“What Do You Do for Fun?” is a Great Interview Question – Here’s Why

A couple of days ago I re-read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 1.

Rich Baby, Poor Baby: Image credit: <www.thefiscaltimes.com>

About 3/4ths of the way through the book, I came upon a passage where Gladwell talks about the role summer vacation plays in creating academic separation between socioeconomic classes of people.

Take a look at this data set.  2. Credit for the statistics go to John Hopkins University Sociologist Karl Alexander.2 From 1st through 5th grade, the data shows the scores of 650 Baltimore public school students on a major reading and math skills exam (The California Achievement Test).

Now observe how the initially small gap between the low and high socioeconomic status children continues to grow – from about 9% to nearly 14% within 5 years.

Finally, observe the statistics I found the most interesting.

First, let’s look at each group’s academic gains during the school year:

As you can see, the lower socioeconomic status children don’t trail the high socioeconomic status children (they actually lead), and they keep pace with the middle-class children in three of five years. But let’s look at the last data set:

Score Changes During Summer Vacation:

Where the high socioeconomic children got ahead (and the low/middle socioeconomic status children fell behind) was during the summers.

Again, credit to Malcolm Gladwell and Karl Alexander for the statistics and study here. What’s important to note, though, is that the academic gap between the students grows exponentially (in both raw numbers and percentage) mostly as a product of gains made during the summertime.

This is a time when the wealthier children had structured activities built into their day to day lives (that allowed them to continue learning and developing)  3. I know that many of you are thinking “sample size/other independent variables etc.”, but to these criticisms, I say “read the book”. Gladwell makes a compelling (empirically backed) case for the role of continued education during the summertime (or lack thereof) having an effect on academic performance.while the poorer and middle-class children saw their skills atrophy in the absence of any real structure.

This brings me to the inherent value of asking a candidate during an interview: “What do you do for fun?”

What a candidate does for fun (over the weekends and after work hours during weekdays) can yield considerable insight into their long term growth trajectory.

Studies show that 33% of high school students and 42% of college graduates will never read another book after they graduate. What this tells me is that much of the population stops investing in a major source of learning and development once they leave the structured/regimented environment of the classroom.

A senior consultant at a big three management consultancy firm 4 once said to me “Never stop learning – if you stop learning you become obsolete and you get replaced.”

To be fair… the nature of most work is such that this is not the case. As cited above, a sizable portion of the population doesn’t continue to actively develop themselves once they complete their formal education, and this results in most jobs having a rather low water level… making someone that takes an active role in their continued development relatively unique in the marketplace.

As such, give me an unpolished candidate that is committed to continuous (lifelong) learning over a more experienced candidate that views him or herself as a finished product any day of the week.

If I’m interviewing you I want to know what you do for fun in your downtime – it tells me a lot about the type of employee you’re going to be.

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What Role Should a Person’s Personality Play in a Hiring Decision?

This post is from the archives of my now-defunct old blog. I started it when I was just venturing out into social media, and have since started generating regular

Having conducted hundreds of interviews, I’ve developed a tendency over time to place heavy emphasis on candidate temperament and demonstrated work ethic (over skillset).

A candidate needs to have certain skills on their resume to be considered for an interview, to begin with, but once the interview starts then a candidate’s poise, how they handle adversity in the workplace, and their demonstrated willingness to take on meaningful challenges plays a far larger role in shaping my ultimate impression of them than any particular technical knowledge they may possess.

After all, an interview is a snapshot of a candidate’s work (and life) experience, and the way they describe those experiences (and present themselves) often says a great deal more about what they bring to the table than their resume does. If it didn’t why wouldn’t we just have candidates with the right resume experiences take a technical knowledge exam and hire the highest scoring? For me, treating an interview like such a test misses the mark on what an interview is designed to capture.

That isn’t to say skill and experience aren’t important (on the contrary, it’s the most critical component of many roles). But I fundamentally believe that non-technical, “soft skill” attributes are a critical piece to consider in the hiring process.

Once you get beyond “table stakes” skills (minimum requirements to do a job effectively), much of the rest can be taught if the candidate has the right mindset and is a cultural fit for the organization. Give an intelligent, hard-working self-starter who brings the right attitude to work the tools to succeed, and given enough time he/she will.

