July 1, 2021 – A successful biography interview helps everyone understand better how a candidate thinks, prioritizes, and delivers results – based upon his or her earliest attempts to make sense of life. Many candidates have learned how to prep for difficult questions probing their ability to deal with adversity and conflict. “However, it is much less likely that they can prepare, in advance, for questions that come out of a relaxed, spontaneous discussion that flows from memories of the past,” said Karen Alphonse, search solution leader and executive coach with ExecSearches, in a fascinating new report. “This kind of discussion tends to uncover and illustrate a candidate’s deepest feelings and thoughts. Many of these relate directly to how that candidate will organize to meet an organization’s goals and priorities.”
A biographical interview – as opposed to a chronological review of the resume – rests on two main assumptions. The first is that a candidate’s earliest, formative experiences will have a profound impact on his or her leadership style and ability to execute, said Ms. Alphonse. The second assumption is that the resume reflects those experiences on multiple levels. “Behind this logic is the idea that history tends to repeat itself,” she said. “Our professional lives can be viewed through the lens of our earliest encounters. How we came to terms with first memories has impacted the way we approach people, organizations and obstacles.”
Often, our professional experiences give us opportunities to work out our theories of how life works. “Knowing more about the experiences that have helped a particular candidate to formulate his or her worldview unlocks many hidden motivators, priorities and value sets,” she said.
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A skillful biographical interview incorporates questions that unbundle the past and decodes multiple, significant influences on a candidate’s value set and choices. This kind of interview is much more likely to reveal hard-to-get-at core values, operating assumptions and even hidden goals that have inspired and motivated a particular candidate’s success. “Often, biographical interviews unfold organically,” said Ms. Alphonse. “A couple of well-placed questions might lead the candidate to revisit his or her earliest connections to a cause or mission. This might also lead to multiple examples over time. Before you know it, both the interviewer and the candidate will have revisited all kinds of work-related situations, challenges and analytics that have helped to build a candidate’s tool kit. This kind of information is invaluable. It is real.”
Uncovering the Truth
The key to conducting a helpful biographical interview is the ability to listen. What is said gives important clues as to how a candidate processes information and resolves challenges. “But, what can be more telling is what is not said,” said Ms. Alphonse. “Silences, pauses and changes in inflection often signal deeper connections, thoughts that often go unarticulated, – even areas of difficulty. By quickly following up on that-which-is-not-stated, you can uncover areas and connections that even the candidate himself or herself has overlooked.”
A candidate’s biography, the one underlying the resume, operates like a detailed map of how that person has chosen to contribute professionally. This is neither random nor totally spontaneous. “The sum total of past experience, particularly the most remote ones, operates a little like a template or a hard drive,” said Ms. Alphonse. “It defines, quite accurately, the boundaries of that person’s professional life once a skilled interviewer understands the underlying programming, the connections between lived experience and a candidate’s leadership, management and interpersonal style become apparent.”
Although initially, it can be daunting to delve into the recesses of the past to find those initial triggers, traumas and motivators, this kind of interview is frequently exhilarating for both the interviewer and the candidate. “Nothing beats uncovering the truth, even if it proves to be fragile, complex, or even counter-intuitive,” said Ms. Alphonse. “This quest, if undertaken with preparation and a listening ear, can provide rich and detailed explanations for how and why a particular leader might be the best person ever to direct your organization. It has taken a lifetime of preparation for him or her to reach a place of readiness. And, you stand ready to harvest the benefits.”
Ms. Alphonse joined ExecSearches to spearhead the firm’s search consulting practice. Most recently, she served as a strategic advisor, confidant and career coach to thought-leaders in financial services, legal, education and mission-driven organizations. Ms. Alphonse identifies talent through social media, job postings, referrals and targeted research. Her interactions with hundreds of candidates and executives has shaped her creative interview techniques and ability to conduct behavioral assessments, take expert references and understand candidates’ strengths.
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media