Selection excellence is
one of the more elusive goals of all organizations. From
poorly defined job requirements to poorly considered and
inconsistent selection techniques, the process of hiring
executives remains haphazard and more art than science.
RHR International is one of the world’s premier
industrial psychology consultancies. The firm pioneered
the field in the 1930s, and remains a renowned innovator
of theory and practice. With 19 offices around the world,
RHR counsels some of the world’s most successful
organizations on improving selection practices.
StoneWood Group’s Bob Hebert sat down with RHR’s
Head of International Operations, Dr. Guy Beaudin to discuss
best practices in selection
1. Selection remains a mystery for many organizations.
Why do firms struggle so much with this area?
Selection is one of those areas, much
like marketing and advertising, which everyone believes
they instinctively understand. Everyone
has developed a gut feel about people, an intuition if you
will, that they believe enables them to eye someone and make
judgments about them. The truth is that intuition is
one component of selection, but it is by no means the only
one. Good selection has a definite process but most people
are not trained in it and therefore they fall back on gut
instinct in the absence of anything more solid to rely on.
The selection process used by most executives becomes an
extension of this poorly understood, informal intuition.
Interviewing becomes a conversation leading to an intuitive
judgment. While it is true that building conversational rapport
is an element of interviewing, it is of minor importance
compared to the real job of gathering data by which to make
good hiring decisions.
Selection is both art and science, though the science part
tends to get ignored. Robust selection is about trying to
reduce the unknown variables in hiring decisions, or stated
another way, it is about increasing the probability of making
good hiring decisions.
2. Let’s start with how companies define jobs. Everyone
understands that roles have responsibilities. How do companies
move from a basic understanding of responsibilities to
This is where the more rigorous process
I just referred to needs to begin. If they define
the selection criteria at all, most companies tend to rely
on a list of competencies.
Unfortunately for many companies selecting from a library
of competencies can produce little more than a laundry list
of attributes that do little to enhance the likelihood that
they will make a good hiring decision. If the list is long
enough you end up describing someone who could be successful
in any role.
The selection criteria need to be specific
to the role which is why the starting point is always the
strategy. The key questions to ask are: What
is our organization’s strategy? What obstacles
are we likely to face in executing this strategy? What
is this person’s role in driving our strategy/navigating
the obstacles? What will they need to do particularly
well to be successful in those goals? That thought process
should translate into a list of the 3-5 success factors that
will need to be exhibited by the individual in order for
them to be effective in the role.
3. What do you mean by success factors?
For example, think of a small company that has reached a
plateau and is looking for some help to propel the business.
The company would start at the desired outcome, a strategic
goal, a milestone endpoint of sorts that it can work backwards
from. It then asks how this person will contribute to getting
the company to that goal.
Among the considerations, the business will need to be reframed,
set in a new direction, the people will need to be engaged
and aligned with that direction and then the team will need
In order to lead the company successfully
through this inflection point, the new leader will need
to work at three levels: the head, the heart and the hands.
By this, I mean that the person must figure out and express
a vision of the path to be pursued; they must then get
people to buy into that vision, dealing with the inevitable
resistance and misalignment issues; and then they must
help the organization and its people change its behaviors
in order to successfully execute against this strategy. These
are the leadership success factors that will determine
whether or not the candidate will be successful in driving
the desired growth in the business.
Organizations tend to concentrate far too much on resumes,
roles and stated accomplishments instead of looking at the
behaviors and characteristics that will make an individual
successful in this situation.
4. Context plays a big role in hiring. How do firms
ensure that they incorporate an understanding of their
specific situation in their selection process?
This is important. Companies always look
at experience in static terms. The person worked in the
right industry, with the right customers, in the right
functions and appears to boast accomplishments that resonate
with the hiring organization. But
this is a dangerous way to go about evaluating the ability
to effect positive change in an organization because it overlooks
both the context in which the results were generated and
it ignores the change management piece. Just because someone
was successful in one context doesn’t mean they will
necessarily be successful in another context.
