How to Hire the Perfect Staffer

Pay less attention to technical competence than you think you should, and other tips for getting it right.
David McCannNovember 2, 2011

Among the multiple hats CFOs wear, “hiring manager” doesn’t always lie at the top of the priority list, transcending fundamental concerns like raising capital and monitoring financial controls. But since finance chiefs will surely interview candidates for key positions on their staffs, and a poor choice could be quite damaging, it could be invaluable to know about the psychological aspects of interviews and how to tell high performers from poor ones.

First, even for finance roles, technical skills may be an overblown component of selection criteria. Consulting firm LeadershipIQ monitored hiring effectiveness and employee engagement at 1,500 companies across many industries and tracked 20,000 new hires over a three-year period. Among the 46% of hirees who failed within their first 18 months, only 11% failed because of technical incompetence. The other 89% failed in attitudinal areas: coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation, and temperament.

Southwest Airlines put that idea on the map many years ago with its “brown shorts” approach. Candidates would be interviewed in large groups and offered the opportunity to change out of their suit pants to the brown shorts company employees get to wear in the summertime. Most typically declined, and were shown the door. The comparative few who wore the shorts were allowed to continue with the interview process.

The airline did that because its purposefully crafted culture called for employees to have fun with work (many flight attendants sing or do comedic routines during flights, for example). It built attitudinal assessments into its hiring process.

“Every organization has its brown shorts,” says Mark Murphy, chairman and CEO of LeadershipIQ, who recently offered a webinar called “Hiring for Attitude.” Look for people in your organizations who are high performers and determine the personality and work characteristics that correlate to success in the company’s culture, he advises. Look for the poor performers, too. Test out interview questions on both groups to build an “answer key” for what kinds of responses to look for. “It’s shocking the extent to which managers at organizations do not agree on what characteristics they are looking for,” Murphy says.

For example, if a company wants employees to never say “it’s not my job,” compose a question like, “Could you tell me about a time when you were given an assignment that didn’t fall into your role?” If a workforce priority is to not quit until a job is done, you could ask, “Could you tell me about a time when you were given an impossible deadline?”

Posing the questions as actual questions (“Could you tell me about. . .”) rather than commands (“Tell me about. . .”) is a subtle but important tactic. Commands make people feel they are being interrogated, as opposed to having a conversation. While many interviewers try to turn up the heat on candidates, “The more relaxed people are, the more likely they are to tell you the truth,” says Murphy.

More important, though, is to make the questions open-ended, like the ones mentioned above. Questions of straight fact tend to produce answers that do not help identify good and poor performers. And make sure to avoid tagging on a few words at the end of a question that lead the candidate to the right answer, such as “Could you tell me about a time you lacked the skills or knowledge to complete an assignment, and how you overcame that?”

There are two kinds of people in the world, Murphy says: problem bringers and problem solvers. The latter tell you automatically how they solved the problem; you don’t have to ask them to tell you. The problem bringers will simply tell you about the problem and not the solution. “Adding those words at the end destroys the question,” he says.

Murphy put forth a grab bag of other tips for interviewers:

• Grade a candidate’s responses immediately after the interview, since memories fade quickly.

• High performers use many first-person pronouns: I, me, we. Poor performers tend to talk in the second person: “What you do in those cases, you always want to make sure. . . .” That is a sign that the person never lived through the experience being asked about.

• Low performers also use a lot of adjectives, adverbs, and absolutes: “I was totally on board with that.” They need the extra words to amp up their answers.

• You often learn more about a person from how they responded to failure than how they achieved success.

• Ask a series of universal questions to test coachability. First, ask people to spell their previous boss’s name. That will plant the seed that you are going to be calling that person, regardless of whether you plan to do that. It makes the answers more truthful. Then ask how that person was as a boss. If the answer is in a negative tone, it suggests the interviewee will have a negative attitude toward his or her next job. Then ask how the person could have been a better employee in the past; if he can’t think of anything, don’t hire him. Finally, ask what the former boss would say about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

But asking the person straight out to describe his or her strengths and weaknesses is a superficial and easily gamed question. Also avoid hypothetical questions (“What would you do if. . .”), which tend to generate hypothetical responses rather than the actual experiences you want to hear about. And avoid the spacey questions that even some Fortune 500 companies like to ask, such as “If you could be a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be?”

• Ask few questions. Most people can lie believably for a minute or two, but few can get to five minutes without revealing their nature. Murphy recommends long interviews, but if you’re going to spend only 60 minutes, then ask only six or seven questions. “If you go in armed with 30 questions, you’re going to get answers that are 30 or 60 seconds long, and anybody can lie to you for that amount of time,” he says.

• Keep the focus on work. Don’t ask, “What was the last book you read?”