Use the Two-Question Interview to Assess Executive Potential

Whether you’re a corporate or external recruiter, there are four things you must be able to do in order to increase your influence with your hiring manager clients:

  1. Know the job. If you understand the job and what drives on-the-job success, you’re viewed as a knowledgeable person and important asset, rather than as a time-waster. When managers don’t give you enough time to discuss new requisitions, they’re sending a message as to where you stand on this scale.
  2. Find top talent. Seeing three people (maybe four) is all that’s necessary for a manager to make a decision. More than this is indicative of a sourcing problem.
  3. Recognize talent. This is the other half of the sourcing issue. Good assessment skills are a key part of the recruiter’s job.
  4. Negotiate and close the offer. Top people need convincing every step of the way. Increasing job value is how you minimize the need for major increases in compensation.

The focus of this article will be on the talent part, specifically recognizing executive potential in up-and-coming managers. We’re currently involved in a number of searches and candidate assessment projects where the ability to recognize executive potential is vital. You might find this topic useful in improving your own assessment skills, recognizing potential in some of your mid-level candidates, and even in assessing some of the managers and leaders in your company. As you know, I advocate the use of two core questions to assess candidate competency and motivation for any job. The first question involves detailed fact-finding around the candidate’s most significant accomplishments. From this, a trend line can be observed showing the candidate’s growth over time. This can then be compared to the performance objectives for the job to determine the degree of job fit. The second question involves the candidate describing how he/she would solve a realistic job-related problem. This question gets at thinking, visualizing and planning skills. When assessing senior and mid-level managers for executive potential, I use this questioning approach to measure the following five traits. Use These Five Core Traits to Predict Executive Potential

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  1. Multi-functional perspective. Top managers and executives appreciate the role of other functions (sales, engineering, accounting, marketing, etc.), even if they are not functional experts. They are able to balance the competing needs of these different departments to develop broad solutions that tap into everyone’s strengths. Weaker managers tend to optimize their own department’s needs and in the process sacrifice the whole company. Look for this silo or vertical thinking, as opposed to a multi-functional or a horizontal perspective, as you evaluate the candidate’s major accomplishments.
  2. Strategic versus tactical balance. Top executives and up-and-coming managers see the big picture in balance with day-to-day challenges. You could call this good business sense or sound business judgment. Strategic thinking involves understanding the cause of the problem before implementing solutions, and then anticipating the impact of various courses of action. As you examine a person’s accomplishments and the way they approach and solve problems, look for this pattern. Raise the caution flag if you observe a lack of planning, an inability to learn or take the advice of others, a lack of flexibility, too many excuses, or too much time reacting to problems.
  3. Execution and project management. Strong executives and managers need to deliver consistent results, year after year. To do this successfully, the candidate needs to select and develop the team, organize and plan projects, develop and meet budgets, track progress and make mid-course changes, and then complete the project successfully. By evaluating a person’s major accomplishments in depth, you’ll get a great sense of how well a candidate does on all of these factors. Look for a consistent pattern here, rather than one-time wonders. Compare the scope and complexity of these projects to the real job needs to determine job fit. This is what execution is all about.
  4. IT and systems awareness. This is an area often ignored when assessing executives. To me, it’s a vital ingredient of upwardly mobile managers. Using complex IT systems is part of scaling up any organization for growth. The best managers and executives know the leveraging role that IT plays in every project and business initiative. Being good here means knowing how systems can be designed to meet complex business challenges, working with software developers and IT managers in scoping projects, having enough expertise to challenge and think through the implications of various options, and making sure that IT projects are completed on time and on budget. In my opinion, this is one area where HR and recruiting managers need to be stronger. IT leadership weakness is one of the reasons why applicant tracking systems haven’t had the impact that should have.
  5. Leadership and vision. This has to do with anticipating the future, developing comprehensive plans, persuading others (including superiors, peers, and staff), and then motivating the team to excel. The best managers at every level have had to do this to get promoted and move up to the next management level. Use the problem-solving question to assess the thinking and visualization aspect of this. The best people can tell you how they would go about solving a problem, what other information and resources they would need, and how they would plan out a solution. To get at this, first have the candidate describe how they would address typical problems likely to be faced on the job. Then, to assess potential, describe a project one or two levels beyond the scope of the job. Find out where the thinking and visualization ability starts to become superficial or general. This is a good measure of the candidate’s current potential. But there’s a strong caveat here. While stretching a person is okay, don’t hire someone for a job too far ahead of their current level of measurable accomplishments. Talking a good game is not delivering results. Conversely, someone who can deliver results might not be able to grow much if they can’t describe a more complex future.

Even if you’re not assessing executives like general managers, functional VPs, or company officers, you can look for these same traits in all of your candidates for mid-management positions. Effective middle managers who eventually rise to senior-level positions all demonstrate these traits early in their careers. This is why they get promoted. If some of your managers or executives are struggling, you can also assess them across these same dimensions. One of theses factors might be a personal bottleneck. The choice can then be some specific training or development, or reassignment. Becoming a partner is the role of every recruiter. Once there, your effectiveness will soar along with your job satisfaction. Assessing candidate competency is one of the four critical skills needed to become a true partner with your hiring manager clients As part of your own personal development, you might even want to share this article with one of your clients. Read it a few times and try it out first, though. Demonstrating your expertise in this important area is one sure way to increase your influence very quickly. In the process, you’ll be able to present fewer and far more talented candidates. And that’s the real point of this article.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).