Further Reading

A new system for hiring that shows you how to predict winners and losers in the incredibly expensive people-reading game

Over the past 15 years, I've been invited by the presidents of companies, large and small, public and private, to help evaluate and select their key people. From the resulting years of trial and error, I've developed an almost fail-safe method for predicting behavior, which works for hiring all levels of employees, from entry-level staff to company presidents.

My approach was inspired by a man who was a master at predicting winners--San Francisco 49ers chief scout Tony Razzano. During the 1980s the 49ers won four Super Bowls. One reason for their great success was Razzano's selection system. The system had proved itself after he'd made a mistake in selecting a punter, Jim Miller. In an empty stadium, Razzano had watched Miller boom 10 kicks with his shoe on and 10 kicks with his shoe off. Based on Miller's performance that day, Razzano recommended that he be drafted as the 49ers' next punter. "I thought that was a no-miss thing," Razzano says.

But faced with the realities of crowds, wind, bungled snaps, and the oncoming rush of 300-pound defensive linemen, Miller apparently couldn't handle the pressure. After three inconsistent seasons, the 49ers cut him. It turned out to be a watershed--if expensive--lesson for Razzano.

The 49ers changed their selection system. After Miller, Razzano always insisted on observing a player in action for at least 200 plays. Using Razzano's system, the San Francisco 49ers picked Joe Montana in the third round of the NFL draft. Montana was the 82nd player taken that year. Jerry Rice was selected using a similar method and was the 16th player taken in his draft. Montana became a quarterbacking legend, leading the 49ers to those four Super Bowl titles. Rice, shunned by more than a dozen teams in the draft, is widely considered the best receiver ever to play the game. It was Razzano's selection system that enabled the 49ers to see something in two players that no one else was able to see.

Of course, you are rarely going to see 200 demonstrations of a job candidate's talent before you make a hiring decision. But you can see 20 such moves--before, during, and after the interview. You can also hear about another 20 actions or reactions, in various contexts on and off the record, from people who know the candidate. That's about 40 snapshots of a person's behavior. If you watch a person respond to 40 or even 20 challenges, you're less likely to be dazzled by a single shining interview or to be influenced by a strong first impression. And the less likely you are to hire the next warm body who walks into your office.

My suggested strategies affirm Mornell's Maxim, which says, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." It's a conclusion based on 30 years of psychiatric experience. If yesterday a woman was a type A personality, with all of its advantages and disadvantages, you can bet on her being a type A tomorrow. If a man was great with people but lousy with details in his last three jobs, you can predict his future behavior accordingly.

Preinterview Strategies

Most interviewees prepare their strategy in advance for what, inevitably, is a predictable series of interview steps. The candidates can prepare an excellent rÉsumÉ. And should. The candidates can anticipate questions and practice their answers. And should. The company can and should prepare by rethinking the job and redefining the position, including the critical skills and ideal person necessary to perform the job.

If you also script a few additional preinterview plays, your evaluation begins long before the hiring game officially starts. You develop a strategy for which there can be little preparation by the candidate in advance of your meeting. A less predictable interview allows you to evaluate more accurately how he or she will actually perform on the job.

And that is crucial to more than just future performance. You're about to begin a long-term relationship with the person you hire. Thinking about a long-term relationship is very different from thinking about trick questions and body language in an interview. Your purpose is not to trip up the person but to make the best possible match. So here are strategies for getting information about a candidate before the interview formally begins:

Give an Assignment Before the Interview. Ask the candidate to visit one of your stores, plants, campuses, or offices or your Web page before the interview. Then ask for the candidate's observations.

This requirement asks for a demonstration of how a person carries out an actual task. For example, say I'm the marketing director of a small chain of Italian white-tablecloth restaurants. If a potential employee has already visited a location before an interview and can offer some insights about the restaurant's food and service, location, design, and cleanliness, I'd say that particular candidate has spoken volumes before the interview. Furthermore, some retail-store owners have told me that if a candidate has never visited their establishment with or without such an assignment, it's a definite nix on hiring.

