What Hollywood Can and Cannot Teach you About Interviewing

The benefits of Behavioral Based Interviewing

You may have seen the famous “Sell me this pen” scene in the recent Hollywood movie, Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio hands a recruit a pen and urges him to sell it back to him.   Hiring managers frequently use this and similar exercises to test the skills of potential salespeople.  One of our clients was looking for a senior salesperson and we sent them a really sharp individual who was the consummate sales type.   As part of the interview, the client devised a clever exercise reminiscent of the “Sell me this pen” exercise to test the candidate’s sales abilities.  The candidate handled the test well impressing the hiring manager and made it to the next round in the interview process.  While we considered this a success, I wondered if another candidate would have handled the same test as well.  In this case, because our candidate was what people would call a natural salesperson, they were able to get through the exercise successfully.  They showcased their ability to handle unexpected pressure, demonstrated their clear thought process, highlighted their ability to uncover needs by asking good questions, and displayed their negotiation skills as they asked for, and closed, the sale.

Despite all of this, I wondered if this was the best way to test the skills of a salesperson.  In reviewing the client’s feedback, they noted the candidate’s ability to stay poised throughout the exercise and gave them good marks on their general sales skills.  They also brushed aside the negatives reasoning given the candidate’s unfamiliarity with the product and the artificial nature of the exercise.  It seemed to me that the client devised a test that a natural salesperson could excel at and I couldn’t help to think that this was a more elaborate case of confirmation bias with the test designed to weed out otherwise good salespeople in favor of those that handle these types of situations well.  If the client had been merely looking for someone that needed to be quick on their feet and handle unexpected pressure-filled situations, selling a somewhat uncomplicated product, in a transactional type of sales situation, perhaps this would have been the ideal test.  However, the position they were hiring for called for long-term relationships building skills with large customers for products that, while not terribly complicated, represented a substantial capital expense.  Certainly, the ideal candidate would need to be able to hold their own in any number of tough selling situations but there is more to this position than just being poised under pressure.

Using our proprietary selection model as the basis for discussion, we suggested that it would be better to focus on the underlying behaviors that would make the position successful and seek candidates that have successfully demonstrated their ability to handle similar situations in the past.  We explained the concept of behavioral based interviewing where past performance for a particular activity is a good predictor of how a person would perform the same task in the future.  We worked with the client to identify the behaviors and competencies necessary for the role and devised questions to uncover these and built a way to analyze the responses.  While our approach lacked the drama and fun of the “Sell Me This Pen” exercise, we feel that using our selection model and behavioral interviewing techniques makes the predictive value of the interview much higher.   In the era where making a wrong hiring decision can have devastating results for a company, savvy firms need to rely on executive search firms that utilize trusted selection methodologies, not gimmicks or fads, to ensure that the right candidates are hired.


Article written by Carl Denny, CFR Global Executive Search USA

Photo source: Pexels

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