The Interview Question That Reveals a True Leader
Building a great leadership team is one of your most important jobs as CEO. But it can also be one of the hardest.
What makes it so hard is that you not only have to find a domain expert but a strong leader who inspires results far beyond your team's abilities. More confusing is the fact that most experienced domain experts are often terrible leaders, while great leaders often have resumes that won't make it past your screening process.
And today's hiring process doesn't make things easier. Sites like LinkedIn feature inflated resumes, making it hard to tell how much value the candidate brought his previous employer. Legal barriers prevent references from spilling the beans, forcing employers to read between the lines. Studies show that 30 to 40 percent of executive hires don't make it past the 18 month mark, which might feel like a failure to some CEOs given how painful it is to remove an executive.
So how can you find the right leader? Well, you can start by asking one simple question, "Tell me about the last person you fired." Of all the ways I interviewed executive candidates, this question and the discussion that followed proved to be the strongest indicator of the candidate's leadership ability.
If he says, "I haven't fired anyone," it's obvious this person's a bad fit. You can't build a great team without occasionally deconstructing and rebuilding it. And while every leader makes mistakes, if he can't admit, correct, or move on from them, you don't want him or her at your start-up.
If the candidate did fire someone, then find out how it happened. As the story unfolds you will learn something key: how well he or she communicates. If he says the candidate was surprised, find out why. More likely than not, he did a poor job of communicating where the employee stood, which is hard to do, but awfully necessary.
If he says the candidate wasn't surprised, let him walk you through the termination process. Great leaders are often like coaches, providing consistent and honest feedback. Do you find the candidate fits this description?
Be sure to find out why the employee didn't work out. Explore what mistakes were made in the hiring process and how they fixed those mistakes afterward. You want a self-reflective leader who is constantly evaluating himself as well as his processes.
Before the story is finished, ask one final question, "What did you do after they were let go?" This will show you their level of empathy. Average leaders tend to do the bare minimum, offering severance and a positive reference. But great leaders often do what they can to help the ex-employee get back on his feet.
Pay attention to body language, as you want leaders who make quick decisions and follow through. At the same time you don't want a robot, so if he shows no emotion, think twice about hiring. That's not to say leading without emotion is a bad thing, but it certainly isn't for everyone.
Regardless of the process you use to build teams, you should spend as much time talking about what went wrong as well as the things that went right. Finding great leaders is incredibly hard, but if you find some, they will help your company experience incredible success.
MARC BARROS is the co-founder and former CEO of Contour, a hands-free camera company. Shortly after graduating from the University of Washington, Marc co-founded Contour in 2004 and led the organization from a garage to a multi-million dollar company. Contour products were sold in over 40 countries through action sports retailers and national chains, including Best Buy and Apple.
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