How to unmask the counterfeit executive

How to unmask the counterfeit executive

- before committing the error of hiring one
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The best way to tell if a man is honest is to ask him.
If he says he is, you know he is a crook.
Groucho Marx

HIS words sounded absolutely sincere, and were delivered with deft precision, but the speaker, a candidate for a senior role in a mid-sized firm, didn’t see my cringe as he said with calm rationality: “I place tremendous store upon my personal integrity and transparency” and, he added “I truly manage others by my own values and standards …”

Spotting the phony, like most aspects of executive assessment is part art, part craft, and part paranoia. Over the years we have brought some structure to the overall selection process, so, here then, are ten time-tested techniques to keep in mind. This list, by the way, is by no means complete.

1. Anticipate a decided difference between mask and reality. A lifetime’s interviewing experience, along with a respect for Adlerian psychology (inferiority complex and overcompensating behaviour) emphasizes the value of the principle of the opposite image; if you want to know the real truth about a person, ask yourself, what is the impression they take the greatest trouble to convey to me? — then, until you discover otherwise, work on the hypothesis that the true personality behind the mask is precisely the opposite.

2. Give yourself time to check out the candidate. It is vital to withhold any final judgment about a candidate — especially positive — until enough information has been gathered, for the syndrome of the romantic rush to judgment conspires to trip you if you don’t. You start to fall in love with an idealised image of the subject, and, very soon, you can’t bear to hear anything bad about them. This becomes especially relevant in an employment market where high calibre candidates are hard to come by. Those from whom you may seek a 2nd opinion are more likely to share your fuzzy feelings if you are the boss. Either they too can see no blemish in the blushing subject — or, if they can, they may be loath to say so and bite their tongues. Finally, any person who continues to harbour misgivings, along with the temerity to express their feelings may find either their views fall upon deaf ears, or as the bearer of the bad news they become regarded with the kind of doubt and suspicion that should properly be directed toward the candidate. A way of countering this (but not always perfectly executed) is to meet a prospective new manager several times, preferably once in your office (formal interview), once casually, perhaps over a coffee or meal, outside the office, and once more, if possible, in a social setting with perhaps your partner (and hers) along for company.

3. Routinely verify proffered information. Information routinely available at the time of appraisal may not be as readily forthcoming after the decision to hire has been taken, and the bonds of marriage forged. The interview process offers a never to be repeated opportunity to ask all sorts of questions relevant to executive employment. And that opportunity quickly evaporates after engagement is announced.

4. Consider academic credentials carefully. It is wise to check with the candidate’s Tertiary college or University and verify the fact and year of graduation. Savvy evaluators also know to look warily upon:

• Incomplete qualifications. Some people “unaccountably” fail to complete degrees or diplomas within grasp. ‘Ongoing’ or deferred MBA's when in fact no study has been done (or is intended) for some time may be a case in point. In fact, such incompletion indicate unwillingness or inability to grow up.

• Also-ran diplomas. Some people delight in collecting lightweight “educational” diplomas, or ‘course completed’ certificates and other pretty pieces of paper, a harmless enough means of bolstering the “student’s” shaky sense of self-esteem, but often more likely to herald personality problems than intellect.

• Higher level or hard to verify qualifications. A lot of wonderful, dedicated professionals go to the trouble of completing higher level degrees related to their work. A surprising number not so dedicated — nor even terribly bright — people also hunger so greatly to be called Doctor – or posses a ‘Masters’ degree - that they simply conjure the qualification, either from an unabashed diploma mill (likely sourced via the internet) or, for some people, their credentials exist only in their head (although at one time they may have indeed been enrolled in a course at the institution).

5. Discover the causes of job or city hopping. It is important, but alas not always possible, to discover the actual reasons for job instability. Most fundamentally incompetent executives are sooner or later found out, and then squeezed out. Later, however, everybody usually has some reason to cover up the real cause of the problem. The displaced executive wants a new job, the new employer desperately needs a key hire, the past employer wants to wash his hands of the whole thing, and the headhunter pretty naturally wants to collect a fee. Truth has a way of surfacing, however, so, ultimately, somewhere down the line, such “executives” finally run out of gullible home-town employers, and are forced to widen their job searches to far-off places, and new exotic lands aided by global markets and the World Wide Web.

