Tips for Hiring from Top CEOs

Hiring the right people. We all know how important it is for CEOs and business owners to build the right team. One of the questions I enjoy the most from the “Corner Office” column in the Sunday New York Times is “What qualities do you look for in new hires?” I learn a lot about that business leader and that business from that one question.

A few weeks ago, Amy Pressman, the Co-Founder and President of Medallia, a provider of customer service technology was featured. She said in part, “I listen really carefully when I interview people for whether their narrative is: ‘Life happens to me’ or ‘I make life happen’; ‘I am owning this situation’ or ‘I am a victim.'”

She says she wants to know through what lens people look at the world – through a lens of ownership or victimization. “In any given situation, you have neither zero percent nor 100 percent control. But whatever control you have, even if it’s just 5 percent, you need to make the most of it,” she said.

For more wisdom from CEOs, read my previous post “Tips on Hiring from the Corner Office.” For example, find out what the former CEO of Marriott International says are the four most important words when hiring and another CEO’s favorite three-word question.

Tips on Hiring From the Corner Office

“Here’s a calculator, a pencil and a sandwich. We’ll be back in two hours.” That’s how one $2 billion hedge fund interviews for analysts positions.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned reading “The Corner Office,” a column by Adam Bryant that appears in the New York Times on Fridays and Sundays. He interviews CEOs with questions about leadership and management.

Because I deal with CEOs as well as function as an interim CEO in my business as The Turnaround Authority, I enjoy reading insights into other CEOs. When I’m running a company I do a lot of hiring and firing so I especially enjoy reading their thoughts on how they hire new people for executive positions.

Meridee A. Moore is founder of Watershed Asset Management based in San Francisco where they give the calculator, pencil and sandwich test. They simulate a real office experience and see how an analyst reacts to a tough assignment, looking for people who enthusiastically embrace the challenge.

She said they consider it a bonus if a person has had a rough patch in his or her past, because, “If you’ve ever had a setback and come back from it, I think it helps you make better decisions. There’s nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period when things went wrong.”

Bill Marriott, executive chairman and former CEO of Marriott International, says as a young man he learned a lesson from President Eisenhower, who was visiting his family’s farm at Christmas. They were going to shoot quail but it was extremely cold, so his dad asked the president if he still wanted to go. President Eisenhower turned to young Bill and said, “What do you think we should do?”

From that Bill learned that the four most important words are, “What do you think?” Like me, he likes to hire people smarter than he is, but sometimes those people come with huge egos that preclude them from considering other people’s point of view. So when he interviews candidates he always looks for good listeners.

The CEO of YouSendIt, Brad Garlinghouse,  says he looks for people with passion. Some of the questions he asks include, “How would your friends describe you in college?” and “When you started working, how would your first group of colleagues describe you?” He also looks for humility so he asks if they have ever fired someone and what it was like. He is looking for a sense of empathy from their response.

Wendy Lea, chief executive of the customer experience platform Get Satisfaction, also looks for people who are self aware by asking her favorite question, “Let’s assume we’ve worked together now for six months. There’s something that I’m going to observe of you that I have no idea about right now. What would that be?” She finds that is a way to dig a little deeper into a person.

The CEO of International Medical Corps, Nancy Aossey, says one of her favorite interview questions is to ask candidates about colleagues who are not on their reference list, people they didn’t get along with. She wants to know what those people would say about the candidate.

You may be surprised what Karl Heiselman, the chief executive of Wolff Olins, is looking for when he asks candidates, “What’s your story?” He doesn’t just want to hear about the job they are interviewing for. He is trying to find out what they want to do with life and determine if they are being sincere.

If you are interviewing with a CEO it’s usually a given that you’ve already got the skills and experience for the position. So what they are looking for goes deeper than that. They are looking for people who are self-aware, display passion for the profession and are good listeners.

What do you think?

When Failure is an Option

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 
— Thomas Edison

I recently read an editorial in the New York Times called “The Power of Failure,” in which the writer addresses how nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures while some for-profit industries have accepted that failure is part of the process.

Sarika Bansal quotes Wayan Vota as saying, “In Silicon Valley, failure is a rite of passage. If you’re not failing, you’re not considered innovative enough.” Mr. Vota is a technology and information expert who recently organized a conference in Washington called FAIRFaire that focuses on lessons learned from projects that failed.

As a turnaround expert, my career is focused on working with companies that are experiencing failure. If a company is thriving, they don’t need me. I’m brought in when things aren’t so rosy.

successI don’t really want any company to be failing to the point where I’m called in to turn the company around.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s best for any company to enjoy a straight line of success. There are so many lessons to be learned from failure and if CEOs and business owners don’t learn how to deal with failure, they won’t know how to handle it when it inevitably happens.

A few years ago NPR correspondent Eric Weiner traveled the world to investigate where people are the happiest. He wrote the bestselling book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”

One of the fascinating things he uncovered was that people in Iceland are generally happy, which he attributes in part to the fact that failure doesn’t carry a stigma in Iceland. It’s totally normal for a person to have a résumé reflecting multiple careers — from journalist to executive to theologian — failing at some junctions and continuing on a different path.

For a company to grow and flourish, it has to be innovative and creative. Along with that comes a certain amount of failure. As a CEO or business owner, you want to encourage that innovation, while not stigmatizing any failure that may result from trying something new.

Take a lesson from Thomas Edison. “Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.”

Confucius said, “Greatness is not achieved by never falling but by rising each time we fall.” Will Rogers said,  “To avoid failure is to limit accomplishment.” Jack Welsh said, “I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.”

One of my favorite perspectives on failure comes from basketball superstar Michael Jordan and I urge you to take it to heart if you’re dealing with a setback at your business: “I have taken more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.”

I love the drawing by comedian Demetri Martin about what people think success looks like compared to what it really looks like. Success is not a straight line. But the important point is to keep your company on an upward path, no matter how many times it takes a backward step.

If you’ve made a mistake or failed at something at your business, admit your mistake. Learn from it. Encourage your employees to do the same.