Headhunter, Walt Hawtin, has a key strategy for cutting through the interview process, and it’s all about authenticity and control.
It might help to put the interview process into some sort of context, so what do we mean by interview?
Firstly, the context is senior and executive role interviews.
The word ‘interview’ can be a meeting, a chat, a full panel engagement, or a drink. The key outcome, though, is that an assessment of some type has taken place.
And just to complicate things, a simple and informal chat about the weather in a lift can become an informal assessment, and the ‘candidate’ may not even be aware of what is happening.
For the purposes of this article, there is a condition attached that we, as ‘candidates’ are attracted at a basic level to a particular company, and that we have an interest in exploring and possibly securing the role on offer. There are many other situations in which these conditions are not met, some out of our control, but for us, currently, this is the context.
Keep it real
Basically, at a senior level, people hire people they like, and who like them, respect the company, its products and services, and the values for which the company stands.
If a particular individual, team or role is attractive to us, then we as candidates need to communicate this to the people making the hiring decision. Hiring managers generally do not play complicated ego games with candidates, so we must never pretend to be disinterested in a role that is attractive to us, in order to send some sort of ‘hard to get’ message.
In the past, I have experienced candidates who have shared their strong motivation for a role with me, just to ruin their chances with my client by playing around. One candidate realised his mistake when he was rejected for showing a lack of interest: “I wasn’t disinterested, I just didn’t want them thinking that they could get me too cheaply.”
Communicating the message that you are genuinely interested sounds like a self- evident statement, but like many simple statements, it is only the key to a whole raft of complex ideas and underlying assumptions, when it comes to being in the running for a new role.
The gateway is the interview.
A lot of the cut-through message here involves leveraging more of our own unique authenticity. That is, digging deep within ourselves to gain an inner understanding of why we are attracted to a particular role, or company, or individual leader, and using this deeper knowledge for our benefit.
If we are truthful with ourselves, we need to develop the discipline of cutting through the little fibs we tell ourselves, our colleagues and our friends. We should recognise that many of the reasons we are attracted to a particular company or role title is because of the branding and positioning of a particular company name or title. An understandable aim for many professionals, is to belong to a successful and recognisable brand or title.
The content and scope of a role itself, can become secondary to our overarching requirement to present an image to our immediate audience, our world, demonstrating that we are successful, and a company’s brand and role title can effectively represent this state of mind. Here are some examples of how a company’s brand can influence hiring strategies:
Examples of brand power – Coca Cola
Coca-Cola does not often use outside recruiters because it believes advertising their vacancies directly to the market will be enough to attract all the high calibre candidates they need, even those who are happily engaged in other companies. And they do this because they believe their brand has enough pulling power for Coke not to proactively go to the market.
Coca Cola is arguably the highest profile brand in the world. But does that make Coke a good place to develop a career? Does Coke offer a professional environment and career prospects that justify this ‘pull only’ approach to their brand’s value? Maybe they do, but if we agree that no company is ideal for everyone, the Coke strategy, for us as professionals, may be flawed.
All we need to do is make an objective evaluation and ensure that we are not just blinded by corporate branding. We should not fail to look behind the brand to the reality of working life in that company.
If a high profile corporation can easily attract high calibre people, as they say they can, then logically they can also find swift replacements for people who do not work out.
Examples of Brand Power – IBM
Here’s a slightly different example of corporate branding at work, and its relationship with salary levels at a less senior level.
IBM in China plans to hire over 15,000 people in the next 24 months. It will probably succeed, because the IBM brand is immensely respected on the mainland. But IBM salaries start at about 20%-50% below the market rate for most of their entry level positions, across most functions in the company.
Why does IBM do this? Because they can, and commercially it makes sense, because it keeps their overheads down when competing for huge infrastructure and outsourcing projects, allowing IBM to maximise returns. IBM attracts the top calibre graduates in China, and those graduates appear to be satisfied to sacrifice salary, in return for the IBM brand appearing on their CVs so early in their careers.
So, does this make Coke and IBM ideal places to work? For many, yes it does. But stronger, better paid working experiences can also be had outside of the big corporate brands. While recognising that the big corporate brands come with a deal of cachet, as executives, we must recognise them for what they are, and not let the brand’s sparkle get in the way of a quality career development experience elsewhere.
Moving back to our interview strategy.
Once we have committed ourselves to an assessment process with an organisation, we need to get to work.
Firstly, it is crucial that we conduct as much off-line research on the company as possible. The more we research, the more we gain an understanding of the company’s broader operations, future plans and challenges. The more we research, the more our true insights and opinions of the organisation emerge.
We should be seeking an objective warts-and-all overview. This research activity is crucial to the next step in the assessment process, and it takes discipline, patience and a certain level of courage to achieve. The underlying reasons for this approach may surprise you, but the vast majority of competitive candidates will not research career opportunities adequately, and while you usually do not know your competition, you can bet most of them are probably not researching to any great level.
I’ve watched hundreds of senior executives progress through various assessment processes for numerous senior positions. Interestingly, there is a common theme that emerges as each candidate realises that he or she is getting close to a crunch point on their professional future.
The questions they usually start asking themselves are : “Is this what I really want to do?” and, “Should I really consider leaving the security of my current role for this new position?” and, “What is it that is really attracting me to this new role?”
These questions are raised as candidates come to recognise what a potentially life-changing event a new senior role can be. What is intriguing are the parallels that can be drawn between the consideration of a new role with a new company, and the considerations that take place when a person decides upon any other partnership, professional or personal.
A new role is the same as a new partnership
Successful unions are those where both partners enter into agreement with their eyes wide-open. They accept that, along with the great attractions that exist in their partner, also come a number of blemishes. The hope is that a blemish does not become a major issue as time passes, and that the attraction remains in place and grows with time. There is usually the desire that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Now let’s examine the process of identifying and considering a new role opportunity, whether it be through a ‘matchmaker’ (or executive search consultant), our own networks, or a direct approach to a company and compare it with the observations above.
The more we know about a potential new role, a new employer, and the team involved, the more likely it is that we will make an informed and successful decision. Link this with the reality of our strengths and weaknesses, and the more likely it will be that our future boss believes that he or she is seeing the whole package, the authentic human being, with no hidden surprises or agendas.
The more we approach any recruitment process as a genuine, open two-way selection process, rather than as a choice via a beauty parade or one-way mirror, then the more authentically we will behave, and the more in control we are of our own destiny.