OK, let's agree that this test requires that candidates rave about your shop, stores, plants, or restaurants. But what else do they say? Is it insightful, helpful, specific, and accurate? Does the candidate see problems, suggest solutions?

For example, the management committee of the American Golf Corp., which operates more than 250 golf courses in North America and Europe, decided that all its potential employees, including hourly workers, would be required to visit one of its golf courses before the interview. They'd then be asked to comment on the course's overall condition, the cleanliness of the clubhouse, the ease of obtaining starting times, and the food-and-beverage facilities, as well as the customer service.

One 27-year-old candidate wrote a four-page report, which included an evaluation of the concessions, the bar and restaurant, the catering, the management team, the course quality, and the pro shop, before his initial interview. It was an extraordinarily detailed report--including an analysis of the cost of sales, suggestions for better visual display of products, and ideas on special marketing programs to increase product sales--and it impressed the interviewer. Furthermore, the candidate's specific suggestions were practical. He also interviewed extremely well. His references were outstanding, and the results of 20 more demonstrations of his behavior were equally impressive. He was hired, and many of his ideas were implemented by American Golf.

Read RÉsumÉs in Teams. It's helpful--and faster--to read the top candidates' rÉsumÉs in teams of three to five people. Teams that work well together are more accurate and insightful about potential employees than individuals are. For example, a 27-year-old graduate student sent in his rÉsumÉ to apply for an upcoming four-month summer internship with a marketing company. Most interviewers and recruiters would have scanned the rÉsumÉ and noticed three items:

1. He's at Harvard Business School.

2. He speaks Japanese and French.

3. He's traveled extensively.

When a team of people went over the candidate's rÉsumÉ, they thought that his global experiences and Japanese proficiency were impressive. But they also asked why there was a gap in his employment from 1991, when he stopped working in France, to 1992, when he started working in Japan. Good question. It turns out he was unemployed for nine months. Then his rÉsumÉ suggested that he'd directed product launches and developed international seminars at a Japanese company. But whom did the young man lead or manage? One member thought the candidate's rÉsumÉ defined him as a risk taker, a positive. But another reader saw it as a negative and thought the candidate was too unfocused for a 27-year-old. A third member of the rÉsumÉ team knew Japan and how rare and hard it was for a foreigner to adapt in a traditional Japanese company. The discussion was quick and was more complete than if a single reader had reviewed the candidate's credentials.

Of course, there's another perspective. Teams can also waste time and pass over good candidates if those in the group feel "we must have consensus" or if a dominant member monopolizes the discussion. On the other hand, when a team works well together, it ensures a depth of reading you're less likely to achieve on your own.

Strategies During the Interview

When planning for an upcoming interview, I've always found it important to remember three basic assumptions.

1. Interviews test how well someone interviews. The results may be impressive but misleading. A recent recruiting booklet that serves as a guide for M.B.A. students noted, "Remember, the most qualified candidate does not always get the job. Many times, it's the person who interviews the best who gets the offer."

2. A good con artist can fool you every time. As a psychiatrist, I have been blindsided by alcoholic and drug-addicted lawyers and doctors who were so convincing that even they didn't know when they were lying. Con artists also abound in business.

3. Interviews in which you induce stress seldom work. Putting a candidate on the defensive will demonstrate only his or her style of defensive behavior. The strategy may be perfect for predicting winners in football or chess, or when hiring a labor negotiator or a defense lawyer, but the reality is that stress puts up walls. The point of an interview, I believe, is to take those walls down.

With those three assumptions in mind, here are some tested interviewing tips.

Ask All Your Questions at Once. As the official interview commences, as the starter's gun cracks and the race begins, ask all your questions at once. That's right. Put all your initial questions on the table up front. This strategy accomplishes three things.

First, you've passed the baton. You've asked the questions; now the candidate must respond. Performance depends upon the candidate, not selling yourself and the organization.

Second, this strategy directly confronts the most common problem in interviewing: not listening, and talking too much. "I frequently fall in love before the candidate sits down," a friend confessed to me. "Then I start selling before the candidate starts talking." Another businessman says that he's aware that "when I talk too much, I telegraph the answers I want."

