Graham White
   

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Quite a few years ago I was interviewed for an HRD role in a very large multi-facetted organisation. The interview had all the potential to be uneventful. I could have written the script myself, very traditional organisation that saw little value in HR and yet felt obliged to fulfil its moral obligations and have a post holder sitting in the HR ivory tower. From the very outset the questions were not designed to ensure the panellists were properly informed of the capability of each applicant, nor was it designed to ensure they probed the alleged talent that sat before them. The questions were designed to let me and the rest of the applicant pool know how little the panel respected HR and to send a very strong message that the successful candidate need not think they were going to change anything around here unless this cadre of quasi inquisitionists allow it. The organisation might be required to have a senior HR presence and the role might come with the title director but any direction would require this group’s approval.

What happened next turned my anticipated experience on its head. Everything I had determined would happen, suddenly changed. A process that had begun as a “going through the motions” event suddenly changed my whole understanding of “Talent Management” and changed how I looked at talent spotting for the rest of my career.

In the blink of an eye my interview went from pass-remarkable to re-markable, from eye closing to eye opening and all it took were two simple questions. The two additional questions were like great spotlights revealing so much about the organisations’ view of talent attraction, development and management. In a matter of minutes the interview went from the inevitable to intriguing as this brace of questions opened up a pandora’s box on the meaning of talent.

Two simple questions was all it took, two seven word sentences, two challenges thrust into an environment ill prepared to deal with their impact on the event. The first of the two questions, in my opinion, was the worst question one can ever ask at a recruitment interview, it was like an unlabelled medicine bottle useless yet potentially lethal, self-serving yet potentially life-saving, and in the wrong hands it could be deadly needing close adult supervision. On the other hand the second question was what I have come to believe is the greatest question that can ever be asked at an interview, I believe it to be the most effective recruitment question than can ever be asked. This question did not just seek information it penetrated the very heart of my understanding of what I needed to do at an employment interview to ensure I presented myself as a talented, motivated, focused professional worthy of their admiration and suitably equipped to accept their offer of employment.

By this stage of the interview process the Chair of the panel and chief protagonist was clearly not content that the panels earlier probing questions had done its job and sufficiently unsettled me. I had comfortably answered all the questions up to this point, sadly their question designer had little understanding of how to match questions to audiences. I sensed the panel had hoped the “probing” nature of their earlier questions would create an adrenalin rush into my stomach causing me to react without thinking and answer questions without giving them appropriate thought, it had not done what they had hoped the panel came from a school of management that believed power was a lever or a tool to threaten rather than motivate. “I like to put people in uncomfortable places” I was told later by the panel chair “If I make you unsettled I see how you really perform. It was the author Zack V Wan who stated “Bullying builds character like nuclear waste creates superheroes. It’s a rare occurrence and often does much more damage than endowment.”

But back to the two questions: The worst question came first, it needed some preparation on the part of the questionnaire who was the organisations Chief Executive.  He had clearly been considering this approach during the earlier part of the interview and had an emergency script ready to implement. With a distant look in his eyes the CEO took time to position himself, he didn’t rush, he just leaned back in his chair gently nodding his head and looking intelligent, then he stopped for a moment and slung his elbow over the leather armrest in a manner that indicated he had honed this positioning after many years of practice in front of a mirror. This was a person filled with confidence, bursting with a desire to take me on, prepared and ready with what he knew was a killer question. He pulled back his shoulders, took a long deep breath and put on what I assume he thought was his most intelligent face, all I could think of were the words of Shelley Duvall who once said “Take events in your life seriously, take work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously, or you’ll become affected, pompous and boring.”

And then the question was asked, the tone was at least questioning if not vitriolic, everything about the question challenged my right to even sit in the interview chair. Even as it was being asked I could almost sense the panel willing me to stand up and begin edging back towards the exit prepared to run out the door a defeated applicant embarrassed that I even considered myself worthy to submit an application to join this organisation.

“Why should I give you the job?” seven simple words that echoed in the head of the questioner as he smirked like someone who had just asked that demanding pub quiz tie break question. In the silence he felt the need to ask it again only this time he added a little embellishment just to make sure I fully understood what he was asking “Why should I give you the job rather than give it to one of the other seven applicants?”……….

What a stupid non sensical question! but before I could even begin to consider my actual response, even before I could begin to formulate my thinking I couldn’t help wondering what sort of recruitment practice was in operation in this place that resulted in the final panel having to interview eight short-listed candidates? Clearly this was an organisation that not only needed to revisit its interpretation of shortlisting but more importantly it needed the strong assertive and professional HR presence it was clearly trying to avoid. There was only one answer you can give to a stupid question like this one. Some people seem to think that freedom of speech naturally brings with it freedom of thought, sadly this is seldom a natural pairing. So I gave my answer.

The psychologists advise how best to deal with probing emotive questioning, they call it mirroring, others call it empathy I don’t call it anything, with a focused stare I didn’t wait to position myself correctly, my elbow wasn’t strategically placed nonchalantly over the arm of the chair, I wasn’t relying on any honed skills.  I simply leaned forward, looked each of them in the eyes in turn finally turning to the Chief Executive and looking deep into his eyes I said “because I am the best”.

Of course I had no idea if I was the best or not but I was pretty sure neither did any of this trio sitting in front of me. However, what I did know was that they had no idea how to spot talent and no idea how to probe and delve into the experience of the applicants who sat in front of them. For a few seconds no one moved, no one spoke and then the Chief Executive tugged at his collar and gave out a small nervous laugh. I sensed he was hoping I would either join him in laughter or better still elaborate on my response but I considered I had said enough.

In the moments that followed I could almost hear the cogs churning in his brain as he struggled to come up with a further response. He looked both right and left for help from the other panel members but all he got was shrugs. Then as if touched by the gods the Chief Executive realised that my response had opened up a partition in his memory banks that presented the opportunity for the greatest discovery he had ever made. In that instance he realised all the activity that had gone before was of no value in determining how best to spot talent. His confidence was gone, the pomposity had drained away and the arrogance had begun to evolve as he realised that his organisation lacked the ability to spot, develop or benefit from talent but sitting in front of him was someone whose profession might just be able to help. Maybe this candidate had the answers they had tried to bully out of the others, maybe they needed to ask a different question, and that’s exactly what the Chief Executive did. He asked the greatest interview question anyone can ever ask.

Finally we had a question on the table that was worthy of the calibre of the panel sitting in front of me. From what I originally thought was an inept trio ill equipped for their task I now had in front of me three key organisational players seeking the treasure chest of talent and they had just found the key to open it. I was now on the edge of my seat, I felt a little uncomfortable because I couldn’t bluff my way with platitudes or HR speak. I now needed to deliver a response that justified the position my profession seeks to have in every talent focused organisation. I needed to confirm to them that there was a genuine and credible reason why they should give me the job, and that required me to tell them how I assess my own performance.

The Chief Executive ask me “How will we know you are any good?”