them about the students in the year below them or that they met in other on-campus activities. It’s usually well – known on campus which individuals have personality, ambition, integrity. Ask three or four faculty or fellow students and their lists will be close to identical – they have been working with them in close quarters for a year or more and their judgments will be accurate.

In our book First Among Equals, Patrick McKenna and I gave a couple of examples of this:

Two firms in our experience were creative about their interviewing process. The first, a law firm asked all candidates at their final interview to say which had been their favourite course in law school. They then called in a secretary and (with a half-hour to think about it) asked the candidate to explain the content of the course to the secretary. The secretary, in essence, had the final say on whether the person was hired. It was not enough, this firm believed, to know your stuff. Before you were hired, you had to demonstrate the ability to explain it to an intelligent layperson.

The second firm, of accountants, brought all their final candidates together, and put them in a room with a two-way mirror. The candidates were told they would be observed, and were asked to do a joint exercise (equivalent to building a house out of playing cards). The resulting behavior was fascinating to watch. Thinking that they were suppose to be demonstrating leadership, many candidates competed to “take charge” of their group. In fact, the accounting firm was looking for people who felt comfortable being part of a team without the ego need to be its leader, and made offers only to those who did not try to dominate.

I’d be interested in hearing about other creative ways that organizations determine whether potential recruits really have desired character traits. How do you really tell if someone is good with people? Is a team player? Is honourable, has integrity and is trustworthy? Is the type of person who can maintain their composure in a crisis? Has the “good kind”of ambition and detrmination without too much of the “bad kind?”

There’s got to be something better than an interview to uncover the truth about these important things.


Duncan Bucknell said:

I guess we’ve all heard of other group exercises, even retreats in addition to the methods you mentioned, David.

Internships or clerkships are another way to get to know the most likely candidates over several weeks. Firms that handle this well are able to meaningfully analyse these critical attitudinal characteristics because they have set out to test them from the start.

Also, I wonder whether it is possible to make the process more effective. Perhaps by using the firm’s network (including clients, alumni, suppliers, etc), it might be possible to target selection around people who come with a recommendation from a trusted source? A perhaps trite answer to this would be that this would not generate enough hiring opportunities to satisfy a firm’s requirements. This may be so, but perhaps one needs to think more broadly and creatively about the network (and mutual benefit within it).

posted on September 6, 2006

Jennifer said:

It seems old hat, but having a monetary internal referring program has worked well for me. Asking people to recommend their friends and acquaintances works in both directions, because both sides have some preliminary checking done, and if you’ve already got a good culture, people will only recommend people they think will fit into the culture.

I have the advantage of being in a small profession (actuarial) and an international city (Sydney) so the pool of candidates is small, and my global reach is wide.

It’s not enough, but it certainly helps.

posted on September 6, 2006

ann michael said:

Seth Godin has just done a few entries (within the last week) on the value of having candidates participate in a problem or brainstorming session as part of the interview process. He even suggested having candidates “in the running” to come in for a day or two and work with others. It’s an interesting idea.

There’s always “contract-to-hire” arrangements as well. That would have been completely unappealing a decade ago, but I know many more people that would consider that arrangement now (people WITH jobs!).

posted on September 6, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Ann, the problem or brainstorming approach is used a lot by management consulting firms and investement banks when recruiting MBAs. So much so, that organizations like Vault.com sell books on how to handle the (somtimes wierd) mini-case studies that these recruiters use.

What I worry about, however, is that these techniques are testing for intelligence, logic, creative thinking, etc, but don’t reveal anything about attitude, personality and character.

Duncan, you say, correctly, that we have all heard of group exercises used in recruiting. My question is whether you (or anyone else out there) has a view on how well they work.

By the way, there is a parrallel to this that we’ve discussed here before: buying a service. It’s really the same challenge: how do you know if the person you are thinking of hitring is sufficiently trustworthy that you can place your affairs in their hands and be confident they’ll be responsive, act with integrity, etc.

Whether it’s recruiting or buying a service, the task is to go beyond someone’s capabilities and form a judgement as to their character. Tough stuff, but we all have to do it regularly.

posted on September 6, 2006

Neha Wattas said:

It’s really interesting to see that recruiters have developed such innovative methods to ‘screen for character’.

