By TOM SZAKY
Job interviews can range from lengthy, committee-type processes that take months to quick sit-downs with quick decisions. While the former is appropriate for senior positions, I don’t think it is necessary for most employees.
I have an unusual interview style that has served me well over the past decade. First, I don’t put much weight on résumés except to look for a few telltale signs: Have the candidates jumped around from job to job and industry to industry? Or do they join businesses and stay? This is important because turnover is costly to an organization.
To me, education level comes into play only when candidates haven’t had more than five years of job experience. After that, where they went to school and what they did there matter significantly less (personally, I hold only a high school diploma). Also, the more lofty a candidate’s alma mater, the more likely it is that the person will expect to get promoted quickly — either internally or to another company. Of course, education does matter for positions that require a background in, say, science or law.
One other thing I look for in a résumé is formatting. Being able to present a case — whether it’s asking for a job or proposing an initiative — is critical to most functions in a business. Is the document on one page? And is it laid out in an aesthetically pleasing manner?
On the other hand, I consider letters of reference and reference checks a waste of time. Is anyone going to give you a reference letter that isn’t glowing? And is anyone going to put you in touch with a reference that isn’t going to say nice things? I get asked — almost on a weekly basis — to give references to past employees and I find that it’s much easier to say nice things than to spend time explaining negatives. I have no vested interest in the person who is doing the hiring so why would I spend the extra time to give all of the details? Again, I would say the only exception is with senior hires. In those cases, I try to dig up my own references rather than using the ones provided by the candidate. (Here’s a very different opinion on the value in checking references.)
Once we begin the interview process, I tend to keep it short — and put a lot of value into my gut reaction. As a result, my interviews usually last only five to 10 minutes. First, I ask why the person wants to work at TerraCycle. I want candidates to pitch me! If they don’t seem passionate about our mission and vision — or worse, if they don’t know what we do – the interview is over.
Then I ask candidates to describe the biggest, most glorious mistake they have had in their business careers — including all of the gory details. I am still surprised that the majority of candidates think about it and then say they haven’t made any major mistakes in their careers. To me this says that the candidates are either lying or don’t take risks. Both are deal breakers.
My final question is usually meant to test their expertise for the position they want, but I try to do it in a way that pushes them out of their comfort zones. For example, if someone is applying for a marketing position, I might ask this: “Imagine we have to generate awareness around a program in a city 2,000 miles away. You have 10 days and a negative budget of $5,000 (meaning the program has to generate money, not spend it). How are you going to pull it off?”
I’m not necessarily looking for a profound answer, but most people, when challenged to come up with something out of the ordinary, can’t answer the question and end up saying, “it’s not possible.” Again, that’s a deal breaker.
The goal of my interview is, first, to assess the person’s passion — the biggest asset an employee can bring. Then, I look for someone who is comfortable taking risks and who is eager to face the challenge of doing something that seems impossible. Finally, I push candidates on why they want to join us — even, sometimes, encouraging them to look for a job that might pay more or be closer to home. Making it easy for someone to not take the job gets the candidate out of sales mode and is the best way to find out if they truly want the job — or if we are just one of 50 stops on a job-hunt tour.
Of course, we also test for necessary skills (and never just take someone’s word). We test typing speed — are they single-finger typists? And if they will need to use Excel, we test that, too. We give them a messy data set and ask them to organize it into pivot tables and graph it logarithmically. If it’s PowerPoint, we ask them to make a sample slide show. I have been burned more times than I can remember by people flat out lying about their skills.
I also greatly value persistence. If someone is constantly e-mailing or calling me, or just going above and beyond what is typically expected in the job-hunt process, I see that they are not only go-getters but keen to join our business. But when we say no, it means no. There is a fine line between being persistent and being petulant.
Finally, we all make mistakes. I think I make a good hire three out of four times. If the employee just doesn’t work out in the first few weeks or months, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, I believe in terminating the relationship quickly. While you can teach various skills, personalities simply do not change.
Tom Szaky is the chief executive of TerraCycle, which is based in Trenton.