[Podcast] Authentic Selection in Executive Recruitment

Posted in : HR Updates on 10 May 2019
Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

In this second instalment Hugh and Mairéad discuss how we can ensure authentic selection in recruitment but particularly in senior executive level positions.


Interviewer: Welcome to HR Bitesize podcast. In conversation with Mairead Regan and Hugh McPoland from Clarendon Executive. Clarendon Executive works with companies across NI to help maximise their leadership capabilities across all aspects of the employment life cycle from executive search through to organisational and staff development. Clarendon's expertise spans the private, public, and third sectors.

The firm focusses on identifying talent at board and senior executive level across the management disciplines, including general management, commercial marketing, and digital, and operational effectiveness leadership roles such as operations, finance, risk compliance, technology, and HR.

Clarendon have recently been joined by Hugh McPoland and Mairead Regan as associate consultants.

Hugh is previously Director of HR at BSO. Hugh has a considerable track record in organisational change along with considerable knowledge and experience and assessing the leadership credentials of directors across the public sector.

Mairead also joins Clarendon as an associate consultant supporting both post-hire executive development and senior executive performance and progression. Previously Group HR Director at UTV Media plc, Mairead has more than 25 years' experience in HR at a senior level.

This podcast is a must-have listen for any HR manager or director covering hot topics such as work-life balance, authentic selection, stepping up to director level, change management, and the importance of employer brands. Our easy-to-digest format makes these short but informative podcasts perfect for listening to at leisure, in the car, or during your lunch break.

We are going to continue the series having a conversation with Hugh and Mairead about authentic selection, interview style testing, and psychometrics. Welcome, Hugh and Mairead.

What is Authentic Selection?

We can start with a number of questions, which will probably lead us into a general conversation, on the topic of authentic selection. So firstly, what do we mean by authentic selection?

Hugh: For me, authentic selection is a process which aligns, an organisation needs to be clear that it wants to appoint primarily on the basis of merit and not necessarily by strict definition, which we all are aware in relation to equality and diversity.

But also, something about the person who you're going to appoint having the ability to fit into a successful organisation, which you're recruiting for, or alternatively, to actually come into an organisation and lead some significant change agenda to improve performance or to transform an organisation.

And the authenticity around that is about a process where people enter into that in good faith. Their whole CV, their experience, their personality is going to be assessed and not go through a process simply to validate a predetermined outcome.

So it is about an open process. It's one where people can come into it with confidence that their contributions, their experience, their qualifications, their aptitude, their personality will be considered and an appointment being made on the basis of merit.

Mairead: And I think to add to what Hugh has said there, in terms of authentic selection, we hear that, people automatically think of an interview. And I think what's critical is it is a process.

It starts from the point where an organisation makes a decision that there is a role to be filled, and the work and the effort and the commitment that's put into identifying what the exact role is, and the process all around that in terms of where do they market? Where do they advertise the role? What tools and techniques do they use to attract the right candidates? And what's the whole suite of tools that they access in terms of the recruitment process?

Absolutely, the interview is essential to it. We'll probably spend some time looking at that in this conversation. But there are other tools around that. So I think, in its broadest sense, we need to look at the entire process right through to the engagement of the individual and then starting with that organisation.

Hugh: You know, I think also, Mairead, it's important that rather than just start when there's a vacancy or a need, that an organisation develop its own employer brand. You know, Joanne McAuley has recently written for Legal Island on the importance of employer brand, that if you start trying to create a brand for your organisation, or a reputation, as you start the recruitment process, it's probably too late. What you want to do to attract and retain the best people is have a very positive employer brand.

And Joanne's made that point in her article for Legal Island, about how you have to ensure that people really want to go to work with you, not solely for the money that may be available or the terms/conditions, but a sense of purpose that an organisation has to have. And particularly the executive level, because people will come to organisations at executive level and want to be clear that they, one, can work with individuals, and they have a sense of connection and can support the purpose of an organisation. And the organisation needs to have that groundwork well and truly done beforehand.

Mairead: Yeah. I totally agree. I mean, employer brand is a topic in and of itself, and we could spend hours talking about that as well. But the reality of it is that I think . . . I mean, LinkedIn recently said something like 78% of individuals now check out a company's brand before they actually go for a job. So it's absolutely critical in terms of attracting the right candidates.

But once they have decided and once you're into that recruitment process, then we get into looking at what is it nowadays that ensures that the selection process is authentic and actually helps to attract and recruit the right people for the roles?

Hugh: Employers should also be aware that there are other websites. LinkedIn is a good place where people can check out, but Glassdoor is another one, which lots of particularly younger people . . . I say that because I'm really too old, but young people go and check Glassdoor and have a look, because that's an anonymous way that your employees can actually comment about a whole range of issues on you as an employer. People coming behind them will also know that's a source of information.

And certainly, I think as the workforce demographics are changing, certainly younger candidates are certainly looking at those sources to say, "Do I want to work for this company? And how long do I want to work for this company?" It's a very different sort of employment situation than when I was looking for employment.

Is it now a two-way process?