I recently graduated from a master’s degree and went through a several interviews. In my experience, the most insightful interviews were those with many rounds in ONE day with alternating ‘pressure interview’ and ‘easy interview’ rounds. I think that this is an effective approach because:

1) 4 interviews back-to-back can be quite physically and emotionally draining. So, any veneer that the person has would most likely melt away, revealing their ‘true character’.

2) Meeting with multiple people allows the recruiting team to create consensus about a candidate’s personality.

3) Pressure interviews interspersed with easy interviews make the candidate go through waves of feeling comfortable vs. defensive and that can reveal a lot.

I got an opportunity to hire a team to work with me recently, and I created a matrix with different criteria to decide the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. In my matrix, I also had a field for ‘gut instinct’ which allowed me to think objectively and assign a finite weight to my ‘gut instinct’ in the hiring process and not allow it to override the other criteria.

At the end of the day, I think that the quality of recruiting is a direct function of the amount of time recruiters have to spend on it.

posted on September 6, 2006

Ken Hedberg said:

Science can inform this issue. (In the US, it’s industrial/organizational psychology; in the UK, it’s occupational psychology; on the Continent, various monikers center on work & organisational psychology.) The research repeatedly points to several key observations:

First, academic achievement notoriously misses the mark in consistently predicting future performance. Use credentials as a rough screen to determine appropriate knowledge background, but be careful to avoid over-reliance on credentials.

Second, ALL screening and selection methods in combination account for perhaps 30% of the variation in future performance, at best. Training & development, leadership, culture, organizational systems & processes, strategy & differentiation – these are among the key factors accounting for the other 70% of individual performance differences. Do your best to select the best and apply rigorous, intensive selection processes; but don’t rely on selection alone.

Third, as you might expect, intelligence is the individual trait that most consistently predicts future job performance. Attitude, personality, values, and so forth, do indeed add incremental predictive value, but horsepower counts most consistently. Tests measure intelligence well and most efficiently.

Fourth, non-cognitive characteristics (including personality, motivation, values, interests, attitude, etc.) provide good measures of organizational ‘fit’ or chemistry, and do indeed add incremental predictive value. Especially in professional services firms in which organizational citizenship makes a big impact on overall performance, fit is quite important, consistent with your blog post. Various tools can help get a sense of these non-cognitive (or ‘soft’) characteristics, including those you discussed.

Fifth, interviews work. Period. And, they have been researched quite thoroughly over the years, with clear conclusions. To wit: unstructured interviews conducted inconsistently offer information that’s little better than a flip of the coin. Interviews work well when they are: 1) based on job requirements, 2) conducted consistently for all candidates and from interviewer to interviewer, and 3) structured to get at how candidates actually perform (past situations, accomplishments, projected future situations). Much like in good consulting, the interview is too important a data gathering tool to throw out. Learn to do them well and consistently.

Finally, no one procedure is adequate to the task of identifying the best talent. Triangulation makes the most sense. I.e., use structured interviews by trainer interviewers, but couple them with background evaluation, credentials verification, appropriate testing and assessment, work trials (internships, etc.), and records of past performance. Put them together to get a multiperspective view of the candidate. That’s a winning formula.

posted on September 6, 2006

Pat McGee said:

I read this post right after reading Joel Spolsky’s article on finding great software developers. (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/FindingGreatDevelopers.html) I saw some interesting contrasts, mostly with some of the previous comments.

To extract just a couple of points from Joel’s article, he hires a lot of software developers right out of college. He seems to make money on the process, but it takes two years from first contact to the first day of work.

He talks about how many other things hadn’t worked for him, and how paid referrals from current employees had worked out really poorly.

I think David and Joel would find a lot in common with each other.

posted on September 6, 2006

Greg Krauska said:

I agree with part of Ken Hedberg’s fifth point:

“Interviews work well when they are: 1) based on job requirements, 2) conducted consistently for all candidates and from interviewer to interviewer, and 3) structured to get at how candidates actually perform (past situations, accomplishments, projected future situations). Much like in good consulting, the interview is too important a data gathering tool to throw out. Learn to do them well and consistently.”

