Use a Forensic Phone Screen to Instantly Spot Achievers

While finding and accurately assessing candidates has always been important, doing it quickly will take on extra urgency as the economy recovers. Interestingly, if your candidates are high achievers, most managers will meet them even if they’re a bit off experience-wise. This is one way to ensure 100% of your candidates are seen. It will also reduce the amount of work involved in putting together a slate of candidates for any search assignment.

You can spot achievers in about 15-20 minutes by looking for clues high achievers leave in their wake. This is the forensic connection, but first, let’s define an achiever. 

An achiever is a person who:

  • is highly motivated to do the work required
  • consistently delivers high quality results on time and on budget
  • is personally driven to become better
  • takes great pride in doing high quality work
  • works well with a broad and diverse group of people
  • will commit and deliver high-quality results despite the challenges
  • doesn’t make excuses; just gets it done somehow
  • volunteers for tough tasks or takes them on despite personal inconvenience

Let me start the forensic interviewing approach with a bit of reminiscing. I vaguely remember a high school physics experiment where the teacher demonstrated how to determine if a primary activity was present by looking at its secondary impact on other things. I suspect this is comparable to determining if a planet that isn’t visible is present by examining the gravitational shift it has on other planetary objects. Forensics is a form of this by looking at the clues left at the crime scene to determine what actually occurred (think CSI). From an interviewing standpoint it means looking for clues that an achiever pattern is present rather than looking directly for achiever-related behaviors or competencies.

Here’s how this works during the phone screen. A phone screen should consist of these four core sections:

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  • First, the introduction and engagement.
  • Second, the resume and work history review, looking for general fit and the achiever pattern.
  • Third, determining if the person is a strong fit for the actual opening and if the position offers the person a career move.
  • Fourth, either recruit the person for the open position, put the person in the talent pool for future positions, and/or get referrals.

During the phone screen, the work history review should last at least 15-20 minutes, and longer for senior level positions. For the uninitiated, a work history review is a comprehensive evaluation of the candidate’s resume, job by job. Done properly, the achiever patter will quickly emerge. Here’s how to conduct this type of forensic assessment:

  1. Find out the actual dates of each major job, including months and year. Many people hide non-positive information in their resumes, so it’s important to first ferret this out.
  2. Get an explanation of any gaps in employment. If there are gaps, look for areas of personal development or special training the person initiated on his or her own. Achievers are constantly improving themselves, so look for this throughout the interview.
  3. Determine why the person changed jobs and why each new job was selected. Achievers tend to carefully select jobs based on some major overriding career goal. I’m not fond of asking candidates first what their long-term goals are, since this is often fanciful. Instead I ask them about major career goals they’ve already achieved. If they have a pattern of achieving these goals, I then ask them about their long-term goals. Make sure the jobs selected logically support the major goal.
  4. Determine if the job change achieved the desired result. Non-achievers tend to move from job to job based on circumstances out of their control, or convenience, with a focus on tactical issues like compensation, location, security, and basic job content. Achievers tend to focus more on the strategic aspects of the job, including the potential for learning, impact, and growth.
  5. Within each company ask about major projects, accomplishments, and results achieved. Achievers demonstrate a pattern of increasing impact and consistent results. Quantify this with specific details, and look for trends and improving performance over time. Also find out how the person proactively expanded his or her role and influence. This is what achievers do, so look for it.
  6. Get comparisons of performance to the person’s peers. Compare the person’s specific performance to others in the group by asking about rankings, standings, differences between the top and average, and what the person would need to have done to be at the top level. Achievers are competitive and self-motivated to improve.
  7. Ask about any type of recognition received. Achievers receive lots of recognition, so look for this and be concerned if you don’t find much. Recognition can be any number of things like raises, bonuses, awards won, promotions, patents awarded, assignments to bigger projects, presentations at industry conferences, published whitepapers, huge blog followers, commendations of any type, scholarships, honorary societies, and leadership awards. The amount of recognition received, when it when was received, and what it was for are the best confirming evidence of this achiever pattern.
  8. Prepare a graphical work chart for each major position. Rather than use personality traits and personal affability to assess team skills, just track the growth of the teams the person has been assigned to over the past 5-10 years. If this has increased significantly to include expanded functional responsibility, broader cross-functional involvement, and more exposure to senior management inside and outside the company, you can be assured the person has strong team skills.

Achievers leave lots of evidence in their wakes, and if the wake is big enough, you can assured there’s an achiever out in front. Of course, you then need to determine if the person is a good fit for your current job opening and if the position provides the candidate a strong career move. You need both to ensure you can recruit and close the candidate on favorable terms, and beat back the competition. In my book, Hire With Your Head, I demonstrate in detail how to do this. Once you get the person on board, don’t be surprised that those with the achiever pattern also possess all of the traits described in your company’s competency model. As an old high-school teacher demonstrated many years ago, you can often find something without looking for it.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


14 Comments on “Use a Forensic Phone Screen to Instantly Spot Achievers

  1. Respectfully, Lou, this sounds like entry level recruiting.

    Whenever you have to drag pertinent information out of a candidate, I am willing to bet that the candidate is not a superstar. Meaning that even though he might be the most qualified; at the end of the day he won’t be the one that gets the offer! Superstars have the job skills plus communication skills that differentiate themselves from the average candidates applying through Monster. I find that a real superstar will lead the telephone interview process with their thoughtful questions and satisfying responses. That is because they have done their research on the company; they can articulate how their skills will be a great fit for the role. In other words, they can tell you what you need to hear in less than 60 seconds. Great candidates interview well because they have nothing to hide and nothing to lose. In fact, they don’t need your job and find the whole screening process to be a pain; their only objective is to go eyeball-to-eyeball with only the ones that can pull the trigger.