Mairead: Which actually links into the original question. That changes the process that employers will use, because it used to be that you would have a queue of people wanting to work for the organisation and you would be sitting as a panel choosing somebody, whereas now it's actually a two-way process. Now the interview is as much about selling the organisation and selling the whole package for that individual so that they will want to work with you. So it's no longer one-way. It's absolutely two-way.

Interviewer: Do you think a lot of organisations recognise that these days it is a two-way process, or do you think organisations are still to come to that decision, you know, it is a two-way process? Because I've always thought it's a two-way process. You know, working in HR, but I still think there are people out there probably that haven't recognised that fact yet.

Mairead: I think there's an issue and it's really important . . . when the decision is made to go into recruitment process, it is really important that time's invested up front before the interview to consider skills, qualities, experience, etc. Where is the right place to advertise? Do you go to somewhere like Clarendon for the executive search process? 

Too often, my view is that it is seen as another task that needs to be carried out during the day. So, "Oh, yes, we recruited one of those six months ago. Let's pull out the job description. Oh, that'll do fine. Let's do the process". And you arrive at the interview day with a pre-set set of questions, which really nobody has sat down and genuinely considered. It may only be six months on. But six months on, the business might have changed. The needs might have changed.

So I think because we are all busier, because it's a constant workflow, we sometimes fall into these processes and it's a tick list, right to the interview, found somebody, got the job. We're way off.

But I think time needs to be invested up front to actually genuinely consider the role. And I think if that time is invested and you have that discussion, I think employers become more aware that, actually, this is a two-way process. We have got to impress these individuals. We want them walking out of the room saying, "I thought I wanted the job when I went in, but I really want this". So I do think there is a growing awareness of that.

Interviewing as part of the process

Hugh: I think it's changing. I know when I was interviewing, I always dreaded that part of the interview "Have you any questions for us?" And some were putting their hand in their pocket or their handbag and bringing out four A4 sheets of questions. You think, "I have another candidate in five minutes." And that goes back to the point of time. I think time is really important. We always say, "Any relevant questions?" So there is something I think about the process.

It goes back to the employer brand. If you've got a good brand, people will have those questions answered before they go in the door or even before they've made the application. If you're answering those questions towards the end of an interview when you're waiting for the next candidate to come through, it's probably got a bit skewed somewhere. And that's why the information is really important at the front end, and even before the recruitment process.

So I think yes, and Mairead is absolutely is right. More people are saying, "Do I want to work for you?" rather than, "Do you want to work for us?" And the balance is changing at the moment and will continue to change for some time.

So I think there is something about creating time. And the one thing I was impressed . . . because some of your listeners may know, I started with Clarendon just last year. And when we do interviews for even middle management posts, we have a set time scale. And, you know, sometimes we have panellists of six or seven people doing pretty significant senior management posts and trying to do it in 45 minutes.

The thing that struck me when I'm interviewing with Claire, we spend 45 minutes and we probably spent three or four questions. And we get to know the person during that, and it becomes more of a conversation. And we'll probably talk later on about what’s a good interview. And for me, it's having a conversation. And too often, and the public sector is where I come from, it is about, "We have a series of questions we want to ask you. Here's Question 1". You give your answer. "And now here's Question 2".

Whereas if you can get the time to go through that process and say, "We have a question but we want to tease out what, what you did, but how you actually did it". Because for me, the key questions around recruitment when you're selecting people is how they behave.

Quite often, certainly my experience we've appointed people with qualifications and experience and very quickly . . . had an old chairman of the Central Services Agency at one time, Brian Carvin, a VP of HR at Bombardier. And he told me as one of the bits of wisdom you pick up in your career, "We appoint to the qualifications. We sack on behaviours". I think it's changing that we now need to start appointing on behaviours and not just qualifications and experience.

Mairead: That's a very valid point. I mean, in terms of the questions that are asked, I suppose . . . and perhaps Legal-Island subscribers who are listening to this are looking for tips and help. It's easy to come up with sort of theoretical type questions, but really those don't add anything. So try to avoid the questions that are "What makes a good leader? How do you motivate?" All of that is about the theory of . . . it doesn't give us any insight into the candidate.

So, Hugh is absolutely right. If you can devise three or four questions which really get at the individual and delve into that and say . . . and if they don't offer it, you probe and you prompt to say, "Like what? When did you apply this? What was the outcome? What was your direct experience in this?" and continue on. The deeper you go, the better understanding you'll have of the individual, but you'll also be able to see, "Were they able to apply it, and what did they learn through the process. And how could they apply that through the process?"

Quite often, people will purely focus on, "I did this", and leave it there. But I think if we as good interviewers can follow up and say, "Well, if you were to do that again, what did you learn from that? How did you apply it?" The good candidate will offer that themselves without being prompted. That's what you would hope.

But what you don't want to do is lose some of the wisdom and experience and the learnings from that individual. And it may be that they haven't . . . particularly at executive level, it may be that they haven't done an interview for 10 years and this is the first time they've sat in front of a panel.

So the information may be there and the experience may be there. So rather than saying, "Well, we're not going to prompt and let's see if the individual offers it.  And if they don't, they lose points", give the individual every opportunity and perhaps draw it out of them in terms of . . .