Assuming that you have identified that the candidate indeed possesses the character attributes you seek, the next question is whether the candidate will follow through on their values under stress. It’s one thing to say what I think I would do. It is another matter to predict the likelihood that people will actually follow through on their character – at the point when values compete.

One way to assess whether people are likely to tap their strengths under strength is to gauge their resilience. There are instruments available through Stoltz, Seligman and others that can assess this dimension. In the end, any skill or attribute that is likely to be used under stress is far more valuable than those claimed in polite discussion.

Bottom line, structure interviews to simulate dilemmas and stress and see what shows up.

posted on September 6, 2006

Robert Edward Cenek said:

Character is a very important piece of the selection puzzle, While intelligence (or g) is the most valid predictor of future success on the the job, and no doubt Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay, Joe Nachio and Bernie Ebbers all would have had high g scores in their pre-employment testing, ultimately we need to look at more than raw brainpower.

I personally have realized some success in judging character by including batteries that measure the Big 5, especially those through Hogan Assessments.

Robert Edward Cenek


posted on September 6, 2006

James Bullock said:

Mechanically, I look for a failure or crisis in the candidate’s story. This is similar to Branson’s (of Virgin, that Branson) public statement that he only hires people with a “gap” in their vita somewhere. I remember this one as “the Big Chill Test.” One of the defining lines from that movie for me: ” . . . you gotta get out in the world and get dirty.”

Techies might remember it better as “The Kobyashi Maru” from the Star Trek movie – facing a “no-win scenario.” Even Kirk’s solution to that problem contains an archetypal lesson – reframe the problem so you can turn it into something successful. Another test for the same kind of character is the “one more thing” test. “You can always do one more thing.” or the motto from Karate practice: “If you don’t quit, you may lose, but you will never be defeated.”

Absence of any screw-ups, and they’re either very lucky, playing safe, or lying. That’s worth finding out. Any kind of gap, test, or loss provides an opening: “Tell me about that. What happened?”

You don’t really have much insight into the character of people who have always been sufficient to the challenges at hand. Are they able to “adapt and overcome?” Keep their heads in the game no matter what? What are they willing to commit when things get rough? What are they willing to give up? Most important, I think is what corners are they willing to cut? You find out what the value vs. what is instrumental. Then you can ask whether you want them around.

One technique I have adopted in interviews (don’t recall where I stole it from) is describing the situation – the real, current situation at hand, for the job being filled – then watch where they take it. They get to see what they would be dealing with. I get to see what they think is important, how they think, how they work with people, and a bunch of other things – including character.

Obviously, with the situation in front of them, someone who isn’t sucked in right then to thinking about how they would do the job isn’t all that interested. Probably a poor choice.

posted on September 6, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Boy, I’m learning a lot here – and I appreciate everyone suggesting links and readings. It’s a real service to all of us who want to dig deeper.

But let me reveal tha depths of my ignorance here. Robert (or anyone.) What are “the Big 5″?

posted on September 6, 2006

Brad Farris said:

I agree that character and cultural fit are key in recruiting. I have what I call “The Australia Test”; would I be willing to sit next to this person on coach class trip to Australia? If the answer to that is no, then working with them for 5 or 10 years is really going to be a bad experience.

One of my clients uses an unusual tool to evaluate this “fit and character” issue. They rent a cooking school for a night, and invite all the soon to be grads that they see as good candidates. This is usually after a first interview on campus. Then the candidates, and firm’s partners cook dinner together; usually in groups of 5-6, with 2 partners and the rest candidates. Each group takes a course and there’s an instructor there to help things along.

Like your accounting firm above, they are assessing working within a team; but more so they are evaluating, “are these people that I want to work with day-to-day”.

I don’t think that cooking is magic, but it helps to get everyone into an environment in which they are equally uncomfortable, or that mixes up the traditional hierarchies. This quickly reveals what’s under the veneer and helps everyone find out if the fit is there.

posted on September 6, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Oh, Brad, I can’t resist that set-up: What’s the test if you live in Australia?

posted on September 6, 2006

Brad Farris said:

Well, David, it’s funny you should ask that. As I was writing I thought to myself, “The Australia Test” might be a bit US centric. I’ve never talked about it with a world-wide audience before. I wonder where Australian’s think of as being half-way around the world? Europe? Canada?

