In a ‘people business’ like private equity, hiring the best talent is mission-critical. And while a CV or résumé might give a good sense of a candidate’s experience, and psychometric testing can help with competencies, most firms still rely on interviews to get a proper sense of the applicant’s character, personality and suitability for the role. Here, four industry experts share their approach to picking winners.
“The most important thing is to have a structured process,” says Philippe Bucher, CFO and COO of fund of funds Adveq. “I don’t think it matters what you ask, but how the process is run is vital.” Adveq does an online test before the more structured interviews, so every candidate gets exactly the same questions. “When you look at them and evaluate whether or not it was a good response, you are not drawn away with a nice person switching the context a little bit.”
Successful candidates then advance to a more open-style interview, which is more about cultural fit. Bucher likes to ask candidates how different people would describe them – their mother, their best friend, their team, their boss – to try and tease out their actual strengths and weaknesses. “I want to have questions people can’t prepare too much and where I really get the full picture.”
“I just like to ask some questions about what they understand about the role and let the conversation flow from there,” says one private fund CFO. He believes a more informal interview provides a better sense of what the candidate actually knows about the position, and what skills they can bring to the table – whereas in his experience, generic interview questions often lead to perfect pre-prepared answers.
GPs are more often challenging candidates with real-life situations rather than hypothetical scenarios, he adds. “We don’t have the budget to have a deep team, so we need people who can hit the ground running.”
COO, SL Capital
“We wouldn’t be inviting anyone for an interview unless we were sure the basic grounding and required skills were there,” says Ian Harris, partner and COO at fund of funds SL Capital. “The things I find more important are working style, aspirations and their ability to interact.”
Harris’ thoughts echo recent comments made by Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein, who’s also big on engagement; it’s not just interview responses he notices, apparently, but also whether the candidate asks questions.
“I want to ask candidates where they want to be in five years’ time,” adds Harris. “I’m not just hiring for the role now, but also the team’s future development.”
V-P Human Capital, Genstar Capital
“I found that I often learn more about candidates in the first twenty minutes of an interview – talking about where they grew up, their families and early influences, how they decided where to go to college and what to study – than I do in the hours of discussion that follow,” says Katie Solomon, vice president human capital at private equity firm Genstar Capital.
She says that not only is the information useful in itself – as past behaviour can be a great predictor for future behavior – but it also builds rapport, and makes candidates more forthcoming.
Solomon says that talking about the CV should be the next step – with a focus on career highlights and most difficult projects. And she adds that interviewers should not be afraid to break up the flow by asking probing follow-up questions, like ‘How exactly did you do that?’ and ‘What happened next?’.