Making Mr Nice: Don’t cry all the way to the bank

Richard Farleigh
THE girl was clearly nervous as her job interview got underway. I asked her why Australia had such a high inflation rate and I was incredulous at her answer: “I believe it is mostly ‘imported inflation’”. I pulled a face. “Imported inflation? How could that be possible when our biggest trading partner, Japan, has a fraction of our inflation rate?”

She didn’t say much and I moved on. “What would you say about Australia’s high interest rate policy?” “It’s completely unfair,” she claimed indignantly. “I’m from a working class area and I’ve seen people lose their house when they can’t afford the mortgage”. I thought about it and quickly decided it made no sense. “That’s your answer? Really? Sorry, but that is terrible. What about our trade deficit and weak currency? You have an economics degree but you’re not showing any understanding of the situation at all.”

It was around about then that a tear rolled down her cheek and she stifled back a few sobs. Fortunately there was another interviewer there who quickly switched to a softer line of questions about family and hobbies, and the girl cheered up a little.

It was the late 1980s and I was a young director at Australia’s leading investment bank. First class honours graduates and other top quality candidates were clamouring to get a job there, with the potential of success, prestige and riches. I was an experienced interviewer, often asked by other department heads to grill fresh potential hires on economics, markets and politics. But this episode shocked me. Had I been unfair? Was I too tough? It certainly felt terrible making someone cry, and it really made me think about what I was trying to achieve.

So I made some changes to my interview technique. I did not stop asking difficult questions. I needed to drill down on what a candidate really knew because academic performance does not always demonstrate practical intelligence. I also wanted a little bit of pressure during the interview, because that was our typical work environment. However I decided to smile even at the wrong answers, and to give encouragement where possible. Maybe that was the genesis of “Mr Nice” on Dragons’ Den. I also decided there needed to be relaxed moments during an interview, where I could test for other skills such as imagination. I started to ask unexpected fun questions such as “what will happen to the economy if we all became immortal?” (interest rates fall) or “what happens to a small island economy if it discovers a massive amount of gold?” (its currency goes through the roof).

I didn’t realise at the time, but learning to conduct a good interview is a very fundamental business skill. Ultimately, of course, it’s about choosing people you can work with. Something one candidate forgot, perhaps, when he told me “I want to be your boss.” As soon has he left the room, his CV was fast tracked – into the bin.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.