Of course, this brings up the larger issue of making sure as interviewers/recruiters we don’t become so wowed by a candidate with a winning personality that we ignore red flags in their background. If one has an opening for a chemical engineer, one probably wants to hire a candidate with a background in chemical engineering. No matter how charismatic and determined to succeed a candidate is, sometimes if he/she has no applicable experience (or not enough) it may be a good idea to pass. If a position has an incredibly steep learning curve, bringing in an inexperienced hire is setting them up for failure.

Ultimately, as HR professionals we need to weigh the requirements of a job and the associated learning curve against any soft skills/non-tangible attributes that a seemingly winning (albeit inexperienced) candidate may possess. This is as much art as it is science, and is something many HR professionals hone over years interviewing for a myriad of different positions.

Categories: Recruiting
Creating a Leadership Development Program That Actually Creates Leaders

The Leadership Development Program (LDP): Many companies have them 1 For the record, I’m referring to rotational LDP programs as opposed to LDPs designed around seminars and workshops. The latter can be value-added (or not) as well but are outside the scope of today’s post – and with good1.

A good leadership development program can be a great talent pipeline for future managers and executives.

For the record, I’m referring to rotational LDP programs as opposed to LDPs designed around seminars and workshops. The latter can be value-added (or not) as well, but are outside the scope of today’s post.reason. Theoretically, developing high potential employees early in their careers is a great way to build a talent pipeline of future supervisors, managers, and executives.

In practice, however, many of these efforts fail. Often they either don’t effectively cultivate the talent that participates in them or else they do a good job of developing incumbents but don’t retain them upon program completion.

We can tackle the topic of retention post program another day, 2 but today I want to briefly touch on three characteristics that I believe are critical components of any successful LDP.

1. Buy-in from management

A good relationship between an LDP and his/her manager is critical to ensure the incumbent gets the critical experiences necessary to make the assignment a success.

This is perhaps the most important component of all in an LDP. In most leadership development programs, the incumbents don’t bring a lot of noteworthy skills to the table. Instead, they are primarily considered high potential due to either exceptional performance in a prior role with the company, or (if they are recent grads) their educational pedigree.

In either case, it’s imperative that the LDP incumbent(s) work closely with managers committed to ensuring they get the critical experiences and training necessary to put them in a position to add value to the organization post-program.

Ultimately, if program participants are paired with managers who don’t buy-in to the program (or worse feel threatened by the incumbents) then said participants won’t get the critical experiences needed to make their rotational assignment(s) a success.

2. Meaningful work (stretch assignments)

Just as important here is meaningful work. Often times in LDP programs, a manager/team may not want to invest significant time and resources into someone whom they perceive to be a temporary (rather than permanent) fixture.

We learn by doing.


In order to ensure an LDP participant gets meaningful work, the assignment has to be long enough for the team training the LDP to get some ROIC from training him/her. The incumbent also needs time to learn the role so that he/she can become a strong contributor to the group. Most human beings learn by doing, and the only way an incumbent can get experience doing meaningful work (without being a liability) is by spending enough time in a role to develop into a strong contributor.

3. Clearly defined goals

To this point, moving LDP participants into roles without structure around the assignment’s goals can lead to program incumbents feeling aimless. A good LDP should have a clearly defined set of experiences and competencies for participants to get/develop during the assignment.

As someone who is actually in a pretty good leadership development program right now, I feel pretty as if I have a unique insight into what makes a good LDP, but as always I don’t have all the answers.


Categories: Talent Management
Work Life Balance For Women Working in 21st Century Corporate America

Today I’d like to share my thoughts on a topic that Facebook COO Sheryl Sanderg has once again brought to the forefront of public consciousness in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  In the book, Sandberg examines why – when compared against men – women occupy a disproportionately (controlling for education, career choice etc.) small number of corporate leadership roles.

The book elaborates on a number of the root causes behind women’s under-representation in the executive ranks, but in this post I want to focus on the role of work-life balance and its function in preventing women from occupying as many leadership roles as their male counterparts.

Sandberg’s book has drawn very strong reactions – some positive and some negative – on this front. The principle criticism seems to be that women are being called on to juggle the impossible demands of work and family life, and that in her book Sandberg doesn’t put enough onus on the employer to figure out ways to mitigate these challenges (in the form of child care/flex schedules etc.). Some common criticisms of the book are:

Jodi Kantor of the New York Times suggested that Sandberg “places too much of the onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands, and too little on government and employers to provide better child care, more flexible jobs and other concrete gains.” Deanna Zandt wrote in Forbes: “I’m all for assertiveness training…. But without simultaneously taking on the structures that keep those norms in place, women are…helping to reproduce [them].”

