Interviewing stakes are highest when the candidate is a lateral partner. This makes the quality of the interview critical. Here are some key issues and questions organized by the prospective role of the lateral partner candidate.
Client Service Partner
Partners in this role make up the overwhelming majority of the partner group in all firms. They are asked to do many things that if done well, make a significant contribution to firm success. These include building strong client relationships, introducing the breadth of firm services to clients, focusing on all aspects of practice economics and leading staff on client engagements to ensure value-added quality work and experiential learning. Their subject matter expertise is also critical and most firms excel at interviewing for this capability as compared to the other areas. Let’s look at a strong behavioral interview question for this role:
- Question: “Please tell me the things that are significant to your role?” This question is powerful because it does not telegraph what you want to hear from the candidate. Rather, it gives the candidate a clean slate on which to write his or her view of priorities. It also doesn’t tell the candidate how many things you think are important, nor does it ask the candidate to prioritize the things he or she discusses. A skilled behavioral interviewer can conduct 80% of the interview based on this lead question, using follow-up prompts like “Tell me more,” or “I’m curious to hear how that works.” Other great follow-ups are “how do the pieces integrate” or “what’s next?” The contrast in answers to this question and the follow-up prompts can be dramatic from candidate to candidate. The really strong candidates will address all the key areas for the role in a convincing way. Shortfalls in some areas do not necessarily mean the candidate is not qualified for the role. You may still decide to proceed with hire, understanding the candidate’s future development needs and planning for them accordingly.
Often when interviewing these candidates, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on their technical expertise. This is important, but so are other key capabilities. It’s critical to bring in a well-rounded technical partner who can do much more than give correct answers in their subject matter areas. Great technical partners are able to win the client’s confidence as advisers, not just technicians. They also develop and mentor staff. They become a “magnet” for work easily keeping themselves and others busy rather than mostly waiting for other partners to bring them work. Finally, they enhance the firm’s reputation for thought leadership. Let’s look at a strong behavioral interview question for this role:
- Question: “Please tell me about the contributions you make to your firm?” This broad question will give you great insight into how the candidate sees his or her job and its priorities. The key is not to follow up with leading questions such as “what about business development?” or “what about attending events or writing articles?” Instead, ask “please tell me more?” or “I’m interested in understanding how that worked?” If the candidate does not address certain areas, or worse, seems to directly avoid them, you can be sure that he or she will struggle to do those things. In our experience, meaningfully broadening the behavioral repertoire of a seasoned technical partner is a very difficult thing to do.
First, let’s define this role. A rainmaker is a partner who spends about 80% of his or her time developing business and the remaining time checking in with clients that he or she has developed, staying close enough to the work to keep the client happy. Rainmakers may work firm-wide or for a particular practice group. In either case, they are highly successful at selling a broad array of firm services to clients, meeting ambitious annual new business targets. Rainmakers are mostly excused from technical client service and management roles. In exchange for this, they attract enough new business to have a meaningful impact on firm growth. Let’s look at a strong behavioral interview question for this role:
- Question: “Please tell me how your firm attracts new business?” This question is intentionally framed around the firm rather than the rainmaker. As you listen to the response pay attention to how often you hear the word “we” vs. “I.” The major risk with rainmakers is that they will break glass to ensure that they meet their business development targets. Great rainmakers do not do this. They are team players who share credit and introduce their colleagues to prospects early in the sales cycle. Force the candidate to go deep into specific sales examples by asking “please give me an example?” then ask “tell me more?” perhaps several times. If you get too much “I,” just nod thoughtfully, rather than show disapproval. Rainmakers know how to close a sale. If you look concerned, then her or she will pick up on it and work collaborative language into the conversation even if it’s grossly exaggerated.
Strong practice leaders are are often accounting firm’s greatest assets. They are hard to develop and harder to properly recruit. Not only can they manage and grow their practice groups, they are often lead candidates on succession slates to be the managing partner of the future. This makes it critical to put the right people in these roles; managing a P&L, recruiting, managing & growing talent and showcasing the firm’s industry or service line expertise. Let’s look at an effective behavioral interview question for this role:
- Question: “Please tell me what makes a great [insert ‘industry’ or ‘service line’] leader? This question puts it all on the line. The candidate either hits a home run or doesn’t. It’s critical that you don’t accept simplistic answers that just list areas of importance without going much deeper. If that happens, then ask “please give me your approach to this area?” often followed by “please give me an example of this from your current role.” If the candidate shows depth and engages your curiosity, you’ll want to ask “please tell me more?” pretty frequently. Just keep pushing for examples that show you that the candidate gets it and can do it. Don’t let him or her off the hook with anything less. There is too much at stake.
There is an art to strong behavioral interviewing, and it’s worth mastering. It will greatly enhance the quality of your recruiting.