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Nobody cares what school you went to and 5 other interview tips from a CEO
Elliot Weissbluth doesn’t mind slaying sacred cows. The CEO of national financial services firm HighTower has accused brokerages like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley of nursing conflicts of interest that hurt their customers. “Large brokerages have a tattered history when it comes to putting clients first,” Weissbluth says.
Weissbluth’s fiduciary model (a fancy word for someone who’s legally obliged to look out for their clients) appears to have struck a chord with investors. In 2012, HighTower grew 8,854 percent, good enough for 13th on Inc. Magazine’s list of the fastest-growing companies in the country.
One other important detail: Weissbluth’s formative career was as a trial lawyer. “I spent six years questioning people,” he says. “You put them on the spot a little, you can unearth what’s uncomfortable.”
As you can imagine, he also had some provocative insights about the state of the traditional interview, several of which were accented with four-letter words. Here are Weissbluth’s five ways to ace an interview.
1. Nobody cares what school you went to.
I’ve seen so many people that on paper have extreme credibility, fine marks, fine schools, fine institutions, but when push comes to shove, they can’t execute and they don’t have a work ethic, no humility.
People don’t resonate to that kind of attempt to puff up those names. They don’t care. We have plenty of people at Hightower with pedestrian CVs, but they have passion.
The most important thing is to figure out quickly, is a person genuine and passionate or are they just going through the motions because they need a job? Is a person real? You can do that by going away from the subject matter of the job. “You obviously have a classical background, what was the last book you read that you really liked? Tell me the name of an old book that you read recently for the second time.” Make them engage. You’ll find out whether someone’s real or full of shit.
2. Talk about what you care about.
Five years ago, Matt Camden, I think he’s employee No. 8, was on the third or fourth round of interviews. Chief information officer, senior position. I joined the call about halfway into the first part of the interview.
He said he was Jesuit trained. I said: “Tell me about your training. Tell me about what books you read.”
We proceeded to have a two-hour conversation that had nothing to do with tech or business. It was about the mission of St. Ignatius and the Jesuits. I didn’t spend a minute on his tech background.
Matt’s now effectively chief of strategy for the entire firm. I have no idea to this day where his technical skills were. I made the decision to hire the guy based on the authenticity and passion that he brought to that conversation.
3. Talk about what they care about.
A good technique is to find that connection [with the interviewer]. And you only find it if you do your research. That’s a very powerful and compelling technique, and where it goes is productive and constructive.
Let’s say you find out beforehand that the interviewer is a jazz buff. Say, “I was at Kingston Mines Saturday night.” And actually go. “I went ahead of time, bought the CD, I really like that horn player, he can really let loose.”
Then you have a dialogue that’s real. The brinksmanship of the interview process goes back to those old-school human connections.
4. Speak your mind.
I give permission to be a little more candid. There’s a lot of tap-dancing that goes on in financial services around some of the practices, the way things have been done a long time and aren’t in the clients’ interests.
I’ll be sitting with someone who may have been in a large institution for 20 years, and I’ll say, “This is us in a closed room — is that how you really feel?” [And I’ll respond:] “We think [the brokerage model] is bullshit too; we built a business around that. Are you ready to join a company that doesn’t need to pay lip service?”
Most of the people who work with us have backgrounds in large brokerages. Historically, they’re hesitant to talk about it. Substantively, they’re on board, but they’re so used to being in a political environment, they’re not used to really speaking their mind. There’s still a transition period even six months after hire, where they get used to a different culture where they don’t always have to toe the party line.
5. Expect compassion and provocation.
You have to go in with a kind heart. Can’t go in to be a jerk. If you think about the interview, it’s horribly asymmetrical. You’re in a position of power versus person coming in, who’s in an unfair position because they don’t like their current job or they’re not employed.
How do you display that? I always go in with compliments on their resume about those things that they feel are important to them, and I validate the fact that if they think being equestrian champion is a big deal, I say that must have been a major accomplishment, give them a minute or two to talk about that. And it also allows them to get comfortable.
By the same token, you’re also going to provoke them. That doesn’t mean you intimidate or diminish or make them feel inferior. It means getting them to come out of their shell a little bit and get them to tell you what they really think. Have an opinion about something. Have a conviction about a point of view.
Want more candid career advice? Look here.