When a Seemingly Perfect Candidate May be Fool's Gold
He looked perfect—excellent pedigree, stellar employment history. He was local too, and even worked for a respected competitor. Best of all, his antenna was up—he was looking for a change. When we identified this candidate mid-way through a recent executive search, our hiring client perked up, optimistic that this might be the one. And, why not? Based on the visible spectrum (what is easily seen—things like education, career chronology, and demonstrated competencies), he looked like a slam-dunk. We thought so too; until x-raying the invisible spectrum (what isn’t easily seen—core personality, “derailing” risks, values & motives) suggested reason for pause.
If you’ve been tasked with hiring talent, you’ve no doubt experienced the gravitational allure of “love at first sight” when you encounter such perfect “visible spectrum” specimens. Who can blame you? They appear on the horizon as shining rays of light delivering the promise of bending the space-time continuum in your favor by dramatically shortening the length and capacity demand of your search. It’s analogous to a dreaded meeting ending earlier than expected and with twice the anticipated productivity. When does that happen? Cue the alarm clock.
Let’s face it, hiring well is hard. It takes time and, at the executive level, it requires expertise—expertise to thoroughly vet both visible and invisible spectrum characteristics. But, what exactly is the “invisible spectrum” and how does it help to make better hiring decisions? We get this question a lot.
When it comes to the invisible spectrum, the best science to date tells us that personality, not defined by the traditional view of identity (internal view of self), but, rather, reputation (how others view us) is an essential component. While you can get at reputation to a degree through 360 assessments, they aren’t an option when hiring outside talent. Another shortcoming of 360s that also applies to internal candidates is that they don’t provide information about core personality, associated derailing risks, and core motivation.
For these reasons, psychometric profiling using well-validated, scientific instruments that can speak to reputation from the perspective of core personality is critically important. In our case, we add another layer of expert (PhD Clinical Psychologist) interpretation that allows for deeper integration and exploration of candidate profiles through personalized debriefs and interview questions to thoroughly assess the invisible spectrum from multiple angles (e.g., psychometric, personal brand, culture, chemistry and values).
So how does this all come together? Let’s return to the example we started with above. As expected, the candidate (we’ll call him “John”) was everything we expected in terms of visible spectrum, and the hiring client was anxious to meet him.
Understanding Spectrum in Executive Assessment
John’s psychometric profile suggested several reasons for caution. First, John’s pattern of responses reached a measurement threshold suggesting that he might have attempted to look better than normal (often referred to as “faking good” or “impression management”). Second, there were several conceptual or “configural” abnormalities across his profile. Because personality characteristics, and especially certain “configurations” of characteristics often predict areas of expressed relative strength and weakness, both common and uncommon trends are relatively easy to identify and flag for further investigation.
During the psychometric feedback/interview, John exhibited several additional concerning features. First, he seemed more curious about what the client was “looking for” in a candidate than he did about his own results. When questioned about some of the unusual configurations in his profile, he responded that it was likely due to error in the assessment methodology. He was also noticeably guarded.
Finally, John did not present as self-aware, which was particularly unusual based on some of his profile characteristics. This is especially important, as self-awareness is critical for the expression of emotional intelligence (the ability to manage one’s own emotions and those of others). While it’s possible that the appearance of low self-awareness was an artifact of attempting to present himself in a disingenuous fashion, that would still be the lesser of evils from a vetting perspective if manipulation was, in fact, the intended goal.
Independent Psychometric Assessment and Candidate Critique
Based on the emerging picture, we informed the hiring client of our concerns prior to their internal interview process (customary). While receptive to those concerns, the client remained understandably (and we think correctly) interested in interviewing John. Following the first interview the client requested that John complete a second, independent psychometric assessment using an alternative instrument. Results from the second assessment were conceptually similar (though less specific) to our original findings. Subsequently, the client completed two reference checks, both of which returned generally favorable reviews.
To address lingering concerns, the client invited John back for a second interview. However, it was at this point that the process started to break down. Without getting into detail, a series of minor events transpired that culminated with John lashing out. As it turned out, this episode was based on John’s misinterpretation and subsequent failure to investigate alternative explanations before reacting—a common pattern for individuals with lower levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence and/or underlying derailing risks linked to core personality.
While we’ll never know to what degree invisible spectrum factors may have contributed to John’s “event”, it was sufficient in this context that we were aware of, and actively assessing the risk. Both the breadth and depth of the search and associated multiple interview process (between both the search firm and our client) was critical, as it provided the additional benefit of interacting with multiple stakeholders over time. Both factors are important, in general, but essential when vetting candidates for whom there may be questions like we had about John.
So, what are the takeaways from this cautionary tale? We offer a few for both clients and candidates:
If John’s vetting had been limited to the typical one or two interviews, it’s likely that his powerfully seductive visible spectrum characteristics would have effectively distracted from his more subtle areas of challenge. If he had been hired for “skill” (as he almost certainly would have been), he’d have been at high risk for eventually being fired for “fit” once his core characteristics and associated derailing challenges emerged.
Whether attempting to “manage impressions” or control underlying derailing liabilities, “first date” behaviors erode quickly over time. For this reason, it is critical that effective search and selection process utilize a multi-staged, multi-dimensional interview and assessment process that leverages both information and time to produce an accurate picture of both candidate fit and fitness.
If you’re accomplished and fortunate enough to be identified as a high potential search candidate, one of the most important things you can do is represent yourself openly and honestly. Everyone has faults, so you’ll do more harm than good by trying to avoid, deny, or hide them. What is of keen interest to most hiring managers is how faults are owned and, most importantly, addressed.
In our experience, if a candidate looks too good to be true, they usually are. True “gold standard” search process encourages both clients and candidates to avoid this predicament. To that end, our approach is predicated on two essential value propositions—1) helping our clients to hire the best talent as efficiently and effectively as possible, and 2) providing all search candidates with high-value assessment, feedback, and brief professional development advice as part of every search.