Recently a client asked me why he so often over-estimates the intelligence of people he is interviewing for a senior role. Here’s my answer –

Senior people have:

Experience, from which they derive:

Content knowledge and


If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in a interviewing process very long. Someone can look bright because they have fluency in a particular domain and may reference well-known events or accepted practices. This is not intellectual horsepower. Neither is it stupid. Anyone who wants to move ahead is going to pick up things over time. Good but not great. Really smart people who are also motivated (THESE are the ones you want to hire), take an idea or bit of information and learn more about it. They expand on it, or contradict it. They don’t parrot what they have heard as though they are tape recorders.

The problem with most interviews is they rely too much on content. The legal beagles have scared the fire out of people about asking questions that aren’t relevant to the job. Thus, interviews are circumscribed and narrow. If your candidate has a good vocabulary in the arena in question but doesn’t have good capacity to reason, strategize and predict, you might now know it. It doesn’t mean you aren’t smart.

What should you do about that?

First, have a scenario or two ready to discuss with candidates. It can be germane to the role but give them something to consider, in real time, that they could face on the job.

Second, ask them about how they learn.

Finally, look for signs that they flail in unchartered territory. The cause of this could be multiple, not limited to intellect, but your job isn’t to diagnose. Tempting, but it will lead you down a wrong path. Indeed, you best not do that unless you want the lawyers visiting you.

Alternatively, my client asks me to meet with people he intends to hire for important roles. He’s much better at seeing whether it’s intelligence or memorex but he’s not so over-confident that he thinks himself an expert. That is intelligence undimmed by hubris, the very best kind.