I was recently reminded of an old story from my pre-ERE days and heavy recruiting days. You might find it useful as you attempt to train your hiring manager clients to become better at defining their real job needs and assessing candidate competency. To make the story more interesting, I’ll mention eight critical ways you can become a better recruiter, close more deals, and book more business. Four are obvious; four aren’t. Can you spot them all? Email me when you get them all and I’ll send you a free pat on the back. If you try them out, you’ll probably increase your personal productivity by 50 percent. That’s the real story here. About 10 years ago, I received a call from the CEO of a manufacturing company of wood-based consumer products.
A few months earlier, I had been out at the plant in Southern California, trying to drum up some search business, so the call wasn’t unexpected. I used a seminar-based marketing approach at the time, where I’d present some of the latest thinking on hiring top people. The objective of this was to differentiate my firm by providing value-added services to the company’s hiring team. Getting directly to the hiring team was a key part of this, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers. Equally important, differentiating services is a classic way to minimize the need to compete on fees. The call itself was a bit unusual, although it started in the normal way. It went something like this: “Lou,” the CEO said, “can you tell me those interviewing questions again? I’m trying to hire a VP of operations, and I want to use the process you discussed at the presentation.” Realizing a good search opportunity, I volunteered to meet at the plant in the next few days to prepare a performance profile, but was initially rebuffed with the claim that there was no time available to do this. (As most of you are aware, I suggest never starting a search assignment without a clear picture of the performance objectives.)
Undaunted, I pursued the same line of attack, suggesting we could do this over the phone in the next few days — even the next day if that made sense. These advances led nowhere, with my potential new client coming up with one lame excuse after another. Somewhat petulantly, I asked why he kept saying there was time available when this was such an important hire. Finally, he reluctantly admitted that he was meeting a candidate that same day — in fact, within the hour. With further pushing, he told me that the candidate was in the lobby and he had 15 minutes to learn how to conduct a proper and professional interview. As a significant search fee flew out the window, I was left with only the opportunity to provide some reasonable advice and a story worth retelling at some later date. So here goes. Since I had been at the plant and knew it was not a very professional operation, I asked the CEO to give me a virtual tour of the facility. As he “talked me around” the plant, I asked him to describe the top three problem areas. These are things he would want fixed or changed by the new VP of Operations. The first stop was a pile of broken wood parts far too big to be considered normal scrap and in a location in the middle of the production floor. He told me that scrap was a big issue that had to be reduced by 90 percent if the firm was going to be able to remain competitive with offshore manufacturers. The second stop was at the production scheduling facility where workforce planning and machine utilization were figured out. The CEO told me the scheduling process was hit or miss, with too many people showing up on some days for work that didn’t exist and too little on other days. As a result, delivery schedules were no better than 75 to 80 percent on time.
This was becoming a bigger and bigger problem with the company’s major mass-retailer customers. The final big stop was in the warehouse for raw material inventory. Expeditors were running around trying to find raw stock and work-in-process parts that were either on order, in-house, or somewhere. This was not a pretty picture, but it was not an uncommon one for a small company that had been riding the growth engine of some of the mass retailers with a great product line without the capability to ramp up production. Without a strong new VP of operations, this growth engine would soon stall out.
I then suggested to the CEO that he not interview the candidate in the office, but rather take him on a real factory tour. I stressed that he must spend time at each of the three big problem areas and describe the actual situation to the candidate. I also told him to allow the candidate to ask questions to clarify the actual problem — not to prompt the candidate for these, but rather to see if the candidate would ask them first. With this foundation, the CEO was ready to learn how to conduct a comprehensive performance-based interview comprised of just two questions. I told the CEO to first ask the candidate to describe how he’d go about fixing the problem described. Ask the candidate how he’d go about figuring out the cause of the problem, what resources he would need to solve it, how he’d put a plan together, and how long it would take. I explained that he should spend about 10 minutes on this problem-solving question, using a back-and-forth discussion approach.
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Once this was completed, the CEO should then ask the candidate to describe something he accomplished that was most similar to this situation. I mentioned that the CEO should spend about 10 to 12 minutes getting details and facts about this comparable accomplishment. I stressed that this was essential. He needed dates; a detailed description of the comparable problems; the types of equipment and systems involved; the tools and software used; and the team involved, including names and titles. He then had to determine the budget, how the project was planned, if it was successful, and how long it took to complete. After he conducted the same two-part evaluation process for all three of the problems, I told the CEO to call me back and we would debrief together. About two hours later, I got the call. The CEO’s assessment was spot on. He told me that the candidate was great at describing how he would solve the problem, but not very good at giving details about comparable accomplishments. He told me they spent about 30 minutes on each problem area, with the candidate asking insightful questions each time. The CEO concluded that the candidate was great at planning, problem solving, and strategy, but not as strong on executing and implementing lasting change. He felt that the candidate’s past accomplishments were in situations far less complex and with more support than he’d have here. If the candidate got the job, he would be stretched too far and ultimately fall far short of expectations. The candidate wasn’t a hands-on person, and probably would do okay with more structure, but not too well in a fast-growing, out-of-control environment.
This is pretty remarkable assessment based on a 15-minute training course using only two questions. But that’s not the real point here. There are a couple of conclusions you can draw from this story, but I assume you figured them out already. My big take: interviewing is not too tough if you know what you’re looking for. And it’s not too hard to get hiring managers to tell you ó if you know how to ask the right questions.