Recruiter Interview: When You Don't Fit In at a New Firm

eFC logo spoke with Jay Gaines at Jay Gaines & Co. Inc., a New York executive-search firm that specializes in financial services, about what's wrong with recruiting and how candidates can minimize the impact of its problems on their own careers.

  • You're a recruiter. These days, what's wrong with recruiting?

Really getting recruiting right is an extremely difficult process, and it takes two to three years after the person is hired to evaluate whether it's been successful. It's very difficult to put a stranger into an environment and expect this stranger to achieve aggressive goals for change before he or she really understands [a company's] culture or has built relationships.

Often the first response of the culture -- not in an evil way, but in a natural human way -- is to try to eliminate the person: to test and wait the person out. So, the first two years are extremely difficult for a newcomer. When you talk about recruitment, job changing and selection, you also have to talk about integration. Most companies are passive about integrating a new person into their culture.

I'm not saying that executive recruiting is dumb or foolish. I'm saying: Let's do it better. Let's be smarter and put how hard it is on the table and work on those difficulties.

  • What factors do hiring managers consider most when selecting candidates?

Hiring managers today are often under so much pressure to fill a position, they focus on the ability to perform the role and some balance of chemistry and culture fit. They often can't afford to worry about how the new hire is going to look two, three or four years out in the organization. Hiring managers have to look good today and have their teams in place, or they are at risk. Consequently, many hiring decisions are made for expediency, and very few are made with a long-term view of where the company is going.

  • What plays most heavily into hiring decisions?

Presentation skills, physical presence, and overall likeability or attractiveness are inevitably over-weighted in the selection process.

Most folks like to hire people they are comfortable with and with whom they identify. We refer to this as "pattern recognition" - the hiring manager feels the person fits. Over time, cultures risk becoming homogeneous and insular, with employees having the same look and feel and preference for risk.

Culture fit is more of a key determinate of success or failure in a company than actual experience or ability. It's one thing to tune into the superficial tenets of a culture, but it's another to really understand the culture.

  • How can candidates minimize the impact of these problems on their own careers?

By insisting on fairly penetrating two-way conversations. The candidate would say to the hiring manager, "This is what I understand and how I interpret the role, and this is the way I would react in certain situations. If you aren't comfortable with that, it would be good to tell me that now, versus when I get there."

Very often during the hiring process, everyone is operating on lots of good will, with platitudes going back and forth. When the person starts, it becomes different and the company executives say, "This isn't the person we thought we hired," and vice versa. So being honest and penetrating would help a lot.

  • How do you know you'll fit into a company's culture?

You can identify a culture by understanding first, who the people are who thrive in the culture, and, second, who the people are who haven't thrived and have deliberately selected themselves out of the culture. Third, you must objectively understand yourself and be able to say, "I really feel that I can work with these people, and I really feel part of this," versus just, "I need the job."

Chemistry and excitement are indicators, but so are good dialogue and intellectual resonance. Other indicators are understanding the profiles of people who succeed in this culture and how closely you are aligned with them.

Find someone who left the company or retired and talk to them, or if it's a public company, find a securities analyst who covers it. Get their impressions. You have to work to get the information I'm talking about, but it isn't hidden.

  • What else would help?

Candidates would do better if they understood the power of being honest and spoke about themselves in a fair and balanced way. Acknowledging negatives doesn't create a calamity. Candidates need to have the courage to say, "Here are the eight things I have done really well, and here are the two things I screwed up on, but I'm going to win at those two things the next time, because I figured out how to do it."

For someone like myself, that kind of talk is a breath of fresh air. Too many candidates tend to talk or write in platitudes: "I'm performance-driven and results-oriented," or "Well, I'm on the market, because there was a merger, and the other company's people wanted someone else." Intelligent interviewers want candor and plain, open dialogue.

If you have a strong track record, you can allow yourself one or two missteps. It's OK to be open about what you're not, but people rarely have the courage to talk that way.

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