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Tips for the Executive Interview: Intensity Versus Energy

This situation could apply to you. You have been in the job hunt for several months. Connecting with recruiters and potential employers has been very time-consuming. You have managed to land interviews with both recruiters and employers and have not come away as a finalist, much less a job. No one has bothered to give you any meaningful feedback. What are the reasons?

The reasons candidates do not advance in the hiring process are legion. In my experience as a retained executive recruiter placing senior executives in the US and abroad, I have narrowed them to a few. The one I will address in this article is “intensity level.” Hard charging executives are supposed to be intense, right? Well…to a point. The downside of intensity is that interpersonal savvy is often overshadowed by it (if there at all).

First, a brief review on leadership and management. Leadership is an influencing process while management is a control process. You influence people and control resources. In the process of leading (influencing) people, the single most important skill necessary for success is “communication.” Communication is the medium of leadership. Think back on your career and identify the best leaders you ever knew. The odds are that one of the key attributes that set them apart was their ability to be engaging communicators. We’re all human. Interviewers should be influenced not managed. High intensity impedes one’s influencing ability.

Clearly, interviewers must zero in on experience and competence. There are a variety of ways to do this. What works best for me and my search clients is the use of a detailed, job-specific online candidate questionnaire pertaining to the job for which I am recruiting. These are developed jointly with my clients. I ask them to identify the critical success experiences that apply to the job. What do you want to know from this candidate before you even decide to have an interview? Typically, the questions they ask are job-specific, focusing on experience, e.g., What was the situation? What did you do? How did it work? What did you learn? Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager who must sift through a half-dozen or more viable candidates’ portfolios. Questionnaires help as much or more than resumes. Most organizations do not use this approach so must accomplish a great deal in a short time in their interviews. The interview, therefore, become a race against the clock during which the interviewer must gather as much factual information as possible while getting to know you.

What often happens with candidates, especially those who have interviewed several times elsewhere and walked away empty-handed, is that they increase their intensity level in both phone and face-to-face interviews due to time limitations, and perhaps, a bit of anxiety. It can be very harmful to your chances of winning the job if you are too intense.

All things being equal in the areas of competency and experience, what often sets apart candidates who advance boils down to their level of engagement with their interviewers. In the course of a 60 to 90 minute phone conversation or meeting, the interviewer, either consciously or subconsciously, wants to connect with the candidate and make the interview as pleasant of an experience as possible while still gathering the necessary information. It is at this point that interpersonal savvy rises near the top as a critical interviewing skill, even when time is short.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing intensity with energy. Most interviewers look for a high, positive energy level. When coupled with being engaging, this bodes well for an interview. Intensity, on the other hand, can be exhausting for the interviewer. I have ended many interviews really needing a break due to the high intensity level of the candidate. I was worn out. It is better for a candidate to be energetic and engaging. It is hard to be intense and engaging.

As the poet, Robert Burns, said (and I paraphrase), “Would the gift the gifter give us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Check your high intensity level at the door. If doing a phone interview, imagine yourself sitting across the table from the person interviewing you. Gauge that individual’s temperament early, as much as possible. Bend the Golden Rule (i.e., Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.). Have your competencies and experiences at the ready for discussion, then focus on engaging your interviewer. All things being equal, it might make the difference the next time you interview.

Michael K. Burroughs, Managing Principal of ESI Associates http://www.ESIassoc.com has been recruiting and coaching executives for the Fortune 500, healthcare systems, nonprofits and universities for over three decades. He is a former Organization Development executive for divisions of three Fortune 500 companies, a retired Army colonel, and a former managing director for a “top five” retained executive search firm. As a thought leader in executive recruiting innovation, his New Leader Integration process ensures that newly recruited executives arrive fully prepared to get the right results, quickly. For more executive recruiting and career management tips, follow Michael’s blog, Leading Edge Memo’s, at http://leadingedgememos.blogspot.com.