Can you address the candidate's ability to cope with the significant pressures associated with senior management?

Why Ask This Question?

Some people have tendencies toward self-doubt as pressure increases. Others are more likely to overreact to relatively minor setbacks, irritants, and disappointments. Still others are inclined to be run ragged and get burned out when the heat is on. Determining whether candidates are capable of coping with the pressures and rejection involved in senior management tasks necessarily belongs in the reference-checking realm. After all, no candidate will reveal such self-admitted shortcomings in a face-to-face interview.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. This question is broad enough to allow for liberal interpretations. Therefore, you could simply employ this direct query and then allow the former supervisor to fill in the silence and respond. On the other hand, you might want to employ some ''trailer'' queries to provide the respondent with more concrete choices. Here are some options to follow up the initial question in your reference-checking conversation:

''Would you say that Laura has tendencies toward self-doubt as the pressure increases and the heat's on?''

''Could Laura be accused of being likely to overreact to relatively minor setbacks, irritants, and disappointments?''

''Is she inclined to be run ragged by demanding customers? Similarly, could she be accused of carrying the virtue of a service-minded, helpful attitude past the point of diminishing returns?''

These follow-up questions will allow you to articulate the nature of your concerns and help the respondent answer your question more accurately.

Does this person ever delay the inevitable in terms of disciplining or dismissing employees?

Why Ask This Question?

Some people just aren't natural-born disciplinarians. As a matter of fact, they'll avoid confrontation whenever possible. Of course, very few managers (as opposed to boxers) enjoy interpersonal conflict. Still, occasionally nipping at the heels of underperforming staff members remains a necessary managerial skill. As a matter of fact, it is often said that a CEO's ability to instill fear in subordinates is one of the most critical elements of executive management. Employing this query as a litmus test of the individual s willingness to set and enforce competitive standards should reveal an important aspect of the candidate s interpersonal and communication skills.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. The previous employer s response must be qualified during the reference check to address under what circumstances the candidate will formally discipline or terminate a direct report. In addition to determining what triggers the candidate s call to action, you also have to uncover whether the candidate confronts subordinates in a constructive or negative fashion.

A practical way to generate details regarding the candidate s natural inclination to discipline underperformers is to apply a fictitious comparison—in other words, you would state what problems the last manager had (which may be exaggerated for the purpose of amplifying this issue), and then ask the former employer to measure the candidate against this fictitious past manager s performance. For example, you might state:

''Mary, our last vice president of sales probably failed to discipline underperformers as she should have, and too many branches weren't reaching their potential because a number of the branch managers took advantage of her good nature and her unwillingness to address problems.''

''What kinds of turnover patterns did you notice when Peter was at the helm of national sales in your company?''

''What typically triggered his need to formally discipline or terminate someone?''

''When he needed to be a disciplinarian, did you find his approach to be open and constructive or aggressive and caustic?''

''What was the most common cause of termination during his tenure?'' ''Could he ever be accused of being so reluctant to engage in a confrontation that his managerial effectiveness suffered?''

Again, painting a picture of a nonassertive supervisor against which the candidate can be measured will help you clarify the candidate s past performance in one of the most challenging areas of interpersonal communications: direct discipline.

Is this individual inclined to maintain smooth and amicable relations at all costs, or is she more likely to show her teeth when faced with adversity?

Why Ask This Question?

On a broader basis, this query continues the theme of the previous one. Unlike the former question, however, it addresses the candidate's dealings with peers and superiors as opposed to subordinates. If you re not comfortable with the answer you got in the last question and want more evidence of this individual s ability to manage problem situations aggressively and gear up for interpersonal conflict, then pose this follow-up query to develop the issue further.

Analyzing the Response

Simply put, if this query reveals someone incapable of or unwilling to meet a challenging coworker head-on, then this issue could very well function as a negative swing factor in the final selection process. Few hires require the talents of a strict disciplinarian, but a nonengaging communication style coupled with an unstructured supervisory approach could leave subordinates without a proper sense of direction or a desired level of accountability. Such individual shortcomings could lead to a swift breakdown in productivity.

Does the candidate stay open to all sides of an argument before reaching a decision, or does he get personally involved in conflicts?

Why Ask This Question?

What if the preceding question generates a response showing that the candidate may be all too swift to dismiss a subordinate or aggressively show his teeth when faced with conflict? It's simply not practical to ask a past employer about the candidate's argumentative nature. Questions like ''Is Peter apt to indulge in argument for argument's sake?'' or ''Is Peter unduly concerned about who is right rather than what is right? could appear to attack the candidate unfairly and force the past employer to defend the candidate s actions.

Still, insensitivity in the executive suite could result in more than just hurt feelings and an angst-ridden staff. Verbal and sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and discrimination charges often occur when one manager is too liberal about his personal feelings or lacks sensitivity and awareness of other people s personal rights. You can t afford to add a ''Bloody Mary'' to your staff in today's overly litigious employee rights environment. And you certainly don t want to be in a position to have to temper a senior manager s impulsive inclinations in such a delicate area.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Assuming that the past employer admits that she s seen Peter take more of a personal stance in certain circumstances than was probably appropriate, you should logically follow up with:

''Give me an example of a time when he prematurely reached a conclusion without having all the necessary details. How could he cultivate a greater sense of objectivity at this point in his career? Is it simply his style to shoot from the hip? Does his defensiveness stem from insecurity? Does he rule by intimidation and prefer to kick up all the dust so that he maintains control of the situation? Or is he just naturally a more abrasive and antagonistic person?''

These queries will no doubt unearth fairly negative examples of the individual s propensity to attack others or overzealously defend himself. Once again, though, being forewarned is forearmed because such information will put you in a better position for damage control once the inevitable surfaces—if you decide to hire such a candidate despite his weaknesses in this area.

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