"I flew this guy in for an interview from the west coast, with high hopes that I'd hire him as my new BizDev VP," my friend Martin said. "Total train wreck, when I actually sat down with him." I could tell he was frustrated. He's the CEO of a 400-person (and growing) company, and a happy stress case most of the time.
"The guy did not impress you," I guessed.
"So much worse than that," said Martin. "I couldn't wait to get him out of my office. Felt like I had to wash my hands, a complete sleaze-ball, and then I had no choice but to take him around to the VPs, since I'd flown him into town and given him the whole roster of people he was supposed to meet. I felt like an idiot. We missed a day of executive staff time, and the worst part is I still don't have my BizDev guy."
"So, what's the learning?" I asked.
"Well, I interviewed this dude for an hour on the phone, a week ago," Martin said. "The guy sounded like such a straight arrow. His background is perfect. Then I meet him and he's an empty suit, but the worst kind — the kind of guy who thinks he's God's gift to American business. He literally told me in the interview, 'I guess you could call me the Philosopher King type.' I don't know how I screwed up so badly."
"I'll take a guess," I said. "The guy's background looked great, and he said the right things in his cover letter and resume, so your hopeful brain said 'Could this be my knight in shining armor?' On the phone, your gut shut down. You heard what you wanted to hear, and perhaps didn't probe all that deeply."
"That's it," said Martin. "We had a friendly conversation on the phone, and he seemed to know what we're all about. I guessed he knew enough of the customers that he could walk right in. Now that I've met him, I'd say he's the guy to walk right in and alienate everyone on the team and our biggest accounts in the first week. No thanks."
"So, what will you do differently from here on out?" I asked him.
"I should have dug a lot more deeply ahead of time," said Martin. "I should have gone down to the nitty-gritty and asked him how he got that deal with Motorola, and the one with Siemens, and asked him to walk me through those deals step by step. It's socially awkward to ask people to drill down to that level of detail, because we assume they'd have all the logical and emotional chops that you expect from a VP-level person. Sometimes they don't."
"That's a great idea," I said, "and it doesn't have to be socially awkward. You can take the vantage point 'I love deal-closing stories. I want to hear how the Motorola thing went down.' You don't have to quiz a guy. You can ask him to tell you the movie."
"I'm going to do it, from now on," said Martin. "But how do I start over now?"
"Go to your team, explain what happened, and ask for their help in finding a new candidate," I said. "Tell your VPs you aren't one hundred percent sure of your biz-dev-guy-vetting antennae right now. Your teammates will appreciate your forthrightness, and the fact that you're telling them you're not perfect. Tell them, 'Put out your feelers, and let's bring in some people who are the opposite of the Philosopher King.'"
"Which might mean the person we end up hiring doesn't have all the credentials we were asking for," said Martin.
"Bingo," I said. "If you got this bozo using the credentials you are expecting now, it's probably time to rethink them. What do you need, for national-accounts bizdev in software? You need integrity, imagination, some contacts, some muscles for getting contacts, a sense of humor, and someone with follow-through. There are tens of thousands of those people around."
"There are," said Martin, "but it seems so easy and so correct to spec the job at the highest level, with the right MBA and the blue-chip career history."
"Well, if it's easy, that means everyone will do it, and then you're just competing for the same sought-after little pool of talent," I said. "What's imaginative or sparky about that approach? Why not get someone from another industry, or someone who's done relationship-building in another function? When you sit down with the right person, you and he or she will both know it's a good match. It's a gut thing — let's face it."
"That is so true," said Martin. "I can't believe I paid for two nights for that idiot, in the fanciest hotel in town."
"Be easy on yourself!" I said, "That hotel bill and the limo bill are reminders, like a stubbed toe, not to do the same thing again. They're good things. They're gifts from the universe."
"You're always talking about nudges," said Martin. "Those are the nudges?"
"You got it," I said. "Blow up the old job spec and write a paragraph in human English about what's going on in your shop and what you're after in 2013. Ask interested job-seekers to write you back and tell you what they think about your situation. Easy as pie. The right people won't write to you about "end-to-end solutions" and "world-class customer relationships" and all that claptrap. They won't call themselves "Results-Oriented Professionals" or any of the other gagtastic things we teach fearful business types to call themselves. They'll tell you what they think and what they would do if they were you."
"But what do I tell Mr. Philosopher King, now that he's waiting for an offer?" asked Martin.
"You call him up and say 'Stan, or Jack or whatever the guy's name is, it was great to meet you. It was really helpful. This isn't a good match, but we wish you well."
"Lying through my teeth, then?" asked Martin.
"Not lying!" I corrected him. "It was great that you met him. There are companies that will hire people, sight unseen, after a phone interview. Can you imagine the damage that guy would have done walking in the door, if you hadn't spent the money and the time to bring him out?"
"You're right," said Martin. "We were very glad to meet him, and very glad to put him back in the limo."
"God bless those insufferable Philosopher Kings," I said. "They help us see the difference between wheat and chaff. God bless that guy for being so overtly obnoxious. If he'd have been a little more subtle, your reaction might not have been so visceral, and he might have slid in the door."
"Slithered," said Martin.
"Crisis averted," I sighed.