Hiring insights from, and for, CFOs

As the economy improves, finance executives may need to sharpen their skills at interviewing job candidates

With the economy continuing to pick up steam, industry surveys and analysts are predicting an attendant uptick in hiring for financial positions, including CFOs. While CFOs themselves could be changing jobs, they also are increasingly more likely to be doing some hiring.

Veteran CFOs who have participated in an interview series with IDG say that while they may have different approaches to that process, they are all looking for the same things. Wanted: a highly motivated self-starter not afraid to make an occasional mistake, with a strong commitment to collaboration and being a team player, a willingness to take responsibility for failures and successes, and the ability to keep focused on goals while maintaining passion about their work and the company.

The only way to figure out if a candidate possesses those traits in the limited time of a job interview is to sit back and listen, say CFOs, recruiters and management experts. That's especially important these days because many, if not most, job candidates have had a lot of experience doing interviews, says Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a pre-employment and leadership testing company he founded in 1996.

"A good rule of thumb is that a good interview is 70 per cent listening and observing," says Wolfe, who also is one of the experts at the Focus.com business research site.

Vibrant Media CFO Jeff Babka ensures that he will mostly listen and observe by opening up the floor to job candidates. "I first make sure that they understand the job, the company, our culture and my style. Then, I say, 'Look, tell me what you think I should know about you that would make me want to hire you. Start wherever you want in your life, end up wherever you want. Business and personal. What motivates you, what you don't like, what are your passions. Go anywhere with this you want -- the floor is yours for the next 45 minutes -- sell me!' I will likely interrupt them along the way and ask questions, but I may just listen."

If someone has a hard time organizing their thoughts or displays signs of discomfort with talking about themselves for that long, Babka's internal warning light goes off and he will begin to have the impression that the candidate won't be a good fit.

While Babka says he has been told that the specifics of his "sell me" technique are unique, his objectives are shared by other CFOs, who also watch for the same sorts of warning signs.

"The standard check-the-box interview answer says that somebody doesn't know what they're talking about," says Opera Solutions CFO Rob Bothe. "I look to have a conversation and it doesn't have to be this standard interview format."

Background checks and a review of candidate résumés and other information will determine whether someone has relevant experience, software skills and the like to handle the job in question, so interviews should focus instead on "what if" sorts of scenarios, CFOs and interviewing experts say.

"Ask them to come up with a time in their life when they had a problem that needed collaboration or cooperation with other people and ask them how they went about working with that," says business consultant Russell Bishop. "Of course, what I'm looking for in my mind is a two-part sort of question -- one is 'what did you do on your own' and the other is 'what did you do to influence other folks.'"

Bishop's most recent book, "Workarounds that Work," is a primer on how to deal with stumbling blocks at work, aimed at helping employees to stop pointing fingers at others when things can't get done or don't get done. Figuring out whether a job candidate has the skills to both work with others but also work around roadblocks in creative, can-do ways is key, he says.

He also emphasizes the need to focus on accountability, to be on guard for any signs that a candidate plays the blame game, as well as to watch for those who will admit to mistakes but also trumpet their successes.

"Bad-mouthing former employers, companies, bosses and/or fellow employees" is an immediate red flag for VBrick CFO Paul Hallee. "If a candidate can't hold themselves accountable for what's happened in the past, that's not an individual I seek to work with. That just tells me someday I'll be your next excuse."

But the job interviewer also has to watch out for mistakes they might make in the process, suggests Wolfe. Among those is the need to ask very specific questions and to not rely too heavily on standard interview queries.

"I've got thousands of questions [to use in interviews] and I've got my favorite ones. The candidate may give a great response and they may be a talented [prospective] employee, but that question may not be as relevant for one position or one team or another."

He recommends that interviewers keep in mind what it is that they want someone they hire to have achieved at the end of a specific period -- say, six months. "At the end of that period, what do you want them to have accomplished and what skills do they need to get there?"

Wolfe quotes Yogi Berra, who remains as famous for his odd-ball, but oddly true, sayings as for his skills as a Yankees catcher: "The future ain't what it used to be."

"That's really true now," Wolfe says. While past performance has long been viewed as an indicator of future performance, that is no longer a given. Markets, jobs and corporate cultures all change at a much faster pace than ever before, which means that the skills that really matter are things like able decision making, problem solving and adaptability.

"If someone tells me that they turned around an organization that was in the red and now they are in the black, I want to know how did they do that as much as what they did. How did they solve certain problems? How did they get information they needed and how did they use it? Did they use logic or jump to conclusions? Did they use past experience versus being open-minded?"

To get at those sorts of in-depth responses, interviewers have to keep probing. "Interviewers tend to stop when they hear the right answer," he says. "But what I'm looking for is to have someone tell me what some of the challenges were during that process, were you able to repeat that, did other departments repeat that success? I can go into an interview with one question and keep asking more questions about that question."

As Bishop puts it: "One part is here's the self-starter mode -- here's enthusiasm and creativity. But then here's the side that says I know that it takes other people, so here's how I lead with my own creativity and yet invite the collaborative spirit."

Answers to those questions will also help a CFO get a feel for whether the candidate is a good fit for the company's culture -- assessing that was a key mentioned repeatedly by CFOs in interviews, and is especially critical for smaller companies.

"It's very difficult for small companies to thrive. If you have one bad employee it can really hinder your success," says Zoovy CFO Tom Saftig. "In a large company, one employee out of a thousand won't make much difference, but in a smaller company one out of 10 or 20 can really hurt you."

That's where a CFO might consider Wolfe's question of whether the job candidate seems to be an able "firefighter," as a means of determining if the person will fit with a company's culture.

Says he: "You might not want someone good at extinguishing the most recent fire, but someone who is good at not letting them get started in the first place."

Tags business issuesZoovypersonnelOpera SolutionsVibrant MediaSuccess Performance SolutionsFocus.comCFO Careersbusiness management

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Nancy Weil

IDG News Service

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