How to Ace That Interview

Turn the tables on the interviewer, says executive-recruitment expert Jeffrey Christian.

Jeffrey Christian wants you to make him hustle. The founder of executive-search firm Christian & Timbers, known for its placements for big-name tech companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard, likes to see passionate candidates who like to take charge.

He doesn’t mind if you don’t want to talk to him — it just makes him want you more. Recently, the author of the new book The Headhunter’s Edge (Random House) sat down with to share his thoughts on talent, leadership qualities, interviewing, and what the job market and dating scene have in common.

How do you define talent?

Talent has [a number of] key ingredients. Honesty and integrity. Intellectual firepower: people who don’t necessarily have the highest IQ, but those who can figure out paths through complex problems in business. Sometimes it’s instinctive, sometimes it’s learned — and it can be learned. Energy, drive, and enthusiasm. Leadership.

Finally, a sense of humility. When I interviewed [Hewlitt-Packard chief] Carly Fiorina for the HP search, she was very upfront and open — generally more so than men are — about the fact that she wasn’t a technologist or a computer-industry expert. She said that if that was what I was looking for, then it probably didn’t make sense. She wasn’t afraid to talk about the things that she wasn’t strong in. The people who have a sense of humility about the things they don’t know are generally [good learners]. And you can’t grow — or build an organization — without learning.

In your book, you talk about the relativity of talent. [He writes, "I often interview candidates who are not the right people. But when I consider the specific needs of a particular company at a unique moment in time, an imperfect candidate may be absolutely perfect."] Can you explain that?

A candidate may not have the specific industry experience or knowledge, but they may have the energy or the drive. People can learn about the industry, but they can’t learn to have energy or drive. Companies often hire for experience, but they fire for human qualities. And, I suggest, they ought to reverse that. Also, sometimes the wrong candidate for one company may be perfect for another company with different circumstances and needs.

What personality traits do you look for in CFOs?

I’m looking for someone who asks good questions, who is thoughtful, who is analytical. The best are those who have been confidants of the CEO and can tell stories of how they’ve helped solve business problems.

They also don’t react right away to every question you ask — they sometimes have to think for a moment before answering. They have passion for their job and what they’ve accomplished. And I like a good personality. I like the new generation of CFOs who are personable, friendly, and have a sense of humor. I like to say something funny in an interview and see if I get a chuckle. CFOs need to build relationships quickly — with the board, with internal employees, with Wall Street — so I want them to be able to build a relationship with me quickly. I also look for someone who takes personal [responsibility] — when they’ve screwed up, they admit it, and they’re not afraid to tell you when they have in the past.


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