You need a new senior exec and you need him in fast. There’s an opportunity to seize, or a challenge to overcome, and the new hire will help you get on top of it pronto.
But what if he doesn’t? What if you choose the wrong candidate, the fit isn’t right and the results are not up to par? Maybe he or she set out a great vision but can’t actually get things done. Or is good at tasks but misses the big picture. Either way, it doesn’t work out, you lose time and money, and have to start all over again – the last thing you need.
The problem is that recruitment at a senior level brings a particular challenge. The talent of executive candidates is often exactly what makes them so difficult to assess properly: a career in climbing the ladder has trained them to speak well, particularly in promoting themselves. To make an appointment with confidence, how can you get around the veneer of experienced professionals and find out if they really have what you need?
The Case-Study Test
Set up your finalists to undertake a case study. Give them a fact set around a challenge they will face if they get the job and ask them to come back and present their thinking about how to tackle it. Provide them with information on the company and the challenge and ask them to lay out a work plan to address the issue.
Colin McKillop, President & CEO of Michigan-based Towne Group LLC – who has kindly shared this idea with us – reports that short presentations provide insight into candidates’ personality and communication skills, their analytical capacity and their ability to get things done as a part of a team.
His innovation has been to combine the open-ended technique of case-study interviews with a more company-specific and pragmatic, problem-solving approach.
Case-study interviews move beyond the standard questions about background and experience to reveal candidates’ mindsets and their manner of thinking. Asking hypothetical questions aims to circumvent the practiced self-promotional skills often embedded in leadership personalities and sheds light on their creativity in problem-solving, capacity for teamwork and instinct for making plans and following processes.
McKillop’s insight has been to take the effort to craft case studies out of concrete challenges arising from the company’s actual situation. This gives a best-of-both approach, combining the hypothetical with the practical, all within an efficient, manageable process. It is has brought excellent, highly consistent results.
Here’s how it works:
- Write up a case study – just a page or two. Set a challenge the company has or may face that falls within the remit of the executive job on offer. Give the same write-up to all candidates. This may include a general overview of the company and other non-confidential information. Ask them to draft a 30-, 60- or 90-day plan (select one), or make an analysis of the challenge with recommendations.
- Get them to take the material home and spend an hour (tops) to create a presentation of no more than 12-15 slides, then return to present their analysis in, say, a 15-minute session. Underline that the time allocation is strict, to be fair to all candidates and to limit the amount of effort they have to put into preparation.
- When they come back, give your hiring panel and any observers a rating sheet, with instruction to score each presenter on communication skills, slide quality, relevance and depth of analysis and value of the proposed solution.
- Consider their performance alongside other information gathered during their interviews, including assessments and reference checks.
Common questions about this approach:
- Will candidates be willing to do it, or will they bolt for other offers? You are only asking for preparation time of an hour or two, and a short return presentation. If they’re not willing to do that, why would you want to hire them?
- Will it slow the process down? Not much, if you move fast. If time is of the essence, you could even do it the day of the interview. If they pass the first interview, give them a private space, hand them the case study, and give them 90 minutes to prepare their slides. Towne Group uses the approach for all management and professional roles but only asks the final 3-5 candidates for presentations.
- What if none of the candidates provides a workable solution? Remember, the exercise is not about the answer itself but the thought process and what it reveals about how the candidates work. With incomplete information, even the best presentations by successful hires require substantial re-drafting once they are hired. Still, the work helps a new hire hit the ground running – and above all, it helps you make the right choice.
McKillop reports that, for Towne Group, the presentation approach has resulted in a perfect record of successful hires from 10 recruitments over the past two years – with no mis-hires or hiring failures.
For example, the recruitment for a systems manager at Towne Group came down to two strong candidates; the successful one came through by making an excellent presentation on key challenges impacting the marketplace and how he would manage a downturn. A successful candidate for a VP position presented a unique way to address issues with an important client. Both candidates proved they were thoughtful and creative, as well as experienced and practically oriented. Both have been positive hires.
“Candidates like having a chance to break out of the usual interview format and present their ideas in a group setting,” McKillop says. “The experience has been really positive, and brought us great results.”
Hiring senior executives is a big commitment for you. It’s a big commitment for them, too. If it goes wrong, it’s a bad experience for everyone, wasting energy, resources and opportunity. The modified case-study approach does require more effort from both sides, but it’s an approach any good candidate should respect. Staging a mini-trial run reveals a lot, and is actually more respectful of everyone’s time by making sure you get such an important decision right the first time – a win for all.