Fast Company

The Real World

Headhunter Mark Jaffe strips away the varnish on interview candidates -- and his profession.

Who He Is: President, Wyatt & Jaffe, Minneapolis
Companies He's Worked With: General Electric, Gateway Inc., Maxtor Corp., First Data Corp.
Where You've Heard Him: Regular contributor, NPR Marketplace

State of the market: There's a crusade going on in my business to invoke the mantra that things are getting better. Watch the third quarter. They're hoping it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I call it the "Tinker Bell effect": If you think she's alive, she'll come back to life. But the return to really aggressive hiring isn't going to happen anytime soon.

What are hiring companies looking for? Clients want people who will take risks and lead the way. Clients don't want a waiter or even a ma"tre d'; they want a chef. The waiter tells you the specials. The ma"tre d' says, "If you like fish, this is what to get." But the chef comes out and says, "You must have the sea bass, I made it specially for you." Be the authority.

How do you sift through candidates? At the level I recruit, all candidates have crisp, compelling, articulate answers to all the most difficult interview questions. So my goal is to figure out the person behind the curtain. I talk to candidates about things that they would probably discuss in a therapist's office. I'll have them walk me through their family history. Tell me about where you grew up. Which crowd did you hang with? How did you express your teenage rebellion?

I'm looking to see how comfortable or uncomfortable they are talking about things for which they have no set script. The freshness, directness, or candor expressed means infinitely more than the specifics. That translates into a person who doesn't say, "Oh, how should I put this?" -- that radar-based communication where you send out a signal and you try to read your recipient and you get the signal back and you try to craft your message.

Ultimately, I am concerned with how genuine the candidate is. I have passed on a number of phonies. It's a tried-and-true separator. I may discard some A's, but I guarantee you that the ones I keep are all A's.

Why is being genuine important? If I send someone out for a job that pays $1.2 million, what's the worst thing that person can do? Tell people what he thinks they want to hear. If you're worth that amount of money, you tell people what you really think. Diplomacy isn't the ability to circumvent a difficult subject. Diplomacy and tact enable you to tell people things they don't want to hear but that they are happy to hear from you, without any delay or obfuscation.

How can I get your attention? Don't call us, we'll find you. In 20 years, I've only filled one position from a candidate whose resume came to me unsolicited. If you're really the stuff I'm looking for, you're not sending stuff out to executive recruiters. You're not saying, "Hey, hey, hey, look at me." You've got to distinguish yourself in the performance of your job. It's like my father used to say: "If you want people to think you're smart, hand out free samples."

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