As many of you know, I’ve been asked to participate in LinkedIn’s Influential Business Leaders Forum as spokesperson for career management and recruiting passive candidates. This article is a version of one of my first posts on LinkedIn. It caused a big reaction among the recruiters, candidates, and hiring managers who read it.

Between the lines it describes one of my prime tenets of good recruiting: the critical need to control every step in the process and the conversation. This covers many dimensions including how candidates make career decisions, how hiring managers assess and recruit candidates, and how the hiring team makes their evaluation.

Whether you’re a third-party recruiter seeking more business or a corporate recruiter tired of having your best candidates misjudged, I think you’ll find the approach used in this true story useful on your next assignment.

Here’s how it goes.

Many, many years ago I was contacted by a business owner who had heard me speak at a business leader conference. The company had about 500 people and was producing household merchandise sold in the big box stores — Sears, Target, and Kmart. He was clearly desperate. He implored me to tell him the two questions I had said were all you needed to ask to fully assess competency for any position. He was looking for an operations VP, and being a full-time executive recruiter at the time, I told him I would be happy to reveal my secret assessment technique, but we needed to meet in person and discuss the actual job first. He continued to protest, demanding the questions on the spot. Sensing panic, I relented. Before proceeding though, I asked him what was so urgent that he needed the questions instantly. “The candidate is in the waiting room,” he quietly confessed.

After getting some sense of his business and the position he was trying to fill, I told him to follow the following instructions without compromise. Then call me right after meeting with the candidate.

  1. First, do not meet the candidate in the office. Take the candidate for a tour of the manufacturing facility, instead.
  2. As part of the tour, stop at each area that clearly demonstrates some of the biggest operational problems the person taking the VP job would have to address right away. These turned out to be poor factory layout, too much scrap, outdated process control measures, and excess raw material inventory.
  3. After describing each problem for a few minutes, ask the candidate “if you were to get this job, how would you fix it?” Then have a 10-15 minute give-and-take discussion around his ideas. The purpose of this conversation is to understand how the candidate would figure out the problem and develop a reasonable solution. Based on this, evaluate the candidate on his problem-solving skills, the quality of the questions asked, and his general approach for implementing a solution.
  4. When you’re done with this line of questioning, ask the candidate to describe something he has already accomplished that’s most comparable to the problem needing fixing. Spend another 10-15 minutes on getting specific details about this, including names, dates, metrics, type of equipment used, how vendors were managed, how labor problems were solved, who was on the team, how these people were managed, and the results achieved. Don’t be satisfied with superficial or general answers. I told him he must push to get actual details even if painful, and especially if he already thought the person was hireble.
  5. Ask the same two questions and follow-up the same way for the other operational problems.
  6. It should take at least 90 minutes to complete the tour. When done, tell the person you’re impressed with his background, and will get back to him in few days after seeing some other candidates. Then call me and we can discuss your reaction and figure out next steps.

The call came three hours later. The owner’s insight was profound. He said the candidate aced the problem-solving questions, but didn’t have any evidence of achieving comparable results. He told me the candidate was assertive, insightful, and clearly understood the problems that needed to be solved. However, the owner said the candidate’s answers to the comparable accomplishment questions were vague, shallow, and short.

He went on to say it was like talking to two different people. One was eloquent, animated, and confident talking about how he’d go about figuring out the problem and how he’d implement a solution. The other was like a fish out of water, hesitant and unsure, lacking details along with confidence. He concluded the candidate was probably a great consultant or staff person, but one who couldn’t be left in the factory alone. He wasn’t hands on, and wouldn’t relate to the people on the floor. This was pretty amazing when you consider he only had a 10-minute course in interviewing under his belt.

He then gave me the search assignment. We filled it in about a month. The person hired took the same tour, to the same spots, and answered the same questions. The difference though was our candidate could not only tell the owner how he’d figure out and solve the problems, but he had also accomplished something comparable. Also critical to this true story, the person hired was not from the same industry, had different academic credentials than listed in the job-description, and had less overall experience. More important, not only did he successfully eliminate the initial four problems once on-the-job, but another half-dozen or so, too.

Moral: If you know what you need done it only takes two questions to figure out if a candidate is competent and motivated to do it. If you don’t know what you need done, take a tour of the factory, and call me in the morning.