Hiring at the Senior Level—where to improve

Arnold Sykes and Matt Starcevich, Ph.D.
(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

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Hire right because the penalty for hiring wrong are huge.
Ray Dalio[I]

During the first quarter of 2020, thirty established senior level directors completed our on-line survey about the hiring process for people at their level. Their agreement with this statement indicates that improvements are needed:

% Who Agree or Strongly Agree

The hiring process results in too many                                                   46%
bad hires

Other survey results will be presented along with our own experiences to gain some insight on the issues contributing to the high level of perceived bad hires and what can be done. A wrong hiring decision at the senior level has dramatic impacts on a significant segment of the organization’s performance and its employees. It’s time to improve the batting average for filling these positions.

How do CEO’s and Senior Level Managers contribute to bad hires?

Like most, they are not immune to biases in making hiring decisions. Respondents agreement with two survey statements raises some concern about objectivity.

% Who Agree or  Strongly Agree

Senior Manager, (including our CEO) believe                                   43%
they can determine in a matter of minutes
whether or not a job candidate ‘would be
right for the job’.

Our Senior manager tend to “fall for” the                                            40%
candidate ‘most like themselves’.

Associate Professor Lauren Rivera interviewed 120 decision makers and over nine months observed the recruiting practices of elite professional service firms. Her finding, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. “The best way I could describe it,” one member of a law firm’s hiring committee told her, “is like if you were on a date. You kind of know when there’s a match.” Many used the “airport test”. As a managing director at an investment bank put it, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?”[ii]

The percent of respondents’ agreement with this survey statement indicates a reluctance to mitigate the potential for bias:

% Who Agree or Strongly Agree

Our CEO is difficult to coach on ways to improve                                   53%
his/her interviewing process

Hiring bias goes beyond just the CEO and Senior Level managers. Recognition with the willingness to change are critical in managing bias at all levels of the organization. If diversity and inclusion are a goal it starts with senior management’s behavior during the hiring process. The foundation for improvement is a CEO and Senior Managers willingness to understand and manager their bias through learning and coaching.

Fit the most challenging part of minimizing the number of bad hires

The high percent of respondents’ agreement on two survey statements highlights the importance and challenges of determining fit.

                                                                                                % Who Agree or  Strongly Agree

Determining a ‘good culture fit’ is the most                                                66%
challenging part of the hiring process.

Hiring good employee’s (with requisite                                                        80%
skills/good culture fit) presents major
challenges for companies today.

Culture is a description of the important values for any given organization. Culture is in vogue however as Patrick E. Lencioni observes “Today 80% of the Fortune 100 tout their values publicly—values that too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant, or worse still, politically correct.”[iii]

Every part of the hiring process is based on a realistic and shared definition of the organization’s culture and success factors for a given position: screening, interviewing, and testing applicants. The next section will discuss how two CEOs have defined the critical few values/behaviors that determine if a person will fit and be a superior performer.

Hiring process changes to decrease the number of bad hires

Tables 1 & 2 are the respondents agreement with interviewing and the hiring process improvements

Table 1: Our CEO and Senior Managers can improve their screening and interviewing of job candidates with:

% Who Agree or Strongly Agree
Tools to accurately assess the ‘best fit’ for our culture 97%
Tools to accurately assess the candidate skills/abilities 93%
Better fundamental interviewing skills 87%
Better preparation 80%
More real time interviewing experience 71%

Table 2: The hiring process could be improved with a few, relatively simple changes. E. g.,

% Who Agree or Strongly Agree
Better preparation of interview team 90%
Use of culture match assessments 87%
Use of pre-set questions/interview guides 80%
Interview team members pre-assigned to focus on

their interview questions on specific areas

Better job descriptions 64%

Better tools

A realistic and shared definition of the organization’s values and success factors are the tools needed for improving the hiring process. As noted above too many times values are nothing more than wall paper. Developing these tools is not a top down event.

Lee Benson CEO of Abel Engineering asked all employees to submit an email describing the best behavior of the winningest employee on their best day. The submissions were distilled down to six values that are used to drive the business. Charles Q. Chandler IV, Chairman & CEO of INTRUST Bank formed a group of 20 non-executive employees representing all other levels down to the teller. Their task: to define the “Character Qualities” for someone to be successful at INTRUST and for them to help the organization be successful. Twelve “Character Qualities” were identified and behaviorally defined.[iv] INTRUST and Able Engineering are but two examples of engaging the people in the value definition process.

Examples of interview questions to assess organization fit:

  • What type of culture do you succeed in?
  • How would you describe an organization that is not a good fit for you?
  • What is your ideal work place?
  • How would those who know you well describe the two values that best describe you?

In addition to culture define the technical skills and abilities to be a success in a given position. Current Job Descriptions and interviews with incumbents about projected additional future skills and abilities needed for success are the resources for this task. Sixty Four percent of the respondents agree that better job descriptions are needed.

With these two lists a set of standard questions to be asked of all applicants during the interviews will operationalize these into assessment tools.

Improve Interviewing

Table 1 indicates the respondents felt improving the interviewers was the first area needing attention—skills, preparation, and real time experience. Good interviewing skills are not easy or an innate ability. Unfortunately we know of only a few organizations that provide extensive interviewer training with extensive practice and feedback. Probing for deeper answers, the use of behavioral interview questions and understanding the pitfall are critical pieces of this training.

Table 2 indicates the respondents felt improving the interviewing process also needed attention—pre-set questions/interview guides, and assigned focus areas for each interview team member. Consistent questions related to both the values and technical skills/abilities should be asked to all candidates. Each interviewer has the flexibility to add a few of their own discretionary questions. All who interview the candidates can then provide their ratings on a standard score sheet as well as their evaluation of the assigned focus area.

Decreasing the number of bad hires for other positions in the organization

Each organization can evaluate the value of implementing the changes and recommendations presented for not just senior level positions. Our bias is that bad hiring decisions result in underestimated costs for all positions. At a minimum definition of the organizations values and positions success factors should be the yardstick applied to all applicants to determine fit. Training and aides to consistently use this yardstick is needed for those involved in interviewing applicants.


[i] Dalio, Ray. Principles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017

[ii] Rivera, Lauren A. Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In At Work. Opinion: New York Times. May 30, 2015

[iii] Lencioni, Patrick E. “Make Your Values Mean Something,” Harvard Business Review. July 2002. P. 3.

[iv] For more details see Starcevich, Matt M. and Sykes, Arnold. 7 Difference-Making Leadership Behaviors. Bartlesville, OK. The Center for Coaching and Mentoring, 2013