I personally disagree with the above critiques. More specifically, it isn’t the role of the employer to develop a flexible schedule – for men or women – to accommodate families and work/life needs. Businesses can utilize these perks as part of their talent attraction and retention strategies if they choose, but the needs of a firm will always fundamentally bleed into the personal/family time of any employees that move far enough up the corporate ranks – that’s1. And executives are compensated handsomely for that time.just the way it goes1

There are some good questions around if women (on average) with children even want to work the insane hours executives typically work. There are also some very good questions around if 60 hour work weeks are even needed to get work done at the C-Suite level. 22. There really might be a way for executives – men and women both – to “have it all” from a work-life balance standpoint if we rethink the way that we work. This change brings with it some accountability/span of control issues that would likely dramatically impact executive compensation, but the WSJ does make some good points in their article on the subject. I don’t know how flexible companies can make C-Suite level positions (it varies by business), or what their economic incentives would be to do so (again, it depends on the firm), but the compensation questions around it fascinate me. Topic for another day…

Regardless, I don’t think the challenge of creating gender equality at the executive level falls on corporations to solve – I think it lies with society itself. As a society, we have to find a way to address cultural norms around gender roles.

It’s more difficult for women to get ahead in corporate America than men because they (typically) shoulder the majority of child rearing and household

duties/responsibilities. I’m all for couples making the decision to have one partner or the other run the household/focus on the childcare while the other focuses on his/her career if that’s a choice they make together (though it may not be the best idea), but in the majority of American households, today women are often assigned the household/child-rearing duties by default.

Ultimately, we live in a global economy, and any multinational business’s operational needs are going to come before the work-life balance needs of its executives. What I think U.S. society can do a better job of, however, is raising male and female children that are equally capable of thinking about pursuing careers as high flying executives or part-time workers (when their children are young) or even stay at home parents.

Right now the deck is stacked against women for cultural reasons – when women have children it is almost always the woman’s career that stalls as opposed to that of her partner. This is something society needs to address.

…And who knows… if we really do achieve gender equality around household duties and responsibilities then the workplace may shift to reflect this as well (or maybe C-Suites will just be full of single people).

This is a tough topic with no easy answers. If you have any ideas around how to address this challenge please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Categories: Talent Management
Is the CEO to Average Worker Pay Ratio in the U.S. a Problem?

The median CEO in the United States earns 354 times the median income of the median worker.

Is this a problem?

A year ago I would have told you no.

Lately, however, with legislation passing in various countries throughout Europe giving shareholders binding say on executive pay and non-binding say on pay legislation passing throughout the U.S. I’m starting to change my mind.

1. Further, as someone who is a huge believer in the individual finding a way to maximize his earnings if he feels he is worth more, I typically get a little annoyed when I hear someone complaining about the earnings of others (CEO or otherwise). Companies should do their best to maintain pay equity within jobs (for both legal and employee engagement reasons), but the market is generally getting pretty efficient at paying for talent. The growth of social media has made it easy for recruiters to find even the most passive candidates. As such, if an employee is underpaid it isn’t difficult for him to go out into the market and get a more competitive job offer… and as the economy improves it will get easier still.I don’t care about what others make. Many people do, though. And there is a lot of evidence that when income inequality reaches a certain point it can lead to social and political unrest.

I’ve talked before about why executive compensation packages are as large as they are (and why the ratio is growing). The market for executive talent is fundamentally different than the market for talent in the rest of the workforce (in the same way that the real estate market in NY City is fundamentally different than the real estate market in rural Illinois). This won’t change anytime soon for a variety of reasons, but lately I’m wondering if those reasons will be good enough for the general public.

What do you think? Are executive pay practices in the United States going to be forced to change due to social, political and cultural pressure, or will the improving economy and rising employment numbers cause this issue to fade away?

Further, as someone who is a huge believer in the individual finding a way to maximize his earnings if he feels he is worth more, I typically get a little annoyed when I hear someone complaining about the earnings of others (CEO or otherwise). Companies should do their best to maintain pay equity within jobs (for both legal and employee engagement reasons), but the market is generally getting pretty efficient at paying for talent. The growth of social media has made it easy for recruiters to find even the most passive candidates. As such, if an employee is underpaid it isn’t difficult for him to go out into the market and get a more competitive job offer… and as the economy improves it will get easier still.

Categories: Compensation
Target Pay vs. Realized Pay vs. Realizable Pay… What?

