The Contrarian position

The first time i encountered this was during an interview for a large corporation fairly early in my career, and it always stuck with me as one of the best interview techniques i’ve come across, since that interview, its been one of the tools i’ve used regularly to vet candidates that apply.

I’m calling it the Contrarian position. What it involves is, while interviewing the candidate, especially those in strategy and decision making positions, you ask them a fairly obvious question about the market, one where the answer should be pretty straight forward and logical, e.g. ‘why should you use facebook for marketing’ – regardless of the candidates response, take the opposite position and challenge them.

The Contrarian position is really effective as it basically forces the candidate to demonstrate they can hold their position against a senior figure, and in addition can justify their position, with conviction and facts. in other words you can actually SEE the candidates personality when assessing their ability to hold their position, argue their point and analyze the problem.

Cv’s and Fluff

Having done several hires from Director level down to Intern level. I’d say that Cv’s are generally useless proportional to the position level and years experience.

We often hear about companies wanting to hire for cultural fit, and that ‘personality’ is valued more than academic ability, yet, the CV will never be able to reflect this information.

CV’s are useful as an initial elimination, especially for the more specialised and technical roles where you know that a specific, trainable skill set is required – C++ programming skills, medical degree etc.

However nothing beats interviews for assessing the viability of a candidate, so long as you know how to look beyond confidence and inspect the candidates competence.

More to the point, personally i find that the more senior the role, the more i rely on personal recommendation and referal, its rare that i’ve found a Director level + candidate simply from a CV, more often they’ve been passed to me by personal referral, i think this is the highest quality of candidate, when someone i trust or i know within the same industry passes a recommendation, even more so, when that person has a reputation of their own.

So as a hirer, i’d say keep any eye out for personal referrals. As a candidate, i’d say, focus on trying to get someone to refer you, and make sure your CV shows actual competency and result, NOT, bravado and confidence.

Highly confident versus highly competent

I’ve previously held C-level positions and been in charge of a staff roster of over 100 people, and when you get to around 10 staff, you’ll very quickly start to see relationship dynamics and fractions start to form.

I don’t believe office politics can entirely avoided, but the right hires and hiring with very clear vetting certainly helps.

As a leader you need to focus on deliverables and as such you need to hire based on people who are not only capable or delivering results, but also willing to deliver those results.


The hard part is knowing the difference between highly enthusiastic or confident, versus highly capable – the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ comes to mind. Too often senior staff can get blinded by over enthusiastic positive personalities, just because they see opportunity doesn’t mean they have the ability or know-how to achieve it. Just because someone believes in your vision doesn’t mean they know how to help you achieve it, this is where bravado, and overconfidence can create the illusion of competence.

As a leader, its your job to filter the over confident and find the competent.  As an OPs guy, I’ve strived to understand the ‘how’ of teams that i lead, what do they do, how do they do it. When i lead a team of programmers, i try and learn some basic programming. When i lead designers i try and understand their design process. Even a rudimentary level of understanding will give you enough that when you interview and assess candidates you’ll be able to see if they are simply overstating their abilities or if they actually know their craft.

Simple interview questions that highlight HOW they would get things done make all the difference between selecting the overconfident candidate that will appear capable over the competent one that will help you deliver results.

Here’s an example interview question i’ve used for a digital strategy candidate- “where do you see digital ads progress? and how would you go about tracking and assessing the validity of the data?”

this question can really only be answered by someone who has a reasonable understanding of both digital ad landscape (strategy capabilities) and tracking/ anti-fraud solutions (reasonable technical capabilities) . The “how” element in the question is the clincher – their answer here tells you their thinking process and how much they actually know.