Third, this technique forces you to listen. Asking all your questions at once, and following up later in the interview, allows you to settle back and watch a candidate's behavior as well as listen to his or her words. Adapt a half-dozen questions that fit your style, but ask them all at once. You might consider such questions as--

  • What would your former employer say about you--positive and negative?
  • What would your former subordinates say about you?
  • How do you recognize incompetence? What do you do about it?
  • How do you recognize excellence? What do you do with it?
  • What about yourself would you like to improve most?
  • What makes you lose your temper? Tell me about the last time it happened.

Seek Closure by Announcing the Five-Minute Warning. "We have about five more minutes..." is a useful statement before closure. Pay attention when the candidate says, "By the way...," "Oh, one more thing...," and "I almost forgot...," which means, "This is the most important thing I'm going to say."

In my psychiatry practice, I always announced when we were coming to the end of an hour, both as the timekeeper and because I knew there was another patient in my waiting room. Men and women invariably say something that's really important at this point, regardless of the time we've already spent together.

Later, I became a consultant to businesspeople who also had experiences with last-minute revelations. They'd be taken to lunch by a client, and not until dessert or coffee would the client cough and announce, "By the way...," which was always the prelude to the real reason for the meeting.

If you've had a good interview and the candidate feels relatively comfortable, you may expect a variety of surprises after you've indicated that the interview is almost over, and not just around the job description and compensation but about more personal issues. For example, with five minutes to go in our interview, a sales manager who was being recruited while he was working for another company said, "I should tell you that I really can't consider the new job."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I'm worried about health-insurance coverage." And with this, the candidate teared up. "I have a five-year-old daughter who has been diagnosed with leukemia."

His health insurance covered his little girl for doctors, hospitals, chemotherapy, and radiation, but the illness had been a nightmare. "And if we cancel our health insurance because I change jobs, it's going to be an even bigger nightmare, which we can't afford." Then he asked, "What do you suggest?"

We put the issue on the table, talked with lawyers and insurance brokers, consulted the company's benefits person, and learned that the company had a policy in which no preexisting condition for a new employee's family could be excluded. But if this health issue hadn't surfaced at the end of the interview process, this excellent candidate would never have shifted jobs.

Pick a Subject in Which You Are the Expert. Since I know very little about finance or marketing, I rarely ask questions about those specialties, except for saying, "Give me a five-minute summary." Instead, I ask something rather simple, such as, "Tell me about an employee you had to fire."

Although it's only one piece of a 200-piece puzzle, one middle-aged candidate gave an answer that I'd never heard before: "Sorry. I've never fired anyone." We continued the interview without missing a beat.

Compare that answer with another candidate's response: "My stomach was in knots, yet I knew the person's performance was mediocre and reasons for his termination were well-documented. However, the time was never right, since I was always out of town on Fridays, the best day to terminate an employee. No, that's a rationalization. The truth is that I hate firing people, and this was no exception. So I called an outplacement firm and got their advice, plus an outplacement executive to come to our offices on that fateful Friday. The meeting was straightforward. We went through various financial packages that gave the employee some control over the process. Despite an at-will clause in his employment agreement that protected the company, the more the man said in my office, I knew the less likely he'd be to consult an attorney. Anyway, we shook hands, and he went down the hall to meet with the outplacement executive. Fortunately, the fellow found a great job within three months. But I still get upset thinking about that situation."

Another candidate said about a similar circumstance: "The guy wasn't performing. That's the bottom line. So I fired him. If you want more details, I'd be happy to go into them."

Do you prefer a thoughtful and complete answer, or a no-nonsense approach to your question? It's your call, and whatever suits your style is the right answer. In this case, I thought both candidates knew what they were talking about. On the other hand, when an experienced individual says he's never fired an employee in his life, and no details are forthcoming, whistles and bells should go off.

Throw a Few Curveballs at the End of the Interview. Do something unpredictable after the interview, like walking the candidate to his or her car. Note its make, model, location, and anything else that says something personal about the candidate. Look for surprises.

