More than 20 years ago, I was recruiting a Small Business Commercial Lender for a financial services client. On one particular evening, I had just wrapped up a call with a candidate (let’s call him Henry) who seemed like the perfect fit. Henry had been with the same employer for 7 years, matched the educational credentials, seemed to have both the personality and competencies needed for the role, and had even achieved the specific deliverables the hiring manager, Tom, was after.

Now, for those of you with no experience in financial services, a small business lender calls on small- to mid-size businesses to provide them with lending options to grow their business. The key way to measure success in that role was determined by something called “loans outstanding.” Loans outstanding is exactly what it sounds like: the actual outstanding balance the lender’s clients had. The more outstanding on the loan, the more interest charged. The more interest charged, the more the bank caught a profit. And finally, more profit meant more commission for the lender.

The Rise

Henry’s portfolio consisted of clients with more than $10 million in loans outstanding, which was well above the ideal threshold. Of course, I was feeling pretty excited. I did it: I found the purple squirrel. So right after the call ended with Henry, I picked the phone back up and called Tom. Even though by now it was 8 p.m., I had to tell him that we couldn’t let my candidate get away. He was already interviewing at other companies. We had to act fast.

Problem was, Tom had to catch a flight the next morning and would be gone on a week-long vacation with his family. After some slick negotiating, I managed to convince him to take a later flight. Remember: Henry was a rock star.

The stage was set. Tom was excited to meet Henry, and after 7 years at the same bank, Henry was ready to make a move. Needless to say, a conversation with Tom was huge for Henry. By the time I went to bed, the time and location of the meeting were confirmed. I slept well that night assuming the position would be filled by lunch (at the latest).

Fast forward to 6 a.m. the next morning. I got out of bed with a decent pep in my step, maybe even feeling a bit smug, knowing that Tom and Henry were to meet in an hour. I rushed to the office, coffee in hand, sat in my chair, perched my feet on my desk, and waited for the phone to ring. And by 8:30 a.m., it most certainly did.

You know that smugness I felt a couple hours earlier? That dissipated about 20 seconds into my conversation with Tom. You know that coffee I had at my desk? I nearly spilled it all over myself as Tom proceeded to yell at me for, well, a myriad of things: wasting his time, causing a delay in his family trip, getting his hopes up on the candidate. In essence, the interview was a bust. Tom was pissed. My pep was gone.

The Fall

Maybe to your disappointment, nothing crazy happened. No exciting story. No drama. So, what happened, you ask? Simple: I didn’t dig deep enough. I wasn’t thorough enough.

While Henry did, in fact, have a portfolio that exceeded $10 million, I never asked how he’d achieved such major levels of production. Turns out, Henry had just inherited a co-worker’s portfolio after her departure from the bank. His most shining asset, his best achievement, the purple to my purple squirrel… all gone.

And it was avoidable.

The Resurrection

After this blow, I made it a point to be better at my job as a recruiter. I stopped just checking boxes. I started asking more questions. And when it did come time to check the boxes, I was confident they were the right ones.

As a recruiting professional, it’s crucial that you dig deeper into candidates’ achievements, pains, and aspirations. It’s not enough to know what the candidate accomplished without understanding how the accomplishments were made.

I’ve spoken with both rookie recruiters and vets in the industry who don’t know about the how. Not to my surprise, many tell me they only have time for the what because extra time isn’t all that common in our industry.

4 Crucial Questions to Ask Your Candidates

Time is always going to be limited in this business, but quality candidates are our priority. Make the time. When you get on your next call with a candidate, make sure to ask these 4 questions for each requirement, skills, achievement, or competency.

1. What did you accomplish? This is the first box we check. Recruiting 101. Has the candidate done the key things you need to fill a role?

2. How did you accomplish that? You’ll learn a lot about how a candidate achieved or missed an objective if you just ask how the candidate approached the role altogether. Just think of all the heartache I could have saved Tom 20 years ago had I asked this question.

3. Why did you take that approach? There are always multiple pathways to achieve a goal. When you learn why someone chose a specific path, it provides you with additional insight into the candidate’s thought-process and work style.

4. When did you achieve your goal? How did timelines come into play? Compare the candidate’s personal timeline to complete an objective to the employer’s timeline.

If you really want to provide value to the candidate and to all the “Toms” in the world, don’t focus so much on what candidates accomplish; drill deeper to understand how and why they did. Only then will you have the real, complete picture.


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