I think the really important learnings from it are, in the application, how did that individual change? How did that person develop? Was that person more empowered as a result of that? And how were they able to apply it going forward?

Occupational Tests

Hugh: And you've come from a private sector background, Mairead. I'm just wondering whether you would use occupational tests and sort of almost validate some of those ‘how’ issues. Have you used them in the past, and what was your experience?

Mairead: Not across the board. And if I've ever used them, they have been to inform an interview, certainly never to select. Certainly, at an executive level, if there are any psychological profiles, they may have led to interesting questions and they may have led to scenario type questions, but they wouldn't have been used as a basis for the decision.

Hugh: That's similar to the public sector. We've used a variety of occupational tests and psychological tests. And, again, for people who are listening to this, they are not the decision factor, but they do point you in directions.

I'll always recall one example where one of the strongest candidates on paper was doing an occupational test. And there was one indicator on the social desirability index. It basically tried to identify whether people were telling you the answer you wanted to hear.

It was right up there where it shouldn't have been. And that prompted us and we said to the interview panel, "You need to test that with the individual". And that got us aware of that sort of what to do, but the question is how to do it, how people respond to you.

And for me, those are the areas that you can really assess people and particularly their fit into your organisation, rather than whether they have a PhD in change management or whether they've got three years' experience. It's about what they do and how they behave.

What is the optimum number of people on a panel?

Mairead: Hugh, you mentioned something there about panels of five or six individuals in the public sector. This podcast is about executive level. Really, ideally, you're probably looking at three, maximum four individuals, if you want to get into a genuine conversation situation and move away from a formal interview. I think any more than that restricts the conversation and you really can't get that engagement. So for it to feel like a meaningful conversation, ideally, if you've choice over that, try to limit it to a panel of about three people.

Hugh: I would agree with that because I've seen it in some of our executive . . . it's about trying to get that balance of getting the key decision-makers in the room. And when you have a . . . in a public organisation, you will always have the chairman of the board plus maybe two non-execs. But then the government departments want to have a say and then you have a professional assessor want to have a say. And I won't go into the power makeup for consultants in the healthcare system. You know, you have 12 people at the table. Make sure everybody's represented.

So it's trying to get that balance of having people engaged in that decision-making process, but having a good decision-making process. And I would agree with you. I think five is probably the outer limit to have a good interview.

Interviewer: To get the best out of the candidate as well, because, as you say, how can you get a genuine conversation going with 12 people on the panel?

Mairead: And there's nothing more off putting if you're answering somebody and you feel that there's somebody at the far right just gazing at you, and you're just so mindful of it.

Hugh: Or even watching out the window.

Mairead: Yes.

Interviewer: That's great. And I think we've honed in there a wee bit naturally on the best way to use the traditional interview process. And then we touched a little bit on the tips  as well. Any other tips points that we'd like to . . .

Hugh: For me, even sort of having this conversation is great. I think it sort of gets back to if you want to recruit top class executives, you need to get back to some of the basics about your organisation. You need to make it attractive. And what attracts top executives is a good place to work. There has to be the terms, conditions, the remuneration, the conditions of service, but it's having a clarity about your sense of purpose in your organisation.

And trying to describe that in a way which isn't going to put people off, because people like to work with people. And people like to have something which makes a difference to other's lives. And if organisations can create that sort of employer brand, it certainly will make their executive recruitment, I think, so much easier to do than having an invisible background in terms of, "Look, who is this company? Why do they want . . ." It's about that communication process.

Interviewer: People want to know what they're giving up their current position for, don't they? They want to be comfortable in making their choice.

Mairead: At the other end of the process is looking at how you attract those candidates, how you reach out to those candidates. And Hugh and I are both working with Clarendon now, and one of the things that is critical to the senior level appointment is reaching out to those individuals. And it's not necessarily the people who are proactively in the market looking for . . . it's about working with an organisation who has the networks, who knows who's in the market, who knows the key players, and they can reach out to people who are maybe not proactively out looking at the moment. But if the right opportunity came along, it's only a conversation.

So that kind of approach where, yes, you use the traditional tools where you go out public to the market, but you also use that hidden, that extra resource where individuals who very much know who the key players are, who know the good organisations, who know the fits, so they're trying to appoint to a particular organisation. They will know what the culture of that organisation is and how it matches to something similar, and can have those discrete, confidential conversations to encourage people, if it's something they want to move forward, to look at that post. So I think those sorts of opportunities are very useful.

Interviewer: And have you experience with that in your career?

Mairead: That's a good question. Yes, I ended up not applying for a job because I talked myself out of it thinking, "Oh, I'm sure there's a lot of other people and I'm sure . . ." And then I ended up getting a call from an agency, this was a long time ago, saying, "Well, why did you not think about it? Would you not throw your hat in the ring?" and ended up at my job in UTV and I was there for 19 years. The best role I've ever had. So, yeah, absolutely. That's a good question. I hadn't thought of that, so that's the theory in practice.

This article is correct at 10/05/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Hugh McPoland. Contact telephone number is 028 9072 5750 or email hugh.mcpoland@clarendonexecutive.com

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