The point is that it’s a scenario that’s realistic enough that I could put myself in that situation and get an instant visceral reaction, yes or no. I could ask my staff, “What about the Australia test?” and they knew right away what I was asking about. I found I got truer answers if I asked about it in that way than if I asked, “Do you think you’d get along with him/her?” Of course we are all polite enough that we can “get along” with any one. But sit next to them on the plane…

posted on September 6, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I live in Australia, and I can tell you, to an Australian, it doesn’t matter whether it’s USA or Europe: most places feel like they are half way around the world!

posted on September 6, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I’d like to offer a counterpoint to the “plane ride” argument. I think that tests for some important things, but it leaves out for me what would be the single thing I want to know in a recruit (ie employee) or someone I’d hire to provide a service to me. That thing is variously described as integrity, trustworthiness, professionalism.

I don’t say this just because I’ve written books and articles with those words in the title – it’s the result of living my life. I believe fervently that if I can trust someone their motives, their dpendability, their lack of immediate self-orientation, then we’re going to work together just fine and get a lot done.

If someone is trustworthy, performance problems will be solvable and we’ll get through any rough spots and come out the other side. If someone is trustworthy, I can delegate and sleep nights without worrying about whteher things are going to get done.

The hiring problem then, is not can I get along with this person and enjoy their company, but would i trust them to do the right thing when no-one’s looking, to be what we said above – honorable, a person of integrity, etc.

But that doesn’t for me, solve my problem (our problem?) does it? How do you determine, before you start working with someone (empoyee or vendor) whether or not they are trustworthy?

Duncan (Bucknell) in the first comment in this conversation stressed what we all know – information from a trusted source (borrowed trust, if you like) is the most important thing we rely on when we hire or buy. (and so it should be.)

posted on September 6, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

How about our psychologist contributors give us some tips on measuring trust in a candidate?

I can an imagine that a half day exercise could be created to do just that. The problem is always going to be that people are not quite ‘themsleves’ when they know they are under the microscope. Still, if someone shows less trustworthy behaviour even in this setting, then I guess you can at least rule them out.

posted on September 6, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

This is a fascinating conversation on several levels. Isn’t it interrsting that we intuitively know people are unpredictable and irrational yet attempt to apply science to candidate selection? Given enough information and/or a seriously intuitive mind, it’s possible to game any ‘system’ of selection. Trust me, I’ve done it -:) I’d question the ‘team’ thing. It just doesn’t fit with my thoughts about meritocracy. If we want team players, go pick out drones. It we want talent, that’s a different matter. But then I like what is almost certinaly going to be a competitive atmosphere. So where does character fit in? If you’re operating out of a mindset that values individual achievement in a collective setting then it only appeals to a specific type of individual. Usually easy to spot. But if we’re really, really honest. Doesn’t it come down to that most irrational of human responses – we hire people we like and whi we think are closest to the cultural fit? Koind of blows you’re fun and games out the window though I must say the idea of food as interview has enormous appeal.

posted on September 6, 2006

RJON@HowToMakeItRain.com said:

Admittedly the vast majority of my experience has been limited to working with small law firms (typically under six attys). As you may expect, hardly any of my clients have the resources to conduct the kind of rigorous testing being discussed throughout the comments above.

And arguably, it is the small firms that have the most riding on a good hire b/c there’s no-where to hide a bad hire within the organization…and no where to hide from the person if your office is only a few thousand square feet. So perhaps my experiences are super-relevant to readers of this blog, or maybe totally the opposite. Anyway, here’s what I teach my clients. . .

1. At the end of the day, most of what you are going to hire any staff person to do falls into either one of two categories. Things you can teach; and things you cannot teach.

2. For the things you cannot teach, the ONLY thing that matters is attitude. For the things you can teach, the most important thing is attitude. . . unless you get really lucky and the new hire happens to already be trained to do things EXACTLY the way you like, or can settle for.

3. Despite what they say to the contrary, no-one you interview plans to still be working for you in 5 years. Anyone who really does still intend to be working for you in 5 years should probably be disqualified from consideration. People work for their own reasons, not for yours and it’s a mistake to think you can figure-out their real motivations. So much easier to simply let them know that you know, so they know that you know they probably don’t expect to be working there in 5 years. Find out what their real ambitions are and try to figure-out if you can make the job one which helps them get there.