Okay, this is a fun topic (for me at least) that I’m going to *try* to tackle in1. It’s 4 am here and I need to be done with this by 5:00 am latest. I’ve been asleep for the past 13 hours. I was exhausted and needed the rest (which was great, but it brought me dangerously close to not shipping today). the next hour or so. 1

Okay, so we need to answer two questions (and sub questions) and then I will wrap up by sharing my thoughts here.

1. What is target/realizable/realized pay?

A. Let’s start with target pay. Really simply put, it’s the annual base pay, short term incentive opportunity (i.e. bonus), and long term incentive opportunity (mostly equity valued at grant date).

B. Realizable pay is annual base pay, short term incentive opportunity (i.e. bonus), vested equity, and finally “in the money” value of2. I am not crazy about realized pay as a measure of how executive pay aligns with performance because executives can exercise stock options whenever they want – which makes using this valuation as an actual indicator of earned wealth slightly flawed. One wouldn’t say Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Bill Gates aren’t billionaires because they haven’t cashed out the shares they own. This is of course not an apples to apples comparison – their shares have value regardless of when they are cashed out (as long as the company the shares are for doesn’t go bankrupt) – while stock options only have value if they are exercised while the share price is above that at grant date. With that said, once an option is exercisable and “in the money” then as far as I’m concerned it’s earned wealth. The executive simply hasn’t been taxed on it yet.outstanding/unvested equity2

C. Realized pay is something that everyone will explain in a slightly different way, but for the purposes of our discussion I’ll say that realized pay is broadly defined as the pay that shows up in your W2 – what you actually earned in a given year. There are some slight differences, but it’s the best definition anyone ever gave me and the numbers line up remarkably well for most companies.

2. Why does this matter?

It matters because the modern regulatory environment has made this a hot button issue. Corporate boards are spending a great deal of time, money and energy to align pay with performance not only to to maximize shareholder value, but also to stay compliant with government legislation. Unfortunately this data isn’t really being shared in an easily digestible, accurate way in proxy statements right now (the summary comp table is a mess – more on that in a moment), which basically leaves shareholders confused around what companies are actually paying their executives and how this aligns pay with performance. These alternative pay disclosures are a way for companies to more clearly communicate their executive compensation strategy to shareholders so that they can make an informed decision when casting their say on pay votes.

I say that this stuff doesn’t matter a lot of the time – largely because a CEO’s pay package is such a negligible expense for most mid+ cap companies – but it3. I tend to exaggerate when making a point. The why might make an interesting post if I can ever tie it back to HR. actually does. 3 It matters if for no other reason than the fact that the CEO plays a huge role in setting the strategy for the company… and the pay mix/incentives play a huge role in how a CEO sets the strategy.

I am running short on time, so I want to close by sharing this great table from the Center on Executive Compensation illustrating the problems with the summary comp table (which is the current, SEC-mandated tool via which companies must disclose executive pay in the U.S.):

Image Credit: “The Roles of Realized and Realizable Pay in Disclosing Pay for Performance – A Discussion and Conceptual Framework” (March 2013)

…So there are obviously a lot of problems here, but we’ve got what we’ve got. The big question is what alternative disclosures make the most sense to use and when. The Center on Executive Compensation has a great article on this entitled “The Roles of Realized and Realizable Pay in Disclosing Pay for Performance – A Discussion and Conceptual Framework” (March 2013). Fantastic read.

I don’t know which of these makes the most sense to use as a standard measure in alternate disclosure forms going forward. There are some very challenging questions around each methodology.

As stated in my footer (yes, I’m citing my footer) 2 earlier, realized pay has some problems because it doesn’t include options that are already vested unless the executive exercises them (in the process understating how much the executive has actually earned). Conversely, realizable pay isn’t really measuring how executive pay aligns with TSR either, as it includes the value of outstanding equity which is of course contingent on future performance… ergo the executive may or may not get it. Finally, target pay isn’t much better than the SCT (it’s slightly better since it at least doesn’t include pension value… which has nothing to do with performance).

Categories: Corporate Governance
Hiring “Rock Star” Talent is Not Always Best Practice (Spark Hire)

Today I want to share a guest blog post I wrote for Spark Hire. They’re a great
1. I think more companies should be utilizing video interviews in their sourcing process (for both cost and engagement reasons – great post for another day).company that specializes in video interviewing, and I’ve enjoyed reading their content the past several months.

Read it at Spark Hire here:

Hiring “Rock Star” Talent is Not Always Best Practice (Spark Hire)

Categories: Talent Management

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