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December 14, 2020

Why reading habits are essential in vetting top talent

I was asked, what is your favorite interview question? It took some time to reflect, as collecting and developing the best interview questions has been a life-long passion. Some version of, “what are your reading habits?” quickly rose to the top.

Please indulge me as I share my logic. Simply put, there are those who read and those who do not. How many people do not read? Pew Research poll measured 27% of the US adults have not read a book in whole or in part in the past year – insightful fact about the US workforce that can be powerful when developing a rigorous selection process for hiring talent.

It’s essential that if we are going to be effective at evaluating people, we make some generalizations for the purpose of focusing our questions and diligence on specific areas of concern. To be clear, we use generalizations not to define conclusions about someone but to recognize which questions are critical in determining distinctive differences to guide how you rank candidates to hire.


Those who read:

Reflect an intellectual curiosity.

Desire to gain information or entertainment through reading.

Have the discipline to be focused and control misdirected energy at least long enough to finish what they are reading.

Reading expands vocabulary, speaking, and writing skills. It is also an excellent creative source for problem-solving. Reading broadens the communication range and different ways of messaging. Introverts generally read more than extroverts.

Those who don’t read:

Lack curiosity.

Are destined to learn in a singular pattern of doing, which is the slowest and most painful method.

Learning only from your own mistakes is limiting. You must question their intellectual discipline, ability to focus, rank, and prioritize their goals. Their communication skills are suspect. Their growth curve is usually flat and often will hit their professional peak by 30 years of age. Their cognitive ability to absorb, retain, and implement new knowledge is potentially a weakness. More commonly, intellectual laziness is their chosen life’s path. High ego is also a common trait in this group.


For those who read:

They pass the first cut, but let’s dig further. Ask, “how do you select what you read?”

Reading for entertainment:

That’s great – they have found relaxation and solace in reading Stephen King, John Sanford, or Dan Brown’s series. Reading these books makes you an engaging conversationalist; you rank high on my next Christmas Party list. But reading for entertainment shows they are primarily committed to their own entertainment instead of personal and professional growth. Their candidacy is now ranking low on the list.

Reading articles:

When asking the question, “what are the last 3 books you have read?” the response is frequently, “oh, I love to read books.” Commonly followed by a long pause, hemming and hawing trying to remember the title. Let me get this straight – you gave up hours and days of your life reading a book and do not remember the title or the author? Then the candidate reveals, “well, I mostly read articles.” If they lied about loving to read books, what else have they lied about in this interview? Wall Street Journal op-ed requirements are at a 400-1000 word count. You are telling me you only have the discipline to focus your intellectual efforts on 400-1000 words. I never bother to ask where they source their articles since their professional stock has just crashed; they are at the bottom of the pile. This might be the most common question I catch people lying to themselves about and the most damaging. A super high self-sabotaging ego is a common trait in this group.

Reading books for personal and professional development:

These professionals understand where the competition is won. We can still dig further and distinguish the best talent from this group. Ask, “what is your book selection process?” The range of responses is defining. I am looking for depth, breadth, and level of self-awareness. An ideal response regarding their selection process might be, “my performance reviews have reflected a gap in my leadership skills under pressure, so I am focused on improving that one problem. John Maxwell leadership books and reading on transcendental meditation have been my point of concentration.” https://hbr.org/2019/12/what-meditation-can-do-for-your-leadership

There is much to mine from that response. High sense of self-awareness and high humility points for focusing on developing through a weakness. Did you notice the depth of focus and ability to rank and prioritize the #1 factor in this solution set of increasing their leadership skills? This is a major problem-solving trait that defines C-suite potential. Like most things in life, it’s about the action. This professional has taken purposeful action on the precise point that will swiftly move them forward toward their career goals.

Depending on the role you are interviewing candidates for, executive-level positions require both depth and breadth of knowledge. The marketing, accounting, logistics, operations, or sales professional who only reads books focused on their specialization, extend their depth of knowledge, but not their breadth. A good response, “I was identified as high potential and entered the executive development program. I am in sales now, but I am reading The Toyota Way and working towards my six-sigma black belt to gain operational leadership skills.” Operations leaders reading marketing strategy books and accounting professionals reading books on sales strategies reflect the level of range needed to be an effective executive leader. Be able to identify “right-handed layup” readers. You want to improve your basketball game – practicing right-handed layups are easy and stroke your ego but do nothing to improve your game. The sales manager who only reads books on sales tactics and can quote chapter and verse on the 7 steps of the sales process might make them a great sales professional, but it will not make them a solid sales manager or VP of Sales. The ability to study on your weaknesses or areas of marginal interest that will deliver the greatest impact on the business is a major differentiator.

Consider asking, “what is your retention and implementation process of the material you have read?” This is a significant differentiator of talent. The top professional understands that the ability to recall and implement the subject matter is key.

Here are the best responses candidates have shared:

“I often re-read the best books. It increases my absorption, who I was as a professional and the challenges I was facing when I first read the book 5 years ago are different than today.”

“I read with highlighter and pencil, making notes in the margins and highlighting the best material. I collect the best material and condense it to 10 bullet points on paper. Using cross-tagging indexing app Evernote so I can quickly reference the material.”

“Our high-potential peer group takes turns presenting books, creating presentations on the material. We have a lot of fun with it and it keeps us accountable to deliver. Conversation around the material is rich with lessons as we learn from each other.”


Interviewing leaders: don’t settle; keep your standards high. Reading discipline is a top-defining executive trait. The following questions should be a part of your interview process:

  • What are your reading habits?
  • How do you select your reading material?
  • What is your method for retaining and implementing new concepts?
  • How did this book impact you professionally? What was the result?

As a benchmark, 6 books a year is a low hurdle for any professional.


Professionals: you will spend 3,000 hours driving to work or thinking about work in 2021; by 2030 you have spent 30,000 hours on work or related activities. Measure the amount of time dedicated to improving your value. How does it compare to the 3,000 hours per year? Consider carving out 100 hours a year to personal improvement. Your income will quickly reflect the efforts. If you are committed to those efforts and not being rewarded, give us a call.

My top interview prep tactic:

Re-read your favorite professional books. Reading often delivers 50% new concepts, 50% concepts you already know but need to be more consistent in practice. Reading also helps you crisply articulate the response to more complex questions when interviewing, such as “What is your leadership style?” “How do you approach team building?” “Can you define your 30-60-90-day plan?” Having the knowledge and ability is worthless if you cannot communicate effectively under the stress of a competitive interview process.

Do not hesitate to reach out for a conversation to determine the exact book recommendations to achieve your goals. Life is lived on the wire; the rest is preparing.

 

Hire Smarter – Tony

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