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How Many Interviews Does it Take to Screw in a CEO (or Screw Up a Company)?

The media is abuzz with the replacement of HP CEO Leo Apotheker with Meg Whitman, former gubernatorial candidate and former CEO of eBay.  Lots of people are saying it is a bad fit, and to add insult to injury, will be an embarrassment to Apotheker.

But what about how Apotheker got hired in the first place?  NY Time columnist James Stewart in his article this week, points out that perhaps not enough HP Directors met with Apotheker for them to really know what they were getting.  A search committee of four found a slate of candidates, but no one on the board beyond the committee was willing to meet Apotheker!  According to Stewart, Apotheker was described by one director this way: “Among the finalists, he was the best of a very unattractive group.“

Now Meg Whitman, who has minimal experience with any kind of hardware product, is another controversial choice.

So, one fundamental question to be asked is, did HP and its board do an inadequate job of screening Apotheker?

My belief is that candidate assessment is not just dependent on in-person interviews.  In fact, looking at the processes that many of our clients use, too often TOO MANY people interview candidates.  We have frequently had candidates (recruited, passive candidates who have busy jobs) arrive at new employers and meet 8-10 people in one day.  Sometimes these result in meaningful two-way information exchange, but often it is putting checkmarks on a checklist.  Quality met him. Check.  Ops met him.  Check.  Why?  Certainly not all the interviewers have equal footing in rendering their opinions.  Many companies are coming from a place of fear when they hire (fear of making a mistake), so they mitigate that with quantity – the more people who say yes, the safer our decision.  BUT, this approach is also tilted at DESELECTION!  The more people who weigh in, the more likely some curmudgeon will be able to veto a good hire.  In fear mode, people often pay too much attention to negative, pessimistic viewpoints.

What matters is not the quantity of interviewers, but the quality, and everyone can be a good interviewer if they have the right toolbox.  Most important tool?  Having the right questions to ask.  “Tell me about yourself” doesn’t cut it.  To have a candidate simply relate their background and tell war stories is woefully insufficient.  A better way is to ask highly relevant questions that will reveal whether the candidate can do the job you specifically need done.  Also, have different interviewers look at different dimensions of the person, so that each interviewer’s contribution to the discussion of the candidate’s value has meaning and significance.  For example, have the hiring manager (or board chair for CEO roles) ask about the specific key performance factors that relate to the objectives of the job (i.e.: “What would specifically prepare you to open international markets for us?”).  Have another executive look into relevant technical and/or customer knowledge.  Have another look into management style.  Have another look into cultural fit.  This specialization of interview focus will substantially improve the overall quality of the assessment, and make each interviewer feel like their participation matters.

Should HP have had more board members interview Apotheker?  Probably.  But only because there was so much dissension and in-fighting at the time, that many directors weren’t even on the same page. They should also have asked more of the right questions, and perhaps not “settled” if they felt they didn’t have the cream of the crop in front of them.

By the way, I’d give Meg 12-24 months!  I’m already sorry I have so many HP computers in our office!