Cars tell a lot about a person. Once I met a rather odd candidate, who arrived late to our interview. He was a prospect for the sales manager's job at a chain of retail stores. Afterward, we walked to the man's car, which was parked at an angle to the curb and stuffed with clutter, clothes, tools, and newspapers piled up to the windows. As dogs sometimes look like their owners, so did this man's car look like him.

My biggest surprise walking a candidate to his car was when I discovered the candidate's wife sitting inside the automobile, waiting for him. She and her husband knew our interview was to last two hours. Why wasn't she in my waiting room? Why didn't the candidate suggest a soft drink from my kitchen? Why didn't she walk five minutes into the town of Mill Valley? Two hours in a hot car on a warm August day said more about the candidate and his relationship with his wife, and her acceptance of that relationship, than any of my questions in the interview did.

Against my recommendation, the man was hired for an operation in Arizona. Predictably, his relationship with female employees was an unmitigated disaster. Threatened with litigation, he lasted less than a year.

Postinterview Strategies

Half the battle remains after the candidate leaves your office. If you stop observing behavior after you've completed the interview, it's like hooking a fish but neglecting to reel it in. If you keep your eyes and ears open during this crucial postinterview phase of the selection process, you'll learn more about the candidate's behavior and track record than you ever thought possible.

Travel with Finalists for Executive Positions. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then one trip is worth a hundred interviews.

Rather than evaluating information he might collect in the course of more interviews, the founder of a growing restaurant chain set up a series of postinterview tests with a finalist for a vice-president position. One was a trip.

He met the candidate at the San Diego airport for a 7 a.m. flight. The founder was there at 6:15, and the potential VP--also a morning person, as he later explained--arrived at 6:20. With extra time, these executives were able to talk. Later, between planes in Salt Lake City, the founder watched the candidate deal with a crisis by phone.

The candidate appeared focused in the telephone conversation and, as far as the founder could tell, helpful in the situation. When they arrived in Montana, an hour later, their destination was an airport hotel some 300 yards from where they stood waiting for an airport shuttle bus. The candidate suggested they walk and carry the bags the several hundred yards to their hotel. Clearly, the candidate's travel behavior was as important as his interviews in the company's offices, because the pattern continued as the two men traveled from city to city. On time. Good spirits. Problem solver. Great presence with employees and customers. After a two-year search involving a half-dozen finalists and several search firms, the candidate was declared the winner by the end of the trip.

Put Potential Problems on the Table. If you're still interested in the candidate, always have a final interview in which you talk about potential problems. It's never a question of if problems will arise on a new job; it's one of what those problems will be. If you've not discovered any, you're missing something in the candidate's background.

Several years ago I evaluated an executive who was a finalist candidate for a local company. On a scale of one to 10, I thought the woman was a 10. But in the course of our time together, she raised two potential problems. First, her husband was unemployed. How would he feel if she was making an executive salary and he remained out of work? Second, how long would the candidate's future mentor at the new company, the chief operating officer, remain in his post? She didn't want to begin a new job only to have her potential mentor leave two months after she accepted the position.

I asked the candidate to discuss the matters with her husband and with the chief operating officer. Her follow-up was predictable and unpredictable: Predictable because the candidate raised the second question directly with her future boss, who said, "Eighty percent chance I'll stay on." Willing to take the 80/20 odds, the candidate assumed the COO would keep her posted if she accepted the job. Unpredictable because the candidate discussed her husband's sense of self-esteem in a disarmingly candid way. She said, in essence:

"I didn't tell you this during our first meeting, but my husband and I have been trying to have children for several years. I'm 42 years old, and we've had all the tests; I've even taken fertility drugs, but no luck. So we've given up on a larger family, even though we'd love to have children. However, for the past few months we've been reevaluating our marriage and our lives. Do I work? Does he work? Do we adopt children? What's our next step after a very difficult five years? And that's where our discussions led after you interviewed me last week. My husband knows that I want the job, and he thinks it's worth a try regardless of his job prospects. Should we choose to adopt children, it will take six months to a year. Meanwhile, my husband will continue to look for work, and we'll see what the future holds."

