By Jim Citrin
Posted on Tuesday, April 24, 2007, 12:00AM
"I haven't interviewed for a job in 25 years," a Wall Street mogul told me recently. "I'm a little nervous."
I told him to relax, that we were going to have a conversation that he would actually enjoy. "OK," he said,
repeating nervously, "but I haven't interviewed for 25 years."
The Five-Part Job Interview
If a member of the management committee of one of Wall Street's most elite firms was anxious about such a
meeting, it's likely that you'll have a few butterflies in the same situation.
While there are innumerable interview styles, I thought I'd share my approach -- what I ask, why I ask it, and
what I look for. After all, I interview for a living and have conducted approximately 4,000 executive interviews
in the past 13-plus years.
For starters, I like to set a conversational tone in an interview. I'm looking to get to know the person, not to
intimidate, test, or trick them. High pressure tactics don't contribute to this goal.
I generally structure my interviews into five parts:
Part 1: The opening
In the first few minutes, I like to find a point of commonality with my interviewee. Whether drawn from their
resume, an online search, or from the individual who provided the introduction or recommendation, I can
almost always find a bridge into the conversation.
This is primarily a way to move into the meeting in a comfortable, conversational way rather than as an
interrogation. It also quickly provides a context to help situate the person in the world. I'm a believer in the
saying, "You are the company you keep," so if this person is somehow connected to someone I respect, that
obviously helps my estimation of them.
This also provides input for conducting discreet references at the appropriate time. Similarly, identifying
areas of mutual interest or places lived or visited creates additional opportunities to understand the person.
Part 2: The chronology
I then move into a chronological review of my interviewee's life and career. Here's where I begin to learn
who the person really is, how they think, where they come from, and what the major influences and key
turning points in their life were.
In this section, I'm looking for clues about work ethic, values, personality, and importantly, repeating patterns
that offer clues as to what the interviewee should do next from a career standpoint. Where did they fall in
their family's birth order lineup -- the achievement-oriented first-born, the sensitive middle-child, or the
status-quo-challenging third or fourth born?
What character-building difficulties did they have to overcome along the way? The person who was the
family's first to attend college clearly has the motivation of something to prove and a feeling of responsibility
to others. Similarly, if the interviewee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, how much of
that is due to luck versus a sense of timing and empathy that would be a valuable asset to an organization?
I once interviewed a senior executive at an entertainment company for the top position at another leading
corporation. However, by the end of the chronological part of the interview I came to believe that he would
be better off accepting an alternate offer as chief operating officer at another company (even if, on paper, he
was highly qualified for the presidency).
I had detected a clear pattern in the interviewee's career that he himself had failed to notice: In each of the
roles that were both his most successful and most professionally satisfying, he had been partnered with a
talented boss. It turns out that he was more comfortable and effective as a No. 2 rather than assuming
complete responsibility for the organization and results of the enterprise. To this day, even though I can't
take credit for recruiting him to that COO position, he thanks me for helping steer him into the better role.
Part 3: The assessment
In this part of the discussion, I seek to assess the candidate's background and track record against the core
skills, experiences, and competencies required for success in the role. These attributes have been defined
up front in a search in consultation with a client and articulated in a position specification and the candidate
key selection criteria.
It's best to establish each selection criterion as a specific, measurable result achieved in a particular way.
For example, "Exceptional leadership skills evidenced by the building of a world-class management team." A
question that would probe this might be, "Tell me about the reporting relationships and backgrounds of your
management team. Where did each direct report join the group from?"
Finally, in addition to the evaluation of the required competencies, this is where I probe for cultural fit, that
make-or-break determinant of success or failure in an organizational setting: "Describe the work
environments in which you've been most successful. What's different about those cultures in which you have
The important objective of this part of the interview is to 1) achieve an alignment of strengths and
experiences with what's required, and 2) determine a strong, natural cultural fit.
Part 4: The considerations
By this part in the interview, I generally have an initial idea of whether or not the exploration represents a
good mutual fit. If not, I come straight out and say so and explain why I came to that preliminary conclusion.
If, on the other hand, the skills and interest seems strong from both sides, I move into the real-life elements
that always come into play when considering a major career move. I probe why this might be an opportune
moment to make a change.
I explore geographic considerations. From the background portion of the interview, I'll typically have learned
where the candidate's family and in-laws live, and that help uncover if they have parental care issues,
whether they have kids in school and in what grades, and overall, how connected to a geography they are.
I also make sure to understand any employment contracts that may be in place or any other reason, legal or
moral, that would get in the way of taking the conversation to its logical conclusion. I also ask the candidate
to share a snapshot of their current and long-term compensation, and get a feel for how much equity-based
compensation is unvested and might have to be made up by a hiring organization. This series of questions
helps bring the practical into play.
Part 5: The close
After about 75 to 90 minutes of discussion, it's time to wrap up the interview. No matter how much time you
spend, it's impossible to get a complete and accurate assessment of a person in one interview.
So it makes sense to keep the first interview to a reasonable duration, come to an assessment of whether or
not to take the dialogue to the next level, and if so, to talk about process, timing, and schedules.
I try to come full circle and close the interview with some form of bridge into the future. The next steps might
be to schedule a meeting, to agree to take references, and to supply or receive additional information about
the opportunity being discussed. Finally, I close by reiterating my commitment to confidentiality and by
offering any piece of advice that might come to mind about how the individual can pursue and achieve