Scoping Out the Talent

It's a buyer's market, but making smart hires remains far from easy.

Even David Bronson, on the hunt for more talent, admits that “whether to hunker down and conserve capital or be more aggressive [in hiring] is an issue that senior management and boards are hotly debating.” Those companies that settle that debate by deciding that in a buyer’s market you buy, may go a long way toward winning the war for talent.

Scott Leibs is executive editor of CFO.

Do Tell

You’ve got 10 solid résumés on your desk and you’ve booked interviews with the top candidates. How do you select the best person?

Most critically, assess past performance. The best way to get a sense of that, says Louise Tharrett of Collaborative Consulting in Westwood, Massachusetts, is behavioral interviewing. “The most successful hire will bring the right blend of knowledge, skill, and motivation. Behavioral interviewing is designed to give you insight into all of these.”

Avoid clichéd questions such as, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” The responses rarely reveal much that’s useful. Instead, stick to experiential questions that deal with specific past situations. Begin as many questions as possible with “Tell me…” in order to get a candidate to share more details. A few examples:

Tell me…

• about a project that finished on time and on budget. What role did you play?

• about a project that didn’t meet expectations. What went wrong?

• about a time when you needed to influence co-workers who were resistant to your idea.

• about a situation where you didn’t get what you wanted. How did you handle that?

Some questions will require time to answer. Tell the candidate, “Feel free to take a minute and think about this.” Resist the temptation to fill the silence.

To assess a candidate’s fit with the company’s culture, try to uncover his or her attitude about a previous employer. Ask, for example, “You worked for Merrill Lynch. What did you enjoy about working there?” Interviewers may need to read between the lines, Tharrett says. “If the candidate immediately starts talking about the fast pace, advancing five salary grades in two years, and having lots of latitude, while in your organization folks tend to grow in place, move laterally, and be well supervised, that could be a red flag.”

During the interview it’s common to make a personal connection with a candidate. Don’t be swayed by a bias or an unusually pleasant interaction (We both ski. She loves dogs, too). Focus on the qualities required for the job.

If no candidate seems ideal, remember that a strong but imperfect applicant can almost always learn a skill set. “A new hire who has the right motivation and an ability to build positive relationships tends to be the most successful in the long run,” says Tharrett. Melissa Hennessy

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