4. Trust your gut. But don’t just trust an un-trained gut. I highly recommend Gavin DeBecker’s “The Gift of Fear”. It has nothing to do with hiring or law firm management, and everything to do with learning how to trust you gut. While you are at it, you may as well buy a dozen copies because as soon as you’re done you WILL go back for more to give to everyone you know!

5. Invest the time to document procedures for how you want tasks accomplished. Then train to the documentation & evaluate to determine if there are flaws with the documentation or the person who either cannot or will not follow instructions. The best hires will follow instructions and know intuitively that the most appropriate time to suggest improvements is not crunch time, but sometimes people in new jobs get nervous & try too hard to impress, so just tell them this fact ahead of time.

Hope this helps,


posted on September 7, 2006

Ken Hedberg said:

Specific to the question of evaluating character: undoubtedly, integrity, trust, and other elements of what we call character are areas in which ‘gut feel’ (instincts & intuition) count for a great deal. The best hiring managers learn to trust their intuitions. In addition, I have found it very illuminating to ask candidates about situations presenting ethical dilemmas and/or temptations. I have used both questions getting at previous situations the candidate has faced and also questions posing likely situations she/he might face in the new job environment. With adequate probing around the initial reponses, I can get candidates to tease out important differences in how they think about and approach such situations. This isn’t all of ‘character’ in any way, but I have found such answers to help shed light on the question.

posted on September 7, 2006

Ron Lamb said:

The Big Five is associated with Personality Theory.

I haven’t used it before, but found the Big Five Personality traits, differ in a couple of different sources. Here’s one source.


There are also tools that allow users to either focus on a Myers-Briggs approach or the Big Five.

posted on September 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Ron.

To save everyone else clicking the linki, I’ve copied the wikipedia Big-5 list here:

Neuroticism – A tendency to easily experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability. (emotional stability to stimuli)

Extraversion – Energy, surgency, and the tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others.

Agreeableness – A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. (individualism vs cooperative solutions)

Conscientiousness – A tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement. (Spontaneousness vs planned behaviour)

Openness to experience – Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas; imagination and curiosity. (vs conservatism)

Looks like I’m in trouble!


posted on September 7, 2006

Kami Husye said:

The result of a bad hire is costly, both in terms of productivity of the team and money.

When my husband was interviewing for the job he has now, they brought us both to San Antonio. He had two days of meetings and interviews, including one dinner that included me and the wives of other executives. I learned a lot about the company and its philosophy that night. They cared about my job prospects and essentially “sold” me on the move. They understood that I was a part of the package and that I had influence in the move. At the time, I remember thinking it was a very savvy move on their part. Concurrently, they had a chance to “check out” how he acted in my presence and what his home life might be like.

So, to my point. When the company hires, everyone on the team gets to meet the candidates, even if it is only to go to lunch with them and “shoot the breeze.” This seems to have been a very revealing strategy for quality. Since my husband has worked at this company, there have been several candidates that were passed over based on these informal parts of the day.

I like the Australia test because it is a similar idea. But what about when you are interviewing a vendor or a potential client that you have never met? In these cases, I think it is important to have some direct and frank conversations with the client. Does the candidate ask the hard questions or are they too eager to please in order to win the business? In other words, do they demonstrate in the interview that they will add a valuable perspective?

posted on September 7, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:

In some cultures – and I am thinking primarily Chinese/Hong Kong culture – there has traditionally been less emphasis on the individual’s abilities and mental profile, than on his or her background.

This includes his or her family connections and home province (where he or she may never have lived or even visited). As I beliee everyone knows, there are many very successful family-owned businesses here that hire almost exclusively within their extended family, home village etc.

These can be very large organisations, as well. But I sometimes wonder how they can recruit so many staff using these methods. I suspect from what I have picked up that most new employees will already have a connection within the firm and this connection will be an important consideration as to whether they get the job or not.

Of course, this is less the case in law firms and other technically demanding occupations, as opposed to family trading businesses for instance. But it is not uncommon to hire a removalist company where everyone is from the same family or get contractors to do building work who are brothers, uncles and cousins etc. We have done both in just the last 6 months.

