To The Candidates I Will Offend Next Week

December 3, 2009

As a condition of being released from custody, the brilliant yet troubled title character in the movie Good Will Hunting must meet regularly with a counselor. Determined to sabotage the process he torments and is dismissed by a series of psychologists until he is sent to ‘Sean’ played by Robin Williams. Upon entering Sean’s office, young Will scans the clutter of diplomas, books and bric-a-brac before turning his attention to a small painting of a man in a row boat being tossed about by stormy waters. He ponders the painting and then, based solely on these few fragments of data offers up a scathing assessment of the psychologist’s life.

To many candidates, this is the all-too-typical interview process. A stranger sits across a table in a sterile setting examining your life on paper. He eyeballs you, asks a few simple questions and then draws conclusions about the essence of your work life, its relative value, and the likelihood that you will thrive in a given company and job. Candidates cannot help but feel that their complex, nuanced lives have been reduced to a caricature drawn from a drive-by glance.

As a headhunter I am frequently accused of such crimes. I see it in the faces of candidates who I have tried to evaluate and then squeeze into some sort of categorical box. I hear it in the comments of those want to be viewed as broader, more versatile, more complex than my take on them allows. To those people and to those of you who I will offend in the future let me explain why their frustration is more of a structural than personal problem.

First, it is important to note that in my business there are two types of interviews. The first are those on behalf of clients for searches I am conducting. The others are commonly called courtesy interviews. In the former, I am methodical and thorough and take few shortcuts in evaluating candidates’ fit with my clients needs. In the latter I am decidedly none of those things.

In the unenviable world of finding work, success often correlates with activity. Because of this, job seekers predictably go through a process of responding to ads, networking and reaching out to anyone and everyone who can help them. Headhunters are viewed as a levered channel to pools of jobs and thus they are an almost mandatory touch point for job hunters. In most instances, the strategy in meeting headhunters is try to impress while optimizing the number of roles for which they might receive consideration. This is most easily accomplished by presenting oneself as a versatile generalist able to address a range of roles in a range of companies facing a range of challenges.

But headhunters are in the business of finding specialists to tackle specific challenges in specific companies. In this instance, ‘specialist’ does not refer to function but rather the complement of attributes and experience to predict success in say a turnaround situation, or a small early staged companies, or in working with a difficult founder or family business. Headhunters are wary of ‘one-size-fits-all’ generalists and they probe to find specialist themes embedded in their narratives. They assume that each person has a range within which they excel and they try to map out that range.

In the end, the genteel setting of a greet and meet becomes a tug of war with one party pulling to expand the realm of possibilities while the other pulls in order to narrow it. A certain level of frustration is bound to ensue, and it does.

By design, ‘greet and meet’ interviews are drive-by encounters and cannot be expected to yield more. And while headhunters must always be wary of their biases and resist the urge to draw overly quick conclusions, candidates must be wary that the courtesy interview lends itself to misalignment of interests, errors and frustration.

Robert Hebert is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group (www.stonewoodgroup.com). He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777