Up until her retirement this past August, Diana Natalicio was the president of the University of Texas at El Paso. She held the post for more than 30 years. At the time she stepped down, Natalicio was the longest-serving president still sitting of a major public research university.
Believe it or not, Natalicio was originally just supposed to be the interim president, a role to which she was appointed in 1988. However, her leadership skills quickly showed the university that it was in good hands with her at the helm.
Natalicio’s story is a best-case hiring scenario: a perfect fit after an almost painless process. All too often, things don’t turn out so well. Organizations can go through lengthy, grueling searches for leaders, eventually hiring an exciting candidate who seems poised to take the company or institution into its next chapter. But once the leader is installed, the organization sees this was not the perfect match it looked like. The individual ends up being a poor fit, which results in a very short term for the leader or, worse, a protracted turbulent season under the leader’s guidance.
Presence is one important facet of a qualified professional, but confidence can either complement an inventory of skills or overcompensate for a lack of skills. Unfortunately for hiring teams, it can be very hard to tell the difference between a real gem and fool’s gold.
How do you ensure a candidate will be a sustainable employee and not just a shining interviewee? Here are a few guidelines you can follow to make sure you’re not mistakenly rallying around an overconfident presenter:
1. Consider Your Culture
One of the fundamental errors institutions make in the hiring process is failing to consider the organizational culture.
Before any organization can effectively evaluate applicants, the organization’s leaders need to understand what the organization is and where it is headed. You can only select someone who aligns with and enhances your mission and values if you yourself deeply understand and appreciate your mission and values.
2. Vary Your Interactions
The interview process should incorporate a variety of chances to meet with a candidate and see them in action in multiple settings. Formal interviews can be great for honing in on key aspects of the position and the candidate’s qualifications, but you also need some informal time to interact with the candidate to get a better understanding of their interpersonal dynamics.
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3. Invite Multiple Perspectives
Your hiring committee should include a diverse set of stakeholders. You can gain valuable insight into a candidate by aggregating a plurality of perspectives on them.
For example, let’s say you’re hiring for a university president like Natalicio. You’d want to know how the candidate relates to students. You’d want to know what the board of regents thinks of the candidate’s qualifications. You’d want to know whether the faculty views the candidate as a good cultural fit for the school.
Speaking of multiple perspectives, it can also be useful to get some insight from the outside. When hiring for a major leadership position, you may want to get an executive search firm involved. These firms can bring their seasoned expertise and nuanced perspectives to your process, helping you see candidates from many new angles you may not have considered on your own.
4. Target Your Questions
How does a candidate interact with others? What are their team dynamics? Do they seek to develop their staff members, or do they view people as resources to exploit?
You may not get straight answers to these questions if you come out and ask directly, but you can still uncover this valuable information by using behavioral and situational interview questions. These questions can help you get beyond how a candidate presents themselves in an interview, allowing you to dig into their behavior in day-to-day situations.
5. Rely on Their References
Even in a lengthy interview process, the amount of time you spend with a candidate can be measured in hours — during which they will be on their best behavior. It’s vital that you hear from people who worked with the candidates over years, including times when things didn’t go their way. Questions like “How does he respond when he’s made a mistake?” and “How does she work in a team?” are key questions to ask references.
Organizations can get a clear picture of a candidate’s true colors with the help of a strategic process, an invested team, and some due diligence. But what you find as you walk through the process may surprise you. Even the most impressive candidate can turn out to be ill suited for the position you are considering — but uncovering that fact before you make a hire can save a lot of heartache for everyone involved.
Cheryl Hyatt is partner at Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search.