Selecting the right people to lead and build effective executive teams is critical to developing successful organizations, and the interviewing process can be the most important step.
Hiring ineffective leaders can lead to a variety of negative outcomes for an organization, including diminished morale and business performance. That’s why companies will often turn to executive selection experts like Dean Stamoulis, who heads the Global Executive Assessment Practice for New York City-based Russell Reynolds Associates.
He has conducted hundreds of interviews for top-level positions during the past 18 years. Employing his background in industrial-organizational psychology, he has the ability to delve beneath the superficial surface to determine the real substance and skills of candidates.
“What you see is not always what you get, and that’s why it is important to be able to provide a full assessment of a candidate including traits and characteristics not readily apparent in an interview or with provided background information,” said Stamoulis, who is author of Senior Executive Assessment: A Key to Responsible Corporate Governance.
He noted that too often interviewers become enamored with a charismatic candidate who makes a good first impression, instead of looking at relevant past performance and other indicators of leadership. It can work the other way as well. Some of the best executives do not make great first impressions. Looking deeper than the initial perception of a candidate can reveal skills needed for the position as well as leadership talents.
“Many interviewers truly do not focus on the key elements needed for the position,” Stamoulis explained. “It’s not that hard, but a lot of people don’t do it.”
One reason is that job descriptions are often too broad, he said. I-O psychologists can help organizations conduct a job assessment outlining the kind of skills needed for the position. They also possess the knowledge that can identify genuine leadership and personality traits of effective leaders and make valid predictions of likely success.
What are some of the traits Stamoulis looks for in candidates? There are many, he says, but certainly breadth of knowledge and attention are important. A full and rich conversation covering different facets of the business, including both the historical and sociological elements, shows breadth about the business.
“For example being able to discern how societal and economic changes are impacting or could impact the market. That shows the ability to see the big picture,” he said. “I recently had a CEO candidate observe that no amount of technological advancement was going to improve the prospects of French businesses in Germany due to historic cultural problem that he described in detail and insight. It turned out he was exactly right.”
“I also look for people comfortable with change and ambiguity and showing evidence of thriving in these conditions, which are reflective of many businesses,” Stamoulis added. “People who are not just tolerating change but embracing it.”
It is also important to look for balance during the interview. If the candidate only uses superlatives to describe previous performance, then he or she is not showing the ability to be self-critical and demonstrate continuous improvement and learning from mistakes, Stamoulis said.
“I often have data about the candidate that helps in the interview, such as the results of personality and cognitive testing,” he said. “The right kind of testing can provide key information about a person. Looking at those results makes me a better interviewer. Personality data provides corroborating evidence of what I observe. I am able to hone my ability to spot signs or signals about a candidate, signs that may be overt or subtle.”
What is not said is an important consideration as well.
“If an interviewee doesn’t mention others he or she led and name key contributors to past successes, that might indicate he or she is taking credit for others’ work and ideas Stamoulis explained. ”Does the candidate come across as arrogant or narcissistic? If so, it shows there might not be a connection with colleagues.”
If the candidate is prone to blaming others for failed programs and making excuses it is likely they are not taking responsibility for their behavior and actions. In addition, the interviewer should look for evidence of compassion, courage, reflection, decisiveness, and the ability to pause and think before answering. The executive assessment includes elements of optimism and realism and accurate judgment.
“We’re looking for a balance of traits,” Stamoulis explained. He suggests in-depth interviews.
“A couple of hours should be sufficient to discern factors about the candidate,” he said.
A revealing interview is really a conversation that skillfully leads a candidate to talk about leadership and business acumen.
“I avoid the typical questions,” Stamoulis said. “The goal is to get interviewees to talk, not only about their past experience and the job but about themselves. The passion that they use to describe their previous work, their career, and their life outside work can be revealing. I look for the message behind what they are saying. Genuine interaction is the goal of a good interview because it reveals much about the qualities of the person.”
Stamoulis said he likes candidates who challenge the interviewer.
“It’s always a good sign when someone stretches my thinking about some aspect of the industry,” he said. “If they are keeping me on the edge of my seat with their thinking, I’m thinking we are looking at a good candidate.”