Agile Talent Series: Dig into the Candidate’s Background

If you are the smartest person in the room, you are definitely in the wrong room.” – Michael Dell

Ambitious interviewers are anxious to get a crystal-clear picture of candidates including their personalities and primary social motives.  It is also wise to dive deeper and take a close look at the candidate’s background:

  • The professional background of the candidate: who are the people on his or her team and who make up the extended professional network?
  • The personal background of the candidate

The candidate’s professional background

One of the best ways to separate the average candidate from the excellent, where talent is concerned, is to zoom in on the people with whom they surround themselves. Truly outstanding leaders and managers never forget that they depend on the people around them for achieving remarkable and impressive company targets.

They also realize that by surrounding themselves with the best and the brightest this will have a positive impact on their personal learning curve. For these reasons, they tend to hire the very best people they can find.

Within our firm, De Vroedt & Thierry Leadership Consulting (Cornerstone Amsterdam), we intentionally look beyond the individual when we are selecting talent, and we pay close attention to the people they hired in their present job.

Are their immediate subordinates and colleagues able to equal or even surpass the candidate in skills and achievement? What kind of people are they in contact with professionally? After 20-plus years in executive recruitment I find this all highly relevant information. As mentioned, you can tell a good candidate from the grade of people they select!

Someone who dedicated a large chunk of his working life to talent management and who conducted remarkable interviews was David Ogilvy, the 20th century advertising master. His assertion that true talent loves to gather excellent achievers around them, to fill in the gaps in their own expertise and areas of improvement – regardless of how talented they are — really inspires me. Here is how he put it:

First, make yourself a reputation for being a creative genius. Second, surround yourself with partners who are better than you are. Third, leave them to go get on with it.”

To Ogilvy, the ideal corporate structure resembles the Russian Matryohka doll, an ever-growing collection of greater people. If you are bold enough to hire those who are greater or better than you, you will end up with an organisation of giants.

Some people may react cynically to this principle, saying that there are plenty of CEOs and top managers who may be talented and yet are bent on selecting weaker individuals to work for them so they can rule without being opposed.

With very few exceptions, such managers are what I call Sun Kings: they surround themselves with people who appear to be good at their jobs but who turn out to be nothing more than submissive followers and dutiful implementers. Potential hires like this are to be avoided at all costs, regardless of where they might have worked previously, or how talented they are in other respects.

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” – David Ogilvy

The relevance of screening the candidate’s personal background

Keeping one’s business and personal lives separate may seem ideal, but it is fast becoming impossible to do in a world where the different spheres of people’s lives are converging more often. For that reason, it is useful to examine candidates’ personal lives for the wealth of information home life can reveal about how they might go about their job.

You cannot, of course, investigate the personal life of a candidate without prior permission. You can, however, be explicit in asking personal questions during an interview, or subtly involving someone’s spouse or partner in the selection process. Just be sure that you are on the right side of your country’s pertinent legislation and regulations.

A candidate should not feel pressured into answering such questions: you must remain meticulous and transparent in your selection process, avoiding questions which are obviously disrespectful, rude or transgress into an area of protected privacy.

I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could achieve was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream.” – Steve Jobs


If you are determined to find the best and the brightest I advise you to look at candidates from various angles. You should keep their entire background in mind.

Who have they surrounded themselves with, both professionally and personally? Do they surround themselves with people who fight for what they believe is the right course of action, or are they simply yes-men who follow orders and implement what is being told?

Worthwhile candidates know that a company atmosphere encouraging employees to speak up is an invigorating place to work. And in a tight labour market that will be comprised 50 % of the millennial generation, it will also be a way to become an employer of choice!

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