It's rare to see such candor, humanity, and intelligence operating in an interview situation with a relative stranger. The candidate was later hired by the company.

Here is another example:

After a two-year search, a college president found the perfect academic dean. Soft-spoken, intelligent, and with a proven track record, the candidate was comfortable with herself and was highly respected in her profession. We discussed stress after we'd spent several hours together.

We all have ways of dealing with stress. In fact, I almost always ask candidates, "How do you release tension?" The answers vary from "meditation" to "I yell at the dog." If we can talk openly about absorbing stress, as I do with most of the perfectionistic people I know, then we can also talk about solutions.

It turns out the college dean suffered from severe migraine headaches. But regular exercise lessened their occurrence. So, as a perk in the contract we negotiated, we included a gym membership at a fitness center near the college campus. The woman could easily take the time to work out. Assuming the deanship would be stressful, the goal was not only to predict problems, which are inevitable, but also to incorporate solutions that had been helpful in the past. The gym membership seemed like an inexpensive solution in the dean's case, and it was.

Checking References

A young Washington Post reporter named Janet Cooke created a false rÉsumÉ claiming that she was a graduate of Vassar College. Cooke later won a Pulitzer prize when she wrote a fabricated story about an eight-year-old drug addict. According to Time, reference checking by employers increased as much as 10-fold after Cooke was exposed.

The lesson is clear. When you're looking for demonstrations of a candidate in action, one of the most obvious places to turn is to the candidate's previous track record. If used correctly, references offer not only a snapshot of a person's life but a photo album of strengths and limitations. Increasingly difficult to find in today's litigious climate, references also provide insight into a candidate's behavior.

When it comes to hiring, especially if we fall in love during an interview, most of us balk at taking the next step. Not wanting to hear negative information, we have an allergic reaction to reference checking, and when we do force ourselves to do it, we have a tendency to confirm the facts rather than obtain information.

In Information Anxiety, Richard Saul Wurman gives a marvelous example of the difference between facts and information: "Facts in themselves don't solve the problem. Facts are only meaningful when they relate to a concept that you can grasp. If I say an acre is 43,560 square feet, that is factual but it doesn't tell you what an acre is. On the other hand, if I tell you that an acre is about the size of an American football field without the end zones, it is not as accurate, but...I have made it infinitely more understandable to most Americans because it is as common a plot of ground as we have. We have a sense of that size. And you don't have to play football to know this."

Too often, reference checking is just fact checking and no more. Most people feel that checking references is about as appetizing as eating fish eyes. And most human-resources and legal departments are wary of litigation and advise their employees never to give out reference information except dates of employment. However, no one should ever hire anyone without getting additional information.

If you're persistent, you'll eventually hit pay dirt. Persistence means digging deeper--asking the candidate's references for other references, for example. Your patience will be rewarded as themes, both positive and negative, emerge in the process.

Ask the References to Call You Back. Here's the simplest, most effective reference check that I know. It's also fast and legal. Call references at what you assume will be their lunchtime--you want to reach an assistant or voice mail. If it's voice mail, leave a simple message. If it's an assistant, be sure that he or she understands the last sentence of your message. You say: "Jane Jones is a candidate for (the position) in our company. Your name has been given as a reference. Please call me back if the candidate was outstanding."

The results are both immediate and revealing. If the candidate is outstanding, I guarantee that people will respond quickly and want to help. Take such a response as a green light. Proceed to the next level by checking out the individual. However, if only 2 or 3 of the 10 references selected by the candidate return your call, this message is also loud and clear. And yet--

  • No derogatory information has been shared.
  • No libelous statements have been made.
  • No confidences or laws have been broken.

Ask Candidates, "What Will I Hear?" Always ask candidates, "What am I likely to hear--positive and negative--when I call your references?" The question is both practical and fair. Practical, because it allows the candidates to alert their references to your inquiry. Fair, because it tells the candidates that you will be checking their references in depth, and it gives them a chance to tell their side of the story.

