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Guest AuthorHema Ravichandar

Getting your star past the last mile

Source | Hema Ravichandar (The Mint)

If you want your candidate to make an impression on an assessment panel, then nominating him or her is not enough. You’ll have to coach them to face the interviewers

One of the good things about being an independent consultant is that you get invited often for jury duty. So you could be sitting in on an “assessment centre” interview one day and evaluating “recognition award” candidates on another. When you’re there, you get to the see the best and the brightest, pan-industry, vying for top honours. Indeed, an exhilarating experience.

Panels, of course, are not always external. Increasingly, however, organizations are ensuring that their mid- to senior-level promotions or key internal job posting decisions are distanced from the immediate manager, by bringing in a cross-functional set of interviewers. Many human resource departments across the country are, even as we speak, juggling their leaders’ calendars to put such panels in place for tightly-fought promotion decisions. Highly laudable, and a great way to bring balance and objectivity to the result!

But unfortunately, at the last post, many of these high flyers lose the plot and fail to make their mark on the panel, unable to prevent the assessors’ eyes from glazing over at the sheer perceived averageness of their candidatures. Relate to this? Worse, you may have even sat and cringed when the apple of your eye, nominated by you with a great deal of hope, looked like a bumbling idiot in that golden half-hour in front of your own peer judges.

Good, impactful communication, especially in a tight half-hour slot, and to a group which may not have directly experienced the candidate’s sense of ownership or motivation to excel at the job, is tough, and not by any means serendipitous. I don’t mean to generalize, but some functions—think sales, marketing, PR and even HR—make their living on great communication. But what of those that don’t? How do managers help them succeed in reaching the winner’s post in that final mile? To drive home the point, how do you as a boss help your protégé crest the tape and bring home the bacon?

I have seen righteous anger, disappointment and even cynical disparagement of the process when a favoured nominee, your best candidate, fails to make the mark in such assessment interviews. That is but natural. But in discussions with the winners—I don’t mean the candidates, but their successful sponsors (by the way there are organizations which also reward the sponsors of such successful winners)—I often found one key trait: their ability to nurture their nominees to meet the interview challenge.

And thereby hangs a tale.

First, they chose right. Of course, everybody has a favourite, but success lies in making sure it is the right favourite. When it came nomination time, they were coldly analytical in backing a horse which had a good chance of making it in the first place. No rose-coloured spectacles in their decision making.

Once the die was cast, they went about systematically building candidate confidence. This is not always necessary. Stars usually come bundled with oodles of self-confidence. But letting the aspirant know why s/he makes it to the list, and the exclusivity of the said list, never hurt anybody. In fact, quite the contrary.

So you congratulated your nominee, highlighted why he made it and wished him all the best. But as the Roman philosopher Seneca wisely said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

And preparation is key in ensuring that the messaging is right in those precious 30 minutes when he gets the opportunity to meet the panel:

  • Proactive is the name of the game. As the proposer, the criteria the jury will be looking at—whether it is the competencies of the new role or the achievements in the past year—will be known to you. Go over them with the interviewee. Jointly identify and bring achievements and core strengths to life with examples. Be subtle about it; you don’t want candidates saying, “By the way, I was strategic in my thinking and this is what I have to show for it.” But there is no harm at all in identifying a key challenge and the strategic initiative one put into play to address it. Keep the examples crisp, keep them relevant, and pepper them with statistics wherever appropriate. It is amazing how many aspirants overlook this aspect. They will spend precious time, core dumping on the panel all they did, without any subliminal competency messaging.
  • Help your employee to understand the panel if possible. Each interviewer will have his or her own set of idiosyncrasies or pet themes. It helps if you know them, either to play to the gallery or avoid fatal minefields. A civil services aspirant once told me how the interview, which was smooth sailing on placid waters, turned choppy the moment she stepped on a panellist’s proverbial corn. It works wonders if you can subtly expose your candidates to internal panel members, just ahead of the day. Special task forces or impromptu presentations are great vehicles to achieve this.
  • The way the message is delivered is crucial. Focus on the presentation. Practice makes perfect. A leader I greatly admire, who herself had to fight many a presentation demon, made it a point to get key contestants to mock-drill their speeches, talking points, opening comments, until they were truly second nature to them. I mentally cringe every time a candidate pulls out a bulging file and rifles through it, frantically trying to find that one piece of paper which may further augment his achievements. Yes, use those soaring graphs to drive home a point. But do keep them crisp, keep them handy, keep them few, is my motto.

Also do drive home, subtly or not so subtly, the importance of great grooming on D-Day…

One super-successful boss let me into his secret mantra. “I always call up my stars on the morning of the interview and calm them down. I play down the event, make it another day in office and tell them to just enjoy their 30 minutes in front of the powers that be…. And finally, I never forget to tell them that whatever the outcome of the meeting, for me they will always be a star.” Yes, of course, if they fail to make the cut, take it on the chin, and don’t let your team member fall apart. Remember, such interactions can make or mar them if the fallout is handled badly.

So as the sweltering summer slides up on you and your stars sweat it out for their performance interview workouts, give them some much-needed advice and help them beat the heat.

And for all you stars, whose managers just won’t hold your hand that last mile, do me a favour and treat this as self-help. Here’s to wowing that assessment panel.

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Hema RaviHema Ravichandar is a strategic Human Resources Consultant and a HR Thought Leader. She is  a renowned Leadership Coach and serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

First published in The Mint. 

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