First, companies tend to focus on where
they want to go at the expense of where they are coming
from. They want to achieve success or growth and thus look
to an individual working at a big successful company as
someone who will understand the end state. But that person
may know next to nothing about the challenges in getting
from where the firm is today to that desired state. They
may in fact be totally inappropriate for the company of
today, notwithstanding its aspirations for tomorrow. In other words, just because someone
has managed a large organization, doesn’t mean they
also have the skill set of leading an organization as it
goes through its growth phase.
If you are hiring someone to help a company get unstuck
so that it can move from point A to point B, the key consideration
is experience in getting unstuck. Furthermore, you want someone
with experience in contexts as close to yours as possible.
For example, if you are working for a founder-led firm that
is seeking to undergo change, it would be foolish to ignore
experience with founder led firms as a consideration. Evaluating
the change piece of the equation takes an organization back
down the path of considering how candidates have dealt with
the head, heart and hands issues I mentioned earlier.
The question of how someone undertakes their responsibilities
is also important. Someone brought into an organization with
a mandate to effect change can accomplish this in a number
of ways, some of which are more likely to work in a given
organization. Because of this, organizations have to understand
what approach and personality is likely to be successful
for them. They have to understand their culture, decision-making
processes, the timelines involved and translate those into
an understanding that can be used to hire someone most likely
to be successful.
5. You have been quoted stating that
every selection process should include an evaluation
of several basic attributes. One of those is intelligence.
Can you speak to this a little?
Research is clear that if you can only
use only one piece of data to predict success it should
be intelligence. It is still the best predictor of someone’s ability to
get the job done. It is not the only factor of course
and I am not advocating that you use it in isolation, which
is why emotional intelligence, or EQ also needs to be factored
in. In recent years however the push towards emotional
intelligence has tended to obscure the importance of intelligence.
This is a mistake.
When hiring, organizations should always
try to get some measure of a candidate’s intellect. We use a series
of rigorous tools to measure this but for organizations looking
for less formal means there are several strategies you can
use to get a proxy of intelligence. At the most basic level
you can look at candidates’ academic history, where
they went to school, the types of courses they took, their
interests, the marks they scored etc.
Second, when interviewing, you can look
for evidence of problem solving, analytical skills, creativity
and the ability to implement. This takes you into the behavioral
questions related to “Give me an example of a particularly difficult
strategic issue that you had to deal with…what role
did you play, how did you think it through, who helped you,
what happened as a result, how did you implement the solution”?
I am also a big advocate of having a
working session with finalist candidates before making
the decision to hire them. In this approach, you should
take an issue facing the organization and sit down with
the potential employee and discuss possible solutions,
the pros and cons of each, the risks in each solution,
how they would evaluate and solve the problem etc. This
will give you invaluable insight into the individual’s
thinking ability and style.
6. You have also discussed the importance of understanding
motivation when evaluating candidates. Can you explain?
What drives someone is an important selection consideration.
Are they motivated to do the kind of work we are looking
to do, does this align with the rest of the team, will it
carry them through down times etc?
Motivation requires some purposeful probing. I will talk
to people about their childhood, the choices and decisions
they made in school, the themes that cut across some of their
work decisions. Who were their role models, who did they
admire and why? I want to understand what drives them and
how has this changed or remained constant over the years.
7. What other recommendations would you have to make
the selection process more rigorous?
Devote more time to it. Many companies simply do not take
selection seriously. You are trying to evaluate whether someone
will be a successful contributor to your organizational family.
This cannot be done in 45 minutes. I am a big believer in
multiple meetings, with multiple people, in a variety of
settings. You need to get to know the person. Afterwards,
you need to then get everyone together who has participated
in the process and compare notes on what you have learned.
It is amazing to me that companies will involve 3 or 4 different
people in an interviewing process and then simply get their
thumbs up or down afterwards. What you want to do is get
together and paint a picture of the person, a hypothesis
if you will about the candidate. What do we know so far and
what do we not know? When you have completed that process
you then have a basis on which to assess what else you need
to learn, or what issues you want to probe via reference
checking or subsequent probing.