  2. As always Lou presents good info on the importance of Recruiters doing a better job of qualifying candidates. However, this one seems skewed towards candidates that chose a traditional career path.
    There are great people today who are underemployed and reloading for their next venture. Many of these high achievers are risk takers that have worked as consultants, started their own companies, changed careers, led teams in the military, worked at start-ups and other risky ventures, etc. They will leave one venture for another for reasons beyond a performance review and a work chart.

  3. Interestingly, I just conducted two phone screens for CEOs to run a major national fund raising effort (one this AM). One person’s recognition all related to strategy and vision, while the other’s related to management, process and tactics. Both had an agenda they wanted me to hear, which was all pre-planned and prepped. While somewhat valuable, this is only what a newbie recruiter would had gleaned from the conversation and taken at face value(sorry Ken, but you’re way off base re: your comment). I’ve met many top people who aren’t great at interviewing and many great interviewers/presenters who aren’t top performers. Getting at recognition allows you to tell them apart.

    Michael – all of what you describe about alternative careers can have some associated positive recognition. One example – if a person is asked to be the CEO of a new venture by the same venture group even though the 3 previous ventures failed is strong recognition. However, if the person has never influenced some top notch M&A types in any working relationship, there is some doubt the person could do it well if the new job required leading an M&A activity.

  4. Lou, thank you for your well-written perspective on an important segment of Executive Recruiting 101. I strongly believe that ER is one segment of recruiting which will continue to flourish for many years to come.


    Keith Halperin

  5. If you ask someone for her career goals and she does not think in terms of deliberate steps you get vague answers and know that they do not think in those terms.

    The same will happen if you ask someone to describe past goals she has achieved.

    So, it won’t make much difference if you ask for future or past goals.

  6. Re Goals and Recruiting Animal – ask about past goals actually achieved. Here’s the question: What’s the biggest personal goal you’ve every set up and achieved? Then spend 10 minutes digging into the details on how it was accomplished and how significant it was. On the other hand if it was vague, it’s BS. If people have a clear detailed future goal with a series of accomplished steps leading towards it, there’s a good chance the future one will be met. Past goals never achieved is the key to figuring the validity of this part of the forensic interview. High achievers have a pattern of setting and achieving significant goals.

  7. Thanks Lou – very solid recommendations. My only puzzlement was the omission of video interviewing. In the same time as the telephone call you could conduct a video chat right on your computer (Skype, iChat, etc.)

  8. My apologies Lou, after reading you post a second time I concur that your message is on target especially when you have to evaluate talent over the telephone. “Which is a difficult for new recruiters to do well.”
    Recruiters need to have a telephone method that produces good results and I believe you have the experience and metrics to benchmark your methods. The two problems I see is the title and the caption (picture of the guy).
    Together, they give an expectation of something new and different. Which translate to the same excited feeling you get when you come across a great resume or referral for your job opening then have that excitement drained by talking to them on the telephone. It’s not to say that the person is bad, just the expectation.

  9. Ken – Todd picks the pics. I thought it was a bit odd myself. and thanks for the apologies – fully appreciated and accepted. I don’t want to contend that this is rocket science – more commonsense – but when people meet other people whenever ego and/or something important is at stake, it seems like this goes up in smoke (i.e., commonsense).

    I actually tried this once (below) – it didn’t work, but it was an attempt at the above. I asked a candidate waiting in the office to spend 15 minutes before the interview to list all of his recognition from high school to the present. I was planning on just asking him to tell me about the top 10 items on the list. He didn’t have much and it was an awkward interview as I tried to find something that didn’t exist. I’m very cynical when interviewing people (especially with people who make great impressions) and in the process of seeking out evidence I found a good number (%-wise) of people who have great evidence, but an inability to present themselves in comparable fashion. I’ve gone to bat for many of them, and they’ve gone on to be great successes.

  10. Re: video interview – I would do this 100% of the time for the phone screen. We’re actually now creating a video interview series of questions to put those candidates who are a little too comfortable off track and make those who are a bit less smooth more comfortable. But the video interview done properly should be the first step for recruiters and hiring managers alike! Go to my web site and sign up for our newsletter – I’ll be describing the video exploratory interview for passive candidates this week.

  11. Being a co-founder of SayHired, which has developed a tool that automates the phone screen process for companies, and allows recruiters to screen candidates without ever having to pick up a phone, I disagree that all of the questions that you recommend asking, etc. during the initial phone screen are necessary.

    So much time is wasted by talking to candidates that you know within the first 2 minutes are not a right fit, yet you still feel obligated to spend 15-20 minutes with them on the phone. This extra time that’s wasted with unqualified candidates could have been better spent talking longer with the superstars.

    Bottom line: The initial phone screen should be an additional filter to the resume, not an in-depth interview of everything the candidate has ever done. Following this methodology ensures that recruiters can focus their time on the candidates that are the most qualified and have the greatest chance to be superstars.

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