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Watch Out for 3 Surprising Mistakes in Executive Hiring

Why would you ever consider hiring someone whose behavior you disrespect? Eventually, the relationship will end in tears — and if you’re not the one crying, you’ll be handing out the Kleenex.

But it can be extremely challenging to find and hire the optimal person, and companies can wind up choosing people who bring whopper weaknesses to the job along with their desirable strengths. Unfortunately, some weaknesses are so damaging that they can outweigh even significant strengths.

So be careful! I’ve seen how these three telltale signs of negative cultural impact play out time after time, creating significant hardships at almost every level of the organization.

1. Poor Listening

Interviewers sometimes misread poor listening as enthusiasm, intensity, a can-do attitude, even charisma. But it’s awfully risky to hire folks who consistently start talking before the interviewer finishes asking a question. When candidates keep jumping the gun, they’re making assumptions about what you want to know, instead of learning what you actually care about. That’s a problem for subsequent relationships, customer advocacy, thoughtful decision-making, and problem-solving.

It’s also a bad sign when candidates have so much to say that they prevent the interviewer from participating in the conversation. If candidates are talking up a storm with no room for dialog, that can mean they don’t have the patience to help or train others, they don’t share well, or they’re actually autocratic control freaks.

And notice when candidates don’t answer interview questions directly. It’s reasonable for candidates to be self-protective, but it’s a lot better if they say, “I haven’t had that exact experience, but my work on the XYZ initiative comes very close. Here’s what happened…” than if they deflect the question to some other topic they feel more confident about. If you’re going to be working together, you’ll need their full candor — not diversionary or shielding behavior.

2. Cutting Others Down

Some interviewers get excited about candidates who give many examples and demonstrations of expertise and self-assuredness. They feel relieved that this declarative, dismissive, tough-talking candidate will really get the job done! But you’re asking for trouble if you hire people who emphasize what was lacking or inadequate about their past colleagues, or who present themselves as the sole cause of successes.

People who have nothing good to say about former subordinates, colleagues, or bosses aren’t likely to be happy with the folks in your shop, either. It’s certainly possible for them to have had a couple of bad experiences somewhere during their careers. But pay attention if they volunteer negative information — or brag about it; it should take direct, persistent questioning before you can get a negative story out of them.

3. Disparaging Your Interview Process

Interviewers may be dazzled by the star quality of candidates who’ve had big jobs, claim that they’re always snapped up after an initial interview, or brag about how busy they are with their other interviews.

Be wary of these types, and definitely give up on candidates who let you know that they think your interview process is a chore (assuming that your process is actually responsive and fair).

If candidates seem to think they’re above your deliberative process, attempt to trivialize the weight of the decision for you, or express impatience now, they may find your organization’s other deliberative decision-making processes too slow or cumbersome as well. Maybe they’re used to operating unilaterally instead of collaboratively, or simply prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. They might not recognize that your culture evaluates cost and risk, value and worth — if they were to become decision-makers themselves, they might take or create excessive risks.

Proceed with Caution

Of course you’ll be interested in candidates who ask curious questions, thoughtfully challenge your approaches or conclusions, or bring a perspective to the table that you don’t already have on board. And it’s also possible — and can be quite valuable — for a candidate to demonstrate a healthy, respectful rebelliousness against traditional thinking or excessive bureaucracy. All these behaviors are to be prized, and candidates who demonstrate them should be hired whenever possible.

But no matter how talented they are, or how many businesses they’ve turned around, candidates who don’t listen, cut others down, or talk negatively about your interview process may not relate well within your organization, and their expertise and drive are likely to create as much pain as they do progress.

If you have any worries as you’re going through the selection process, let me know, and we can discuss appropriate questions as well as how to evaluate candidates’ answers. And I’ll be happy to interview any tricky candidates for you!

Onward and upward,


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