Part of the dynamic here seems to be that while someone might not be that great at what they do, they still commit themselves to their work because of their responsibility to the common family/community. The better ones also probably look after the not so good ones, and everyone shuffles around until they find their niche, or so it appears.

I’ve mentioned here before that the type of job someone does is rarely a big selling point since motivation tends to come more from outside influences/responsibilities than from an inherent love of the work itself. Passion is not a widely used word here in relation to one’s work, and so I suppose testing for it in a job interview might seem a bit strange to some people.

Lastly, there are of course the wonderful tests of legendary times when an apprentice would be asked by his or her prospective master to do some totally mundane task, well below his or her abilities. Nevertheless, the degree to which they applied themselves and did not question their instructions was highly valued.

And then there were the recruitment practices of the Emporers who held mass examinations every year to find the brightest minds to become high officials – anyone in the entire country could take the test, including peasants. The test itself was Chinese poetry, which required both amazing memory skills and beautiful calligraphy.

I see that no one above has mentioned poetry memorisation or good handwriting as a basis for selecting a new employee … but who could deny the phenomenal achievements of the Middle Kingdom over the last 1,000 years? I suspect things have changed a bit in more recent times …

posted on September 7, 2006

Lars Plougmann said:

Once when I was conducting an interview I noticed that the weather outside was gorgeous (and the office was next to a park) so I asked the candidate if he would like to walk and talk at the same time. Getting outside took some of the tension out of the interview situation and allowed for a discussion at multiple levels (you can make remarks about what you see as well as ask questions).

It is not quite like a plane ride to Oz but maybe some of the same messages are conveyed.

A drawback that suggests that this approach may work better with the second interview and onwards is that the format does not allow for taking or consulting notes.

posted on September 8, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Our discussion has been noted by those who are professionally involved in recruiting (they call themselves the “recruitosphere.” Go have a look at what they have to say!

posted on September 9, 2006

Hyokon Zhiang said:

I believe that one fundamental cause of the recruiting difficulty arises because your firm is popular to too many people. And ‘getting in’ means only good, no bad to applicants. In consulting, people apply to McKinsey/BCG/Bain, because the place will give them a springboard for career. That is not bad, but if that is the only image of the firm in the recruiting market that is a problem. See the marine corps. And the church (hiring future ministers). I presume they have less worry about recruiting wrong people. When you are ‘good to all people’, wrong people will apply. The place should also mean the sacrifice the candidates have a determination to make and the strong value they have to live with. And wrong people will give up. The importance of recruiting strategies themselves are clear, but the first thing is to encourage only the right ones to apply. And it begins with defining “the bad” as well as the good of who you are and making it clear to the outside.

posted on September 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Hyokon – great point! I wrote about a similar thing in “The Motivation Crisis” chapter of Managing the Professional Service Firm. Tell the recruit the sheer truth of what working in the firm is like, what will be demanded of them, and see who really wants the life the firm has to offer. See how quickly you can scare thyem off, and you’ll soon find out who wants to join the Olympic team.

I have started top use the same approach when I invite people to propose on doing work for me. I tell them “Let me tell you why you don’t want to work for me. Let me tell you what I’m really like as a client. Are you really prepared for that?”

Shaula Evans (part of my tech team) talked about this approach in a previous blogpost on hiring professionals.

posted on September 10, 2006

Prem Chandavarkar said:

I would like to share an anecdote that a good friend and college classmate told me. Shortly after he graduated from college (in 1980) my friend Christo got an opportunity to work for the internationally reputed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. At that time Bawa had just landed his biggest job – the design of the Sri Lankan Parliament building. He needed to urgently recruit staff for this project, and since there were an insufficient number of candidates available in Sri Lanka, he was recruiting from India. Interviews in the city of Chennai had been scheduled.

