Everything becomes clearer when you ask……How?

June 27, 2012

In job interviews and rink-side brag-fests alike, everything becomes clearer with the question ‘how’.

I was recently among a group of hockey dads solving the world’s problems as we watched our kids practice. One dad mentioned that he’d recently taken up running and hoped one day to complete a marathon. Before he could finish his sentence, two of the other dads piped in that they’d both run marathons and would be pleased to advise him. Clearly taken aback by the juxtaposition of these long distance claims and the rather ample girths of the claimants, the rookie runner paused and then asked, “Really…..how did you do it”? The first person casually stated, ‘it wasn’t that hard. I set my mind to it, trained for a few months and then I gutted it out”. The other dad thought for a moment and then said, “I started with a hard look in the mirror, then did a ton of research and made a plan that I designed specifically for me. I worked on each part of the plan over the next 12 months. Obviously there was a ton of road work and I did a combination of interval and distance training on alternating days while taking every seventh day off. I also did a lot of core training, trying to strengthen my body as a whole.  I dramatically changed my diet and read every book I could find on the psychological aspects of distance running. It worked out well though, as my current physique will attest, I wasn’t able to keep it up after the race….”.

There are similar bald claims in interviews when candidates are asked to travel down memory lane to describe prior jobs, responsibilities and accomplishments. The cadence to these chronological narratives is somewhat predictable with a certain expedient mix of bravado and facts,  and at times a little padding of facts. For example, “In 2005 I was asked by the COO to take over the company’s manufacturing plant in Quebec. It had been underperforming for years and both productivity and morale were low. I took on the challenge and within 2 years turned the facility into one of the top performing plants in the organization. I was then promoted to Director of Operations where I was given similar responsibility for three plants across Eastern Canada. I held this role for two and a half years and during that time we were able to increase productivity by 22% while reducing headcount by more than 10%. I then left the firm and joined….”

The key to unlocking career narratives lies in the manner in which the purported outcomes were generated.  It lies in the answer to the follow-on question ‘how’ or in this instance, “Before moving on to your Director of Operations role, can you talk about how you walked into this under-performing plant, assessed the issues, and how you then crafted a plan to address them.  Then, can you walk me through how you went about executing this plan and why it was so successful”? Answers to ‘how’ questions (interspersed with probing ‘why’ questions such as ‘Why this approach rather than others you may have used in the past’?) provide the richness of information by which to assess the candidate’s abilities, approach, values, self-awareness and adaptability. It is the key in gauging ‘fit’ with the hiring organization, its values and the specific context into which the candidate is being hired. And as in the case of neophyte runners, it enables one to assess the veracity of accomplishments claimed and who to turn to for advice on making it to the finish line.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777