6. Uncover gaps in employment. Then discover the reasons that lead to them. Such gaps often spring from things going off the tracks; a sudden squeeze-out, a period of incarceration in a psychiatric facility, a stint in jail, whatever. If the proffered reason for such a gap sounds a little fishy, it probably is. The potential general manager of an electronics distributor had gotten to final interview before it came to light that ten years previously he had gone into business on his own and six months later gone into liquidation: a fact entirely missing from the referring head-hunter’s resume (who, to be fair, knew nothing about it) and at no time mentioned by the candidate during detailed discussions with the client. There is also an industry of ‘advisors’ counselling potential candidates on the importance of confining discussions to ‘the last 10 years’ on the grounds of relevancy. Be wary of resumes that focus only on 2-3 recent positions (this may be an attempt to misdirect you, the reader). Another clue is periods of employment expressed in whole years “for brevity” e.g. ‘2010 to 2012’ could mean 13 months or 24.

6. Explore the subtext of pat or fuzzy answers. Polished answers, so good as to seem rehearsed, usually repay careful attention. Such responses most frequently come from candidates who in the course of out-placement sessions receive interview coaching and training, and probably practice prepared answers using video. The trouble is, of course, that anyone who has to rehearse in order to be themselves is quite likely to prove to be a nobody.

8. “Rerun” any discrepancies uncovered along the way. If you think you’ve not been told the truth restate your understanding of your candidate’s position and seek confirmation — effectively, a retelling of the untruth.

• If there’s been an honest miscommunication, move ahead with the interview process.

• If, realising they’ve been caught out, the candidate confesses to a lie you might just be open to hearing the reasoning that lead to the falsehood. If you’re desperate enough you might even give a moment’s thought to steering them to a role where their weakness might not be problematic. The infinitely wiser course, however, is to forego the hire, citing some unrelated face-saver for the candidate.

• But what if the candidate blithely repeats what you know to be an untruth, now, suddenly, an absolute lie? Should you call them on it? The smarter move is to keep a straight face, wind the discussion to a polite close, gently usher the dissembler out the door, and never let them re-enter!

The reason to shun such people is not just because they’re strangers to the truth, for we might all ‘bend’ the truth if hungry enough, and, after all, most salespeople routinely spin more than a little puffery. No, the real problem here is that your subject has shown poor judgement, and then repeated it! And, of course, the candidate’s role was to win your trust by laying all cards on the table — especially when called upon to do so. Could you ever trust a colleague whom you knew attempted to deceive you — twice! — during your first meeting? Equally to the point, such liars can often become desperate — and litigious! — when pushed into corners. Unless you like a fight why risk provoking one?

9. Doubt the perfect candidate. Most executives have a few things go wrong in their lives. Kids don’t always turn out as we might like (and vice versa), marriages don’t always last, health sometimes breaks down, people fall into debt, and, of course, some excellent executives do actually get laid off, or even flat-out fired, (the fate befell Lee Iacocca a couple of times). So, the mature interviewer expects to discover a skeleton or two hanging in just about anybody’s closet. Are there one or two blemishes that you’d normally expect? If not, then you’re likely looking at a somewhat conformist Boy Scout — that’s a state of mind rather than a badge of honour, and inhabits the mind-set of any of the sexes, of course.

10. Check references. There’s quite an art to checking references that we’ll look at in detail another time. Meantime, it might be enough for you to realise that the candidate who is wary about anyone checking the details of their prior employment (or speaking with a former supervisor) usually have very good reasons for such concern! Make time to make the calls to referees yourself (or find someone you can totally rely on). For apart from knowing who, how and what to ask the most revealing aspect of any reference check is the timbre and intonation of the responses and it often requires an experienced ear to pick up on it! As one CEO recently put it to us, Pareto’s rule also usually applies –20% of checks made by someone else can be well done – but 80% may have doubtful validity.

And, hey, what about the oh-so highly-principled candidate we mentioned at the outset? Well, as it turned out all the fine talk of integrity was just an attempt to cover a mail-order degree and a string of unhappy past employers from another country, only one of whom was listed on the resume. Other than that, however, he was a charming fellow, and a really fine salesman — if you like that sort of thing, of course.

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