Interview the interviewer
with Bill Portelli // @billportelli
Favorite ice cream: Vanilla
First job: Working with my dad who was an electrician when I was 13
Current job: Managing Director at CEO Quest
How well do interviews work to find the right person? Have you hired more people that you already knew in your network or who were strangers before you interviewed them?
In summary I’d say it’s 80/20—people that I don’t know to who I do know. In the early stage it’s going to be reversed. It’s going to be a bunch of you in a room—you’re already acquaintances or business associates—and the first five or ten happens that way. But as you scale that doesn’t scale—instead you need to think about more structured ways to interview and hire; and eventually it gets to where it’s probably 20% employee referral and 80% something else. And I think it’s important for me and I always made a conscious decision not to get too much of the same blood. I didn’t want people around me that knew what I knew or I knew what they knew. I mean that is good—the harmony of communication can be great—but I like diversity of knowledge and cultures that lets you leverage an environment where we’re each teaching each other and we get to a more robust answer. There’s things you have to do when you’re bringing on new and different types of folks to get them aligned to the same mission, strategy, values, and messaging. But there are tools that you can use to do that, and the excitement you get by bringing new folks in is worth it.
In that case it sounds like you’ve figured out a good model for interviews that vet the kind of person you’re looking for. What is one question that you always ask in an interview?
Well I could say “it’s skills based”, but it’s not. I’m just going to take as foundation that people are smart and that they have the skills, but to me it’s always understanding what’s making them tick: It comes down to motivation. Are they self-motivated or not? The second part is what do they perceive as excellence? I had one person say “I’m just not very motivated; I never want to come to work and do more than just the job” and I’d say I’m not so sure that works in a high growth company. You can also ask open-ended questions like “Tell me when you went above and beyond; why did you do it? What enabled you to do that?” And you start figuring out of what people’s definition of excellence and success is in combination with their motivation. When you’re growing a company you don’t have all the answers, you don’t know where you’re going yet sometimes and you need to invent on the fly within the structure of a plan but you want folks who think outside the box.
In that interview setting what’s one way for someone has seriously impressed you?
Preparation. At the end of the day it’s preparation. I’m completely turned off by someone who comes in and can’t pronounce the company name or doesn’t know the product or the market we’re in; or doesn’t know our competitors are. You need to do a little work and preparation and help me advance my thought process. I want someone to come in and not only be prepared but have ideas on what they can do with the product or the sales or generating leads. And I’ve had folks come in with ten pages of scratch pads of notes—I can see they did it the night before but clearly they were thinking about it; I’ve had other folks deliver me a ten-page business plan on how they would restructure our marketing organization and hired both of them and they were good people and they impressed the heck out of me. The preparation they did demonstrated the exact qualities I mentioned in my previous point of excellence, innovation and thinking outside the box.
What is the strangest thing a candidate has said in an interview?
Can I give you two examples? Going back to 1999 and early 2000s when it was such an exciting time in Silicon Valley and it was the birth of the external internet and the world was just so opened up to entrepreneurs. Everyone was excited about building great companies and building great products. I had one gentleman come in to talk about joining our vision, and I asked him “Where do you want to be with us in two-to-four years? What’s your vision for your growth with us?” And he said, “I don’t see myself here in two-to-four years.” Of course I said “Why?” And he said “What I want to do is work with you for a year, vest my stock, quit, move on to the next company, work a year, vest my stock and I figure after seven to eight years of that, I’ll have a stock portfolio that will make me a lot of money.” Of course I was incredulous, “I thought we were talking about building a great company” and he gave me the same answer and it was almost a caricature of the bad things about chasing wealth. Of course we all want the wealth and its part of wealth creation and taking care of your family but it’s got to be about the company and the team and the customers and all those things have to come first. And actually leads me to another example was along the same lines, I had a gentleman come in and he had come from a very large $10 billion plus computer firm and his resume said “I built this billion-dollar product line” and I was thinking, “Okay, great. Let me understand what you did and how we can transcribe those processes into our company.” When I was digging in during our interview, all I heard was “I did this, I did that, I, I ,I.” So I said, “okay, I understand that you were general manager and you were running the product but tell me about what your engineering team did, what your marketing team did, how you worked with your peers and the cross functional team;” and his response was “No, I did that.” At that point I must have asked him five different ways to try to extract his value if he was a part of a billion dollar runup; so I said “Okay that’s great, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to hire you and the first 900 million we get I’m going to keep, and the last 100 million dollars you get to keep.” And he said, “No, that’s not what I meant!” The point was for him it was all about “I”; he missed the point, that it’s not about “I”, it’s about “we”, and the team and the vision and having an empathetic view of what’s around you and your role in a company—and that is something I really look for in every interview.