Find Out What You Need To Know About A Potential Employer

According to the gatekeepers

Once—and only once—I accepted the wrong job. 

I remember entering the building on my first day of work – excited and nervous. I was pleased to see that I would share my first elevator ride with the Chairman of my new company. I had met him twice during the interview process. During the group interview, he asked me a couple of questions, and I thought we had established a good connection.

He did not remember me!   

My cheeks burned as I walked off the elevator. I really wanted to press the down button, get back in my car, and drive away.

 Was the Chairman distracted? Suffering from serious memory loss? Or was he sending me clear signals that I was inconsequential on my very first day? 

The cultural gap between me and my new company became even more obvious the first week. On day three, the CEO called me to his office to inform me that a couple of my direct reports were “sacred cows”— his exact words. “If you want to fit in here,” he said, “just give them inconsequential things to do and be nice to them.”

By the end of the week, I’d called the CEO of another company, who had made me an offer that I’d declined. I shared with him that I had made a big mistake. I told him that if his offer was still good, I would be delighted to join his team. Skeptical, he asked, “How do I know you won’t feel the same way here?” He had a point.

It only got worse. I started a job search from scratch three months later and left the company after 10 months.

So what’s the best way to avoid taking a job that’s wrong for you? We recently asked the gatekeepers℠, a consortium of 80 CEOs, Board Members, C-Suite, Executive Search, Venture Capital, Private Equity, and Talent Executives, what they think are the most important steps to take before accepting a new leadership position. Here were their top four answers:

Find out the “real deal” on the culture.

“When we look back at [our] recruits who have not done well,” says gatekeeper David Finke of the executive search firm Russell Reynolds, “90%+ of the time the issue is with compatibility rather than capability.” You can’t succeed in a position—and you definitely won’t be happy in it—if you’re not a good fit for the organizational culture.”

It can be difficult to get a handle on a culture before you’re part of it. But the more people you talk to, say the gatekeepers, the better you’ll understand the organization’s values, beliefs, and day-to-day dynamics.

Gatekeeper Kaivan Desai, North American CFO for GE Power, advises, “Speak less to the people who are offering you the job, and more to the others that are currently in the organization. It’s the best way to get a sense of cultural fit.” Yon Jorden, a board member for Maxwell Technologies and Methodist Health Systems, suggests talking with people outside of the company as well: competitors, advisors, bankers, auditors, etc. Get multiple perspectives and ask the tough questions.

Ensure you’re set up for success.

As gatekeeper David Hardie of Herbert Mines Associates points out, “Too many executives focus on getting the job, rather than asking whether they will succeed in the job.” And when it comes to success, your intrinsic talents and abilities are only half the equation. You also need to know if the organization will provide the resources you need to achieve the expected results. Will you be empowered to make change? What (or who) will present obstacles along the way? Ask detailed questions up front to ensure you’re not being set up to accomplish the impossible.

Meanwhile, think about whether the challenges inherent in the role are ones you want to tackle. “Match what you like to do to the company challenge,” says Jeffrey Hirsch, COO of Starz Entertainment. “If you’re a ‘fixer’ go lead a broken shop. Don’t get enamored with the wrong job. In the end, you will fail.”

Check out your new boss.

As the saying goes, people don’t leave companies; they leave bosses. “If you don’t respect or get along with the direct boss,” says gatekeeper Walker Jacobs, Chief Operating Officer at Fandom, “all else is doomed for failure.” That’s why it’s critical to get a solid sense of the character, values, management style, and expectations of your would-be boss and, if possible, the broader senior management team.

Backdoor references can be a huge help in this area. As Rick Phillips, President, Publishing and Licensing, FoxNext Games, says, “The character of the management team is best verified not through any references you’d get from them, but from independently sourced references from individuals who’ve known key management in professional and personal capacities.”

Do your own analysis.

Make sure you’re not about to board a sinking ship. Don’t be afraid to ask about the financial health of the company and don’t accept the numbers at face value: sign an NDA to find out for sure whether the company is on firm financial footing.

If I had taken the advice of the gatekeepers, I could have avoided a lot of pain. As I think back on my own experience with the wrong company, there were a couple of red flags during the interview process that I did not investigate. If I had taken the time to conduct my own due diligence rather than relying on the opinions of members of my network who were beholden to the Chairman in one way or another, I most likely would have learned the truth about the culture and the aspects of the job that were not acceptable to me.

Of course, it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty whether you’re the right fit for a given position. But if you take the time to dig deep before you say “yes,” and avoid a knee jerk reaction if the offer is highly flattering or incredibly lucrative, you’re less likely to regret your decision down the line.


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