The executive strides confidently into the conference room, smiles broadly and greets the interview panel.
You observe that he has some presence, and some polish. So far so good.
You start the interview with an easy question, just to warm him up. “So tell me about yourself.” He nails it. Short, sweet, interesting, and to the point, he’s playing the room nicely so far.
Then you enter the dangerous part of the interview. The part where you might let your guard down and start asking him his philosophy on managing, or where the industry is going, or ask him what he thinks of your company’s strategy. Empty Suits can ace those kinds of questions—they really know how to work a conference room (because that’s all they do for a living). Their first sentence is always smooth and polished. They built their entire career by knowing exactly the right kinds of words to inspire confidence (and taking credit for the work of others). But like a con man, that’s all they have. With an Empty Suit, there is nothing behind the rhetoric. Quite often, they don’t even know they are incompetent.
The Effective Executive is different. They pay less attention to appearances. They have not spent much time polishing their answers to philosophical questions. Some of their interview answers can sound a bit less confident than the Empty Suit because they include more precision and nuance to their answers. They built their career driving results and being accountable for outcomes—meaning they have made lots of mistakes and learned some hard lessons along the way.
The least competent people (the Empty Suits) spend their energy avoiding accountability, and therefore can’t learn from mistakes they don’t admit to. But Effective Executives feel responsible for outcomes, including mistakes they did not even personally make. So their learning curve is dramatically accelerated. Consequently they realize how much there is to learn, and they underestimate how talented they are. As Bertrand Russel observed:
“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”
So how can you tell whether you are interviewing an Empty Suit or an Effective Executive?
The real value in behavioral interviewing is in the follow up question—that’s where the magic happens. Anyone can answer “Tell me about your greatest achievement.” But the gold is how you follow up on their answer. “How did you achieve that? What roadblocks did you overcome? Who else was on your team? What was your role on the team? What decisions did you make in the face of uncertainty? What mistakes did you make? What did you learn from your mistakes? How did you measure your success?” That’s where the juice is. You will immediately see that the Effective Executive is much more concrete and tangible in their answers. More thoughtful. Their heads are full of metrics that they use to measure their own progress. They give ample credit to other people on their team, and often sound quite humble about their own role.
But when the buzz saw of follow-up questions arrive, the Empty Suits lose all their false confidence. It’s almost painful to watch a succession of admissions that they do not really know how any of the results were achieved in their organization.
At the end of a long search, you want to be confident that you hired a top performer, not left wondering if you could have found someone better.
If you would like to spend less time on the irrelevant, superficial aspects of interviewing, and more time understanding the deeper elements of what will make someone successful, download our Employer Guide to Interviewing.