Hiring Top-Tier Talent: Not as Easy as it Sounds

May 3, 2021

Even in today’s labor market, where thousands of talented individuals lost their jobs due to the pandemic, finding top-tier talent is not easy. The talent is out there, but I am not sure we always know how to spot it when we see it. Determining if the prospective employee has the right talent, and if they know how to use that talent in the right way, is an art form.

Here are some of my top considerations when interviewing for an executive level position.

First and foremost, are they critical thinkers? This is difficult to assess. Certainly, you can explore scenarios and listen to responses. You can ask questions and see how they organize their thoughts and what they think is important. But the ability to critically think as part of day-to-day problem solving is challenging to see in the interview process. Prior to the pandemic we used to hold Corporate Weeks, where agency leadership would come to New York City for a week. We would discuss the health of the corporation, conduct strategy sessions, review financial projections, discuss organizational risks, explore market trends, share new aspects of infrastructure including large-scale software implementations, and more. When looking for top-tier executive talent, I would always invite potential executive candidates to these sessions and listen carefully to their observations and most importantly, to the questions they would pose following the sessions. Corporate Weeks have turned into weekly Zoom sessions as a result of the pandemic. While not quite as effective, I still invite candidates to listen in on these Zoom sessions. I listen for innovative and smart questions, observations that zero in on some of our organizational strengths and weaknesses, ideas that are in line with our strategic direction, or perspectives that reflect insight and intuition. I listen for whether or not the candidate listens to talk, or listens to understand. To be able to critically think within high-pressure situations is one of the characteristics that make good leaders great.

Next, I want to know if they understand the concept of building structure. If when I start to discuss this in the interview, they talk about an org chart (and this happens often), I find a way to end the interview. From my experience, the ability to comprehend and then operationalize a clear and precise structure that depicts how the end-to-end work gets done, is missing in many people who describe themselves as leaders. And in the absence of structure, good people fail. I see it over and over again. Staff want to do a good job, but when they do not have a clear structure in which to do their work, mistakes are made, and things get missed—often. During the interview process I ask about structures the candidate has built and how they went about the process. I listen to see if the individual was clear about what the structure was driving towards, the goals the structure was intended to advance, the ways they measured the efficacy of their structure.

Additionally, I want to get a clear sense of whether or not the candidate is a team player. It is amazing how many talented, successful people do not play well with others. That said, I have worked with very successful people who work best independently—and who do not thrive in a team environment. I can manage that. But if this characteristic is present in too many on the executive team, serious systemic challenges will arise.

Lastly, and this may seem obvious, I pay attention to whether or not I like them. Members of an executive team spend a lot of time together. They need to think together, they need to challenge each other and they need to produce. This can be excruciating if a member of the team simply does not click with others. It is tricky to know what makes people work effectively together. Often it comprises intangibles—but they matter. If you find yourself eager for the interview to be over and getting annoyed frequently throughout the conversation, save yourself future problems, and let this candidate pass.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.