Avoid Superficial Evaluation Factors When Recruiting Executives

By David E. Perry, Mark J. Haluska

The term empty suit describes an executive who is incompetent. Whoever hired the executive based his decision on superficial evaluation factors. These include characteristics like the following:

  • Charm: You know who was charming? Ted Bundy, that’s who. And you know who wasn’t? Steve Jobs. The point is, a charming personality is never an accurate predictor of success in a role. If you find yourself being swayed by a candidate’s winning smile, beware.

Whenever a client “falls in love” with a candidate, the client should take a healthy step back to figure out why.

  • Industry experience: Industry experience is not a bad thing. Depending on the size of the company and its growth stage, industry experience may not be critical. Instead of focusing on industry experience, make your decision based on a broad range of factors.
  • Pedigree: Yes, prestigious school credentials are a nice-to-have, especially when they come with a built-in network of high-profile executives. But they won’t guarantee success. Keep the candidate’s credentials in proper context, and of course, fully vet her before making an offer.
  • “Golden boy” references: These are references from industry leaders who have worked with the candidate, but only indirectly. In other words, although they may know the candidate, the candidate has never worked directly for or with them. If a reference can’t give you specific details of a candidate’s contributions, then his testimony is essentially worthless.

One easy way to rule out “golden boy” references in advance is to check the candidate’s LinkedIn recommendations section. If the reference appears there, it may be legit.

The truth is, these superficial evaluation factors provide minimal insight into a candidate’s abilities. The same goes for first impressions. Indeed, according to Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of people operations at Google (he’s now a senior advisor at the company) and author of Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google to Transform How You Live and Lead, typical interviews are a waste of time because 99.4 percent of the time is spent trying to confirm whatever impression the interviewer formed about the interviewee during the first ten seconds — an impression, by the way, that has virtually no basis in reality.

In his book, Bock goes on to review a 1998 study by Frank Schmidt and John Hunter that examines 85 years of research on how effectively different types of assessments actually predict performance. They found that

  • Information gleaned during unstructured interviews could predict only 14 percent of an employee’s performance. A structured interview is one in which each candidate is asked the same series of questions, making it easier to assess and compare their answers. An unstructured interview, in this context, is one that is more free-flowing — although the phrase is also used to describe those moments between “official” interview sessions, such as during a coffee break, over lunch, or walking down the hallway to the next meeting, when the candidate’s guard is down.
  • Reference checks could explain 7 percent of an employee’s performance.
  • Years of experience factored into 3 percent of an employee’s performance.

So, what was the best predictor of a candidate’s performance? How effectively she completed a job-related task, at 29 percent.