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Best Practices


Over the years, I have interviewed and hired numerous people at various levels and for different functions. This column is devoted to my personal advice as to what to look for during the hiring process, so you choose the right person for the job.

I do recognize that this is highly personal, and you may have some different criteria or disagree in some part with my advice. You may want to review my column entitled Improve Your Hiring Success in the May 2015 issue of LubesnGreases for additional tips. Please note that in this column I am focused on hiring for general management roles rather than for an expert role; the latter is likely to require more focus on specific skills, training and job experience.

A key thing to look for in a leader is a history of achievement. To some extent, you should be able to see this in the candidates resume. Screen out those people whose resumes fail to communicate their specific achievements, which should be of increasing difficulty and scope over time.

For those candidates you do interview, use your time to focus on a few situations, either in the resume or otherwise, in which the candidate has the opportunity to demonstrate a STAR: situation, task, action and results. In other words, the individual should be able to articulate what the problem was, the solution they chose, the action they took and the nature of the outcome, preferably with some key metrics. Be sure to ask questions so that you can assess the level of difficulty of the problem, the degree to which the candidate drove the action and the extent of the success. I suggest, too, that you probe how the individual led or engaged others in order to drive the actions.

Another focus area for me was that of ambition. When you are hiring for leadership positions, you want someone who possesses drive and a desire to excel and who is excited about moving to higher-level positions of more responsibility. However, beware of those who show ambition without an accompanying recognition of the need to work hard to merit promotion, and beware of those who believe they can succeed on their own without the engagement and assistance of colleagues.

This brings me to the important characteristic of team focus. Ask the individual about teams he or she has led in the past and what techniques they used to bring others along. It is especially impressive if the person has led a team through a difficult situation or project or if they have done so on a project that is outside their normal job responsibility. I would listen for clues on how the candidate selected people for the team, how they assigned responsibilities within the team, how they resolved conflicts within the team or with other departments, and how they recognized success at the conclusion of the task.

An important quality, but one which is tough to evaluate through the interview process, is that of trustworthiness. I would ask some tough questions in order to try to evaluate this quality. For example, I often asked candidates to describe some occasion during their career in which they failed at something. If they didnt offer up anything, I tended to find that suspicious. You should also probe any resume gaps or career moves that seem unusual. You can delicately probe this if you get to the point where you are serious about hiring the person and you check personal references.

Empathy is another key characteristic I look for in leaders. You can try to evaluate this during the interview process by giving some hypothetical situations and asking the candidate how he or she would handle them. Situations that may elicit empathetic responses could involve how the candidate would handle a layoff situation, an employee with an illness or a situation in which an employee needs to be given a poor performance appraisal. Of course, you are looking for a balanced response, too; the prospective leader must be capable of taking tough actions when needed.

Excellent communication skills are a key requirement for a prospective leader. The entire interview process gives you an opportunity to evaluate these skills. The candidate should be neither too wordy nor too quiet. Consider incorporating a hypothetical mini-project into the day, and ask the candidate to develop and deliver a 30-minute presentation to the hiring team. This can be useful in comparing candidates, as the project and associated presentation will offer the opportunity to evaluate not only communication skills but also thinking and decision skills.

Last but not least, try to evaluate the candidates thinking skills. Seek evidence that the person is capable of seeing the big picture and can connect the dots of various pieces of information to develop a thesis. I would question how they decided which action to take in the key accomplishments listed on their resume or in the STAR situations they describe. It would be impressive if they were able to describe not only the actions they took, but other potential actions they could have taken and why those were rejected. Leave some time at the end of the interview for the candidates questions about the company. If their questions are higher-level and show both preparation and insight, that is definitely a plus.

Of course, there are other things to look for, but I have tried to limit this list of key characteristics to a manageable level. I recommend having a hiring team to assist you so that you have a better opportunity to evaluate these aspects and get a variety of insights.

Some real-life red flags that I experienced as I interviewed candidates include the following:

A candidate who used language during the interview that reflected a lack of appreciation for racial or cultural diversity;

A candidate who was flirtatious during the interview;

A candidate who took 20 minutes to answer a single question;

A candidate who seemed unprepared for the interview with regard to basic information about the company or industry.

I hope this column has given you a few new ideas about what to look for during the leader-hiring process and how to elicit information on these key characteristics.

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Email her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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