Finding the frog behind the prince(ss)

Actual names have removed from the following series of events except my own. 

What is the ratio of good interviewers to good performers within your own organisation? Or how many people are here because they interview like champions?

5 years ago I partnered with a CHRO (let’s call her Casey) on the search to find a functional head for Ah Meu Deus Ltd.

Micky let’s call him, my referral was lining up to sit down with the C Suite at the final stage to pitch his vision, he and I agreed to convene one day prior to discuss his pitch ahead of the big meet as we had done for his previous 2 interviews.

We grab a coffee in the Alexandra house Starbucks where seating is scarce and the volume is on loud (location location location…). We end up next to the trash island after Micky orders his venti coffee.

A scratchy recollection of our Dialogue

Me: How is your pitch looking for the big day tomorrow?
Micky: I’m planning to go in there and speak, I’m a great talker.

Micky proceeds to grab his coffee giving me time to contain probably clear disapproval of the impromptu approach he plans on taking.

We finish the meeting talking through the opportunity, running its pros and cons. We’ve had this conversation in the same place twice already. I gulp my bitter coffee, perhaps it’s bitter because of my own inability to lift Micky’s intensity towards the scenario that faces him. Before I leave the meeting with a sense of regret I decide to pick up my act and unturn the biggest stone;

Me: How much do you want this job Micky? What does it mean to you?
Micky: I not only want this job, I need this job. 

Micky has recently returned to Hong Kong from Mainland China, he’s new to “the market” and he needs to cross the line with a new opportunity.

Me: Don’t fall at the final hurdle, do whatever it takes to put a plan to paper. Stay up all night if you have to.
Eye to eye Micky responds with a resolute,: I will, don’t worry

The following day:
Micky calls me after his interview, immediately I ask about his pitch. He responds in an exuberant manner: I didn’t prepare a plan

Silent words I shared with my own reflection in the mirror: It’ll be a mistake if they decide to hire Micky. There’s no way they will.

Casey calls me not too long after expressing that he’s their guy. My head split in two directions… One side celebratory, the other saying this is wrong. Guess which side I followed…

6 months later

Micky is in and out of the organisation. Thankfully, he’s not scorched the earth around him, but he has wounded egos. It turns out that Micky’s leaving China wasn’t of his own free will, his refusal to travel on business to the mainland raised some serious red flags.

To this date in 21′ this has been my biggest professional blunder.

What went wrong? Or, more importantly: What did I miss?

Onlist referencing

Testimonials are everything because interviews can be gamed and silver-tongued specialists like Micky can fake their way through many conversations. They’re charmers, that’s what they do.

When references came around I spoke to 5 friends more than they were colleagues, they also came after the fact that Micky was selected for the role. Contacts provided by Micky for Micky

The further away from the end hiring party the references are executed the more transactional they become. They turn from evaluation focused to documentation focused.

Core to what I focus on is “off-list” referencing, “trust loops not froot loops”. Circular hiring from one trusted party to the next. All tied together by empathy and longevity to the relationship.. 

But sometimes we’re dealing with an unknown entity, out of our network and our extended line of sight.

Getting it raw from “Onlisters”

Dealing with prescribed references requires a diligent approach and a somewhat suspicious line of questioning. 

Five power tips for getting it better from Onlisters that I’ve found extremely helpful.

1. Make it safe: Mention to the “referee” that their reference is one of many so the feedback from this call won’t reach the potential hire

2. Incentivise the long term: You have to pull at the value systems of an individual, put weight and gravity in the situation whilst letting them know that their name is on the line.

3. Don’t jump the gun: 10-20 minutes doesn’t cut it, you need to go deep and the initial 10-20 minutes with an individual that you don’t know is the only enough time for setting boundaries. You’ll find a referee talking untruths will run out of their script when you meet the half-hour mark. Meet the refer, it’s much harder to tell faux stories looking one another in the eye.

4. Avoid middling: Get the rating from the referee on the talent around specific areas pertaining to your needs or any doubts on the individual, but a 6 or 7 out of 10 isn’t allowed. We shouldn’t be hiring “6s or 7s” full stop and here we’re asking them to be decisive.

5. Uncover gaps: Ask the referee what an ideal professional partner for the candidate in question would look like. What traits & skills would they possess that would make the talent exceptional. Here you force the individual to talk about how the talent isn’t perfect. To talk about downsides.


The decision wasn’t mine around the hire of Micky, but I didn’t take ownership where I could have and voiced out where I should have. I was still focused on lifting my own boat rather than being a tide that lifts others.

Experiences like this have helped me refine my craft and set up a belief system that guides me through every moment of truth. Moments of truth and defining conversations shape the work that we do and the decisions we take.

Knowing to look for the pattern and to call out a frog disguised as a prince or princess when it is does croak or “ribbit”. Off-list testimonials make the hiring world go round, but when you’re stuck with someone you don’t know it takes more.

Micky caused headache and pain, but I’m thankful up until this day that a negative experience turned into a defining one for me. Crises & failure is often the best teacher.

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