I am flying to Geneva to interview a potential hire. It will take a day and it could be regarded as a time extravagance. But I don’t think so. Recruitment is the most important arbiter of company culture. The more senior the hire, the more this is true. Few activities are more important yet too often, too little time is found for an activity that is a significant determinant of the level of success a firm can achieve. I would put my money on saying that the greater the investment in hiring practices, the greater the return. Skimping, rushing, or failing to work out best practice for your organisation is a false economy. Your organisation is who you hire.
Talent spotting and assessment is part of my job. It is one I enjoy thinking about. While there are occasions when we must hire, in general my approach is always to be on the lookout for talent. That means meeting a lot of people and hiring very few. If your organisation is harder to get into than Oxbridge then you are on the right track. At RIG, my hiring judgements are a mix between ‘facts’ and ‘feeling’ (which is judgement distilled from experience). I will hire a ‘junior’ quickly with feeling predominating. The more senior the hire, the more I bias the ‘facts’. Yet first encounters are essentially impression interviews. My goal is to get a sense of whether I want to proceed or not. IQ is very rarely an issue. Everyone who interviews at RIG is bright. I frequently half-joke that, in terms of IQ, that I am the dimmest person in the firm. In my mind, this is not a self-deprecating comment. I take seriously the notion that if you want to build an A-team, always see yourself as a B looking to hire an A. IQ, of course, is just one dimension of intelligence. It has been argued that having a high IQ and relatively lower EQ is a defining characteristic of successful technology entrepreneurs. In our business, however, EQ is a form of intelligence that is as important, if not more important, than IQ. What our clients lack, we must have in spades.
When I am not entirely sure about my first impressions or I feel that my own prejudices are in danger of colouring my judgement, I will ask one or two of my partners to speak to the candidate. There is no set agenda; I simply want their impression. While all of our partners are very different characters who will naturally look for different things, there is always a remarkable common sense of whether or not someone will fit. I cannot recall an occasion when this was not the case.
The second encounter I often hold with one of our younger consultants. I value their opinion. They are closer in age to graduate candidates and will ask questions and arrive at insights that would otherwise pass me by. They are thinking whether they want to have lunch with that person, or be away with them on a three day gig. And, of course, then there is the matter of practice. Interviewing – asking smart and well formulated questions – is a core skill in our game. Never miss an opportunity to practice internally.
I take note of how candidates react to being questioned by one of our younger consultants. Some senior candidates clearly don’t appreciate it. They won’t work at RIG. RIG is flat. Junior consultants are actively encouraged to challenge their seniors. It is intelligent contribution that matters. If you are the best person to lead in a given situation then you lead. Younger candidates sometimes answer the question but refer to me. In this context, eye contact is the communication that matters. If they cut the younger consultant, they will not progress.
Common interview questions are well sign-posted. Candidates have answered them before. While I may admire how an answer is articulated, pre-packaged answers tell me very little. I know that much of the information that the standard sort of questions are designed to elicit will emerge should we progress beyond this stage. So I have two approaches I like to deploy. Often I will go through a case we are working on and ask the candidate what they would do. Or I pick an old case and ask them if we chartered the right course. Some candidates, irrespective of age or whether or not they have a business related degree, feel pressurised and put on the spot thinking that there must be a right answer. Others enjoy the exercise, ask lots of questions, and see it as a problem to be solved. They quite naturally seem to develop and assess a range of options to addressing the challenge. The latter will prevail and progress.
The second approach that I deploy is to inverse the interview and to get the candidate to interview us. I do this for several reasons. First, both parties need to gather data to make an informed decision. Consistent with this, it makes sense to give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. Second, it drives home the point that selection should be mutual. We choose a candidate; the candidate chooses the firm. This, of course, is the basis of any employment contract though the balance of power between employer and prospective employee may differ greatly. In the competition for top graduates, the balance is pretty evenly weighed. Of course, many firms do not act this way. They proceed in ways that are consistent with their culture. Our approach is no different: it speaks of how we think about things. Third, you often learn more from the questions a person asks than the answers that they give. Given that candidates, most especially newly minted graduates, are generally more conditioned to answer questions, this is a revealing technique.
As our hiring process unfolds we derive data and impressions from a variety of exercise and sources which is then discussed internally. This part of the process cannot be rushed. I must feel there is a fit and know where and with whom the candidate will slot in. I will risk losing a candidate rather than rushing to a decision. Selection is much to do with pattern recognition. When I was younger, the pattern I knew best was my own. The temptation was to hire people like myself. That temptation has long been tempered. I have no doubt that our strength lies in our diversity. It is the dimensions that I question. We all have our strengths, preferences, and weaknesses; people we can spark off and work with effectively. Selection is not simply a matter of the individual. It is the shape and performance of the team that matters. Concocting that special brew is certainly part science, but it is also a creative pursuit and an act of imagination.