Keep in mind that when we interview someone,
we take approximately four hours. It is methodical and
careful. It is hard for a candidate to maintain a façade for that period of
time. We recommend that organizations similarly spend more
time with candidates to get a more accurate picture. This
is true for the candidate as well, by the way. They
should ask for more time so that they can better assess if
the company is a fit for them.
8. You also are a big believer in the importance of
self-awareness. Can you explain why?
Self-awareness is the psychological factor that enables
you to grow. It is the ability to see yourself objectively,
to take feedback, the willingness to act on that information.
If you are considering promoting someone, give them feedback
and see how they deal with it. Do they ask questions, do
they embrace or reject the feedback? Do they make changes
in leadership and behaviour based on that feedback?
When interviewing someone, you want to evaluate this quality
as well. How well do they know their strengths and weaknesses?
How well can they speak about lessons learned in prior roles?
How purposeful are they in developing their portfolio of
skills? Do they have a mentor, do they solicit feedback?
All these questions will give you a sense of their self-awareness
and a realistic prediction of their ability to grow into
9. The old saying is that people get hired for skilled
and fired for fit. How can firms evaluate fit?
It is important for a company to understand its own culture
and what kind of people fit in and what kind of people do
not. This is an easier task for some organizations than others.
It can be hard for an organization to
describe its own culture, so there are some questions that
can help them to get to that point. Ask yourself who in your organization gets
promoted, who gets fired and why. Ask yourself how decisions
are made, how people have influence, what behaviors are acceptable
and which ones are not. All these will lead you to
paint a picture of your culture and of the type of people
who fit in that culture. Add this data to the profile
you are describing of the ideal candidate and spend the time
you need with the candidate to assess their degree of fit
with that profile.
10. High growth tech companies must
always deal with the question of whether someone is likely
to grow with the firm or be left behind. How can
firms think about future potential?
Assessing potential is a variation of
what we have discussed earlier. There are three main factors
that need to be assessed to determine a person’s
ability to develop and grow and those are intelligence,
motivation and self awareness.
All three need to be present for you
to have a reasonable expectation of a person’s ability
to develop beyond where they are today.
11. What advice do you have
for candidates going through some sort of selection process?
If a company offers you three people to interview, ask for
four. If they offer you one meeting with the CEO, ask for
two. Good hiring decisions are all about getting data against
which to make informed choices.
Candidates need to ask themselves what information do I
need to increase the likelihood that there will be a good
fit. Hiring processes are somewhat unnatural situations in
which parties put their best foot forward. Candidates must
work hard to understand their potential employers by meeting
as many people as possible. Who has been the most successful
person hired here in the past few years and what has made
them successful? Can I talk to them about their observations
coming into the company? Who has been promoted and what was
it about them that got them promoted? Who was most recently
fired and why?
12. What is the trending in the world of selection?
The trending in our business is towards multi-trait, multi
method assessments. By this I mean that there is a recognition
that evaluating the complexity of people requires multiple
inputs and approaches. This may mean combining interviewing
with selected assessment tools, careful reference checks,
simulations and the like, with a view to enhance the likelihood
of making a good selection decision.
A couple cautionary notes however. The
internet has made available scores of quick, easy and inexpensive
psychometrics. Some of these may add value and to inform
a process but none should be taken as absolutes. In fact,
some can be dangerous. For example, scores of personality
inventories are available on the market. These have little
if any predictive ability for selection. They may help
and be useful developmental tools, or they may be useful
in informing team dynamics but they are not selection tools.
Also, keep in mind, that the best selection methodology
will not overcome poor role clarity or a misjudgment of the
13. Can you summarize with a last bit of advice or organizations
and managers wanting to make good hiring decisions?
In a word, preparation. Selection is a methodical process.
Start with where you want to be, develop your success factors,
prepare a series of questions that will probe into those issues,
use multiple evaluators, compare notes, and look for supplementary
data points. Take your time.