At the last moment some other urgent piece of work came up, and Bawa was unable to go to Chennai for the interviews. He then asked Christo to go and interview people and select them for the firm. Christo was overwhelmed and flabbergasted – here he was barely a year out of college and an internationally famous architect was asking him to recruit for him. When he expressed fear about not being up to the task, Bawa reassured him saying “Its very simple. Just go and chat to the person – about anything, it could even be about cricket or football. If you find yourself developing an instinctive rapport with the person, then consider them worth hiring. I get along with you, so if you get along with someone, it is likely that I will get along with him or her. If we get along with someone, it means that there is something good in them that we value. What we then have to do is to find out what that good part is, and see how it can become a productive part of the firm.”

Unfortunately I forgot about this lesson, and, for many years, when recruiting for my architectural practice tended to focus first on professional ability. If I looked for attitude, it would be attitude towards architecture, rather than attitude towards people – a difference I have come to realise is quite crucial. I have subsequently had to deal with people who are extremely capable and motivated, but not constructive as members of the firm.

I have now recalled Bawa’s lesson and am redefining our recruiting process to consist of the following parts:

  1. A first part of the interview process that focuses on whether personal rapport exists.
  2. A second part of the interview process that builds on the personal rapport of the first half to chat about professional issues, interests and abilities. Clearly if the first part is a disaster, then the second part is meaningless. But we still go through with it because it is demeaning to the candidate to cut short the interview without discussing professional abilities.
  3. A six month probation period – this is an explicit non-negotiable part of the offer of employment. We explain the importance of relationships and the fact that an interview is insufficient to make final judgment. Six months is needed to get to know the candidate, and also for the candidate to get to know the firm. So the option to opt out at the end of six months is equally available to both sides. We also state that a failure is a product of the chemistry rather than a reflection of the abilities on either side.

This is a recent enough shift that I cannot speak on the success of the strategy. But I reflect on two possible ways of defining the firm:

  1. Define an identity of the firm and recruit people who match that identity.
  2. Get to know the character of the people in the firm, and use that as a basis to define the identity of the firm.

Is not an either-or choice – I believe both are necessary. What is needed is a back and forth movement between the two, where one uses one position to constructively critique the other. But for years I focused exclusively on the former because I believed that firms are founded on ideas. True – but ideas shift faster than relationships. The number one criteria that determines the long term stability of the firm is the depth of its relationships with clients. Given that the future is crucially predicated on relationships, I look back at my past and am amazed by the extent to which I undervalued relationships internal to the firm.

posted on September 23, 2006

Barbara Garabedian said:

Please enter your comment

Wow, some very interesting reaction and comments. I really like the technique of having a candidate explain something to someone in non technical terms.

I hate to over simplify this but the one key trait I believe trumps all others, especially for professional services firms, is curiosity. If someone has the insatiable & innate motivation to constantly seek, uncover, learn and understand how things and people tick…the rest could be trainable. It would be interesting to hear from all of you because in all of the firms I’ve worked in, I’ve never run across a successful consultant, business advisor or seller of professional services where curiosity wasn’t the key trait that set them apart.

posted on October 17, 2006

barbara garabedian said:

I’ve enjoyed the back and forth on this issue of screening for character. I especially liked the idea of having candidate explain something to a secretary in non technical terms. I always used a bright gatekeeper as a “bell weather” vote. He/she was able to observe the candidates while waiting for the interview. I found their observations regarding manners, behavior, and arrogance extremely enlightening.

Working in several professional services firms over the years, I’ve come to rely on one trait that I believe, more than any other, might predict success…does the candidate have a keen sense of curiosity! I’m not just referring to entry-level candidates, I’m amazed how many senior level candidates appear to have had their “fascination index” sucked out of them (that’s assuming they had it to begin with). I’ve yet to see a successful consultant, business advisor, manager, and rainmaker that doesn’t possess an insatiable innate curiosity for what makes people, places and/or things tick. I’ve come to believe having that sincere interest in (and motivation for) wanting to learn as much as possible about what’s going on around them, trumps just about everything else : schools, grades, etc. With that internal almost “child like” facination, most candidates can be trained on the other stuff.

I’d be curious to hear other thoughts on this.

posted on October 19, 2006

Roma Ahuja said:

A colleague Reference Check is probably a good idea to screen on Social and Emotional Quotient. Maybe a Reference check of previous employer ( reporting superior) at the stage of receiving the CV is also a surefooted way of commencing the process with a candidate

posted on December 1, 2006