What really goes on inside the talent acquisition departments at large corporations, and what is the best way for senior level candidates to navigate the system? I spoke with Cindy Stamer, former Vice President Executive Talent Acquisition for New York City-based American Express for some answers.
Here is her advice, broken into three segments: Preparation, Interview and Offer.
1. Leadership/Cultural Fit: At the senior level, leadership fit and promise are considered key important criteria for hiring; at the senior levels, a company is not screening as deeply on technical skills, which would have been a focal point earlier in the candidate’s career. In a sophisticated operation, bench strength is very important—they are viewing the candidate in terms of his/her ability to be promoted down the road—typically into one or two positions more senior than the one the candidate is interviewing for at the outset.
It goes without saying that candidates should spend time on the company website, but there are some important clues that warrant your attention. First of all, examine the language and implied values. An example would be if the company talks about relationships, a catchword at many companies. A good way to do this is to watch any clips of executives that are on the website and listen closely to the language that’s used. You will want to closely replicate that language in an interview. At the big companies the values that are conveyed are fairly generic, so it’s not difficult to find ways of showing how your work style fits within their corporate culture.
2. Interview Styles:
There are several types of interviews you may encounter, and it’s a good idea to be prepared for all of them. Following is a description of each:
– Competency: identify a quality or trait and how would you demonstrate this competency, eg. Explain how personal excellence has been demonstrated throughout your career.
– Behavioral: Tell me about a time when you solved a specific problem.
– Panel – A group of people interview you together.
For all types of interviews, spend plenty of time on the job spec and home in on the competencies they are seeking and how you fit the bill. Be knowledgeable about the company’s global practices, and be able to move through your examples quickly and fluently. Review each competency and pick an example from your career – and be able to articulate it in three minutes or less. This takes practice, but it’s worth the preparation time. For example: If the competency is “Building a Team”, the candidate should be able to recount: “I had to build an entire leadership team in x company in 2008, here’s how I went about it, and the outcome was…” Then wait for interviewer to ask for more information. Choose the examples with the biggest pizzazz and greatest relevancy to the opportunity.
3. Getting the Interview:
There are times when a company might move fast with an opportunity. No matter what, apply early, respond fast. If they only interview a few people you want to be there.
The best way to get your foot in the door is to find references inside the company. Find people within the company who know you and can call the hiring leader. This goes a long way toward ensuring your candidacy.
4. Be nice to everyone:
From the chauffeur picking you up at the airport, to the receptionists and assistants. They could be asked about your behavior.
5. Senior level interviews:
Don’t be surprised if your interviewer has not carefully read your resume—often senior executives may have been briefed on a candidate or just scanned a resume. Therefore, make sure you have a good summary on top of your resume. Also, the more senior the interviewer, generally, the less structured the interview. Executives hire other executives infrequently, so they are often not as practiced at interviewing. Despite that, resist the urge to take over and let the interviewer take control of the interview.
6. Go on as many interviews as possible:
Each one is good practice for you. At many large companies, you can expect to have 10-15 interview meetings for a senior level position. Certain interviewers’ feedback may not as important – the company often just wants to give stakeholders a chance to weigh in and feel part of the hiring process. However, as the interviewee you won’t know whose feedback is the most important, so always be at your best. In terms of the time frame for an executive hire, expect 3-4 months, across industries.
7. Look for the company – not the boss:
The identified boss for the position opening could always leave. Companies make changes and people make changes, so do not become too caught up in the person designated as the leader for the position opening.
8. Interviews are just one part of the process:
There are also assessments. These could range from handwriting assessments, to a personality profile with a coach, to in depth internet and other reference checks.
9. Go for the interview if it’s with a company or industry you like.
Companies recycle candidates. They could call you in for another position at a later date, or even consider you for a different role on the spot.
10. Until the offer there is nothing to decide:
Don’t make requests which could peg you as “high maintenance”, such as working from home, time off, and asking the company to pay your relocation expenses, etc. during the interview process. When you get the offer there is a power shift; this is the time to make requests about the working arrangements and scenario.
11. Who decides?
It all depends. Often it is HR. Hiring leaders can be hesitant to make a mistake; they don’t hire frequently, and they are judged on the talent they hire, and may be torn on which finalist candidate to select.
12. You have NO idea what is going on in the company:
It is easy to get upset with the lengthy process and worry about your candidacy, but don’t take it personally! You really don’t know who is making the decision, and you have no idea whether the hiring leader is being moved to another role which could impact their ability to hire you now. Other possible goings-on might include the company entering a new market or making an acquisition, which may not be public information that can be revealed to a prospective employee. Any of these situations could mean that the job specs have changed, or become different from the original communicated need or timeline.
13. Having a recruiter intermediary is good – let them speak for you:
Many times a recruiter intermediary can say things or raise topics that might be construed negatively coming from you directly. Don’t forget there are different kinds of recruiters, and this can have an impact on the type of information and feedback you receive during the process. Retained search consultants work on behalf of a company to find and hire the best possible person for the job on an exclusive basis. They are aware of all the candidates on the slate for the role, and will or should have a comprehensive view on the client company and the opening. Other types of recruiters work on contingency, meaning they are paid by the client once the new hire is in place, and may be one of a number of firms in the market working on the opportunity, and thus may have a less holistic set of information on the hiring situation.
14. After you are hired:
Don’t forget that you are only new once so leverage it. Meet as many people as you can to establish relationships, and ask many questions. Try to have a learning plan with your new boss on what you’re going to do and who you’re going to talk to, and prioritize.
Avoid making too many changes too quickly; you need to get a foundation of information first. It is very good to have internal and external stakeholders share with you the context and history behind decisions and challenges, so you can have an informed framework in which to perform your new role.