Remember the story of that graduate student we mentioned earlier, whose rÉsumÉ showed him working in France and Japan? Although his potential employer knew nothing about Japan, she asked the candidate, "What will I hear from your references?" The applicant said, "From Japan, you'll hear that I was a whistle-blower. From the American joint-venture partner, whom I didn't list as a reference, you'll probably hear me damned with faint praise." Then the interviewer asked the candidate for his side of the story.

In Japan the young man had discovered that his boss was lying about the company's finances, sales results, and advertising expenditures. These problems aside, "individuality does not exist in Japan," said the candidate. "Loyalty, a paramount cultural value, is to your boss, the group, and the company." Consequently, as a liaison between the joint-venture companies in America and Japan, the candidate had felt that his allegiance was divided. To what boss (and which country) should he tell the truth?

He raised the problems with his coworkers in Japan, but they were afraid. Their advice was to do nothing. In the end, however, he acted.

He called the American president of the joint-venture partner, a man with whom he had previously established a good relationship. The candidate reported that the company was about to face some severe financial discrepancies and serious losses. Although the president seemed sympathetic, he made it clear that his primary loyalty was to the Japanese boss, someone he had dealt with for years. The president advised the young man that he should also remain loyal. The message the 27-year-old heard was that he had done the wrong thing by going over his boss's head. Devastated, the young man made preparations to leave Japan. Then the floor caved in. His Japanese boss quit quite dramatically, and shortly after, audits began to reveal the extent of his corruption: inaccurate sales figures, falsified advertising expenditures in the millions of dollars, and missing corporate funds.

"What did I learn from the experience?" asked the candidate. "As a foreigner, I saw that Americans tend to invest in and trust Japanese, like my former boss, who speaks adequate English. It's an understandable but often expensive mistake. On a more personal note, I also learned that I made the correct decision. By facing my fears and dealing directly with an ethical dilemma, I came to respect myself more."

After hearing the candidate's story, the interviewer called references in Tokyo. The vice-president of sales confirmed the young man's story. The Japanese vice-president for finance, who had been with his company for 33 years, also confirmed the young man's story. "He blew the whistle," said the manager, adding, "he saved our company."

By confronting adversity and telling the truth, the young man also got the job we were interviewing him for.

All the hiring strategies presented were designed to save time and to help us make the best possible choices. But there's no getting around it--those choices initially take time to make.

There's a story about a man in a rowboat that illustrates the point. From a nearby shore, a woman sees the man in trouble. He's rowing like crazy, getting nowhere. Then she notices that the rowboat has a bad leak and is sinking. She shouts to the man, but he's too busy bailing and rowing to hear her. She continues to shout; he continues to row and bail like crazy. Finally, she yells, "Hey, if you don't bring that boat ashore and repair the leak, you're going to drown!" The man replies, "Can't you see, lady, I don't have time to fix the damn leak."

The story reminds me that we all need to come ashore on occasion and fix our leaky boats. This is true at work and at home. Even if we don't have much time. Even without all the tools.

So experiment. Remember that Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, and all the giant contributors to the way we experience life today spent about 98% of their time investigating the things that didn't work before they found what did. Success in hiring represents the 2% that results from the 98% that is so-called failure. Success is achieved only through patience and practice.

Is it worth the time to find great players? Yes. Nothing you do at work is more important than selecting the right people. No matter how times change, this principle never will. At least I hope it won't. Hiring smart comes back 10-fold to every organization that I know.

Dr. Pierre Mornell is a psychiatrist who helps the presidents of companies large and small evaluate and select key people. He has been a consultant to Intuit, Kinko's, Northern Telecom (Canada), American Golf Corp., Hellman & Friedman, Young Presidents' Organization, World Presidents' Organization, Pentagram Design, the Institute for the Future, and other organizations. He lives in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

Adapted from Hiring Smart! How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game, by Dr. Pierre Mornell. Ten Speed Press, P.O. Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707; 800-841-2665. Copyright © 1998 by Pierre Mornell.