Interviewing Executive Candidates: 7 Ways to Spark Intuition and Find the Right Leader

Interviewing Executive Candidates: 7 Ways to Spark Intuition and Find the Right Leader

You’ve reviewed the executive candidates’ resumes and have your own list of tried-and-true questions to ask. But when you’re hiring for a leadership role in the life sciences, there’s one more thing you need: intuition.

You know where to find it: in a gut feeling, inner voice, or sixth sense. We all have intuition. And the best recruiters and placement professionals rely on intuition as one of their go-to tools whenever they’re interviewing executive candidates for leadership roles.

How intuition fits into executive interviews

Intuition speaks loudly to us when interviewing candidates. As an interviewer, it’s your job to spark your inner voice and get it to talk even more. Should you believe everything it says? Not until you’ve found evidence to either confirm or deny what you’re intuiting.

The process starts by ensuring your interviewing methodology works with intuition — one that reinforces and validates it. Your goal is to get that sixth sense to kick in and tell you whether a candidate is or isn’t going to work out. Then you need to go a step further and dig up facts to support it.

By the way, intuition can sometimes be the only thing you have to differentiate one candidate from another, particularly in highly competitive industries like the life sciences, where an “A” candidate can’t be replaced with a “B” candidate. It’s essential to find out if someone won’t be a good fit — you may be able to sense it, but you need proof, too.

7 ways to get intuition to kick while interviewing candidates

While it’s time consuming, it’s not difficult to ensure your executive candidate interview process is set up to uncover the truth behind the hunch. You can do it by following the steps in this outline, which looks at seven key moments in the executive interviewing process and how to make the most out of intuition during each. If you can’t do this for every candidate, be sure you do it for your top candidates — the ones you consider finalists.

1. Prepare for the interview with your executive candidate

Setting time aside to prepare before the interview can help spark intuition and provide the rationalization that may be needed to explain your thoughts to others.

  1. Listen to your talent acquisition partner to understand how he/she sees the candidate fitting with your culture.
  2. Be clear about what the candidate does and doesn’t bring to the table based on what you glean from the talent acquisition partner’s input .
  3. Define the most relevant part of the candidate’s background as it relates to your company’s needs.
  4. After reading the candidate’s evaluation, discuss any items that either need additional research from the talent acquisition partner or need more explanation.
  5. Highlight what attracts you about the potential finalist.
  6. Be prepared to tell the candidate what he/she needs to be and do to help bring the company’s vision to life.
  7. Be prepared to describe the desired outcome after the potential finalist candidate has been with the company for six months, 12 months and more.
  8. Be able to illustrate your company’s culture and/or explain how it needs to be reinforced or changed.

2. Set the stage for the interview

Meeting with a potential finalist is a balancing act between continuing to “sell” the opportunity and “testing” a candidate’s potential fit. This calls for creating an environment of openness where a free exchange of ideas and storytelling exists. The more you collaborate during an interview, the greater your intuitive sense of a candidate’s fit.

  1. Set aside the candidate’s cover letter and let him/her tell you about his/her interest in the opportunity.
  2. Demonstrate respect for what the candidate has achieved.
  3. Let the candidate know what attracts you about his/her background.
  4. Give the candidate the opportunity to describe his/her sense of your company’s vision.
  5. Ask questions about the barriers the candidate can foresee that might hinder success.
  6. Ask the candidate for two or three critical actions that need to take place before success can be realized.
  7. Ask the candidate to share his/her thoughts on a particular strategy.
  8. Invite the candidate to express his/her concern(s) and together carve out potential solutions.
  9. Draw the candidate into role playing about a particular customer or partnership issue.

3. Draw Out Motivation

An executive candidate’s interest in an opportunity goes beyond career development and an uptick in a compensation package. Be prepared to ask the candidate to describe what nourishes his/her energy. Use your people-reading skills to look for congruency between the words and the body language. 

  1. In what kinds of environments do you do your best work?
  2. What discourages you the most?
  3. Ask: “What would you need from me to do your best job?”
  4. Ask: “What gives you the greatest pleasure in your work?”
  5. Ask: “What makes the hair on the back of your head stand up?”
  6. Ask: “How do you spend your time when you’re not at work?” (Hint: highly motivated people have goals outside of work.)
  7. Ask: “Where have you failed and what did you learn from the experience?”
  8. Ask: “What are you most proud of in your career to date?”

4. Understand the career path of the executive candidate

Your talent acquisition partner will have documented a candidate’s job history for you. While you will become familiar with this in advance of meeting with a potential finalist, there is value in having a candidate tell you his/her side of the story. Why? You’ll pick up more about what the candidate truly values, his/her reactions to unexpected change, and his/her approach for dealing with situations beyond his/her control.

  1. Whether it is a story of longevity or short-term employment, ask the candidate to explain his/her attitude about either. Listen carefully to what the candidate chooses to discuss: it can demonstrate accountability and self-reliance.
  2. Go back to the beginning. Ask about early choices made in education and for stories about the candidate’s upbringing to learn more about motivators
  3. Ask: “How did you choose to attend [candidate’s] university?”
  4. Ask: “What did you experience during childhood that has helped make you successful as an adult?”
  5. Ask: “Who influenced you most while growing up? And why?”
  6. Ask: “Who did you learn from most during your early career years?”
  7. Ask: “How does this continue to influence you today?”

5. Dig deeper while getting the candidate to open up.

Once you reach the point in the interview where you and the candidate should be even more comfortable with one another and conversation is fluid, move into aditional questions that provide insight into the personal side of the candidate.

  1. Ask: “You’ve lived most of your life in [area of the country or world]. How important is this to you? Can you tell me more about this?”
  2. Ask: “What do you consider to be your most important personal qualities and from where do these originate?”
  3. Ask: “What would your employees be saying if they were standing around the water cooler talking about you?”
  4. Ask: “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self?”

6. Be up front with the candidate and watch/listen for reactions.

Candidates will want to hear your thoughts on how you see them fitting with the company’s current needs. Be upfront about matters that might have made you feel uneasy, as well as those that have given you a sense of reassurance. How does the candidate react?

  1. After sharing either opinion give the candidate an opportunity to respond.
  2. Use your people reading skills to check for congruency between words and body language.

7. Do a post-interview check-in with your inner voice

Having followed this progression, you are ready to check back in and listen once again to your inner voice. You might ask yourself:

  1. How do these responses alter or verify my initial thoughts?
  2. What does my inner voice say about the candidate’s fit?
  3. Do I want to spend more time with the candidate?
  4. Am I feeling encouraged or discouraged by this interview?

If you want more details about why and how intuition works for interviews, the Society for Human Resource Management published a great article on the topic. You can read it here.

About the author: Lucy Romoli is Senior Executive Consultant at The Hennessy Group, where she specializes in finding the right executive leadership for clients in the life sciences. Lucy also acts as an advisor to the executive candidates and clients, guiding career paths, improving interviewing skills and developing transition plans.

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