Early in my career, I was interviewing for a job, and my prospective boss asked me to drive his car. While it wasn’t technically part of the interview—we were on our way to lunch after a morning of meetings—he learned things about me that he wouldn’t have otherwise, and not because I was hiding anything from him.
My willingness to take the wheel showed him I could do it metaphorically as well. He saw that I had both competence and confidence when thrown a curve and that I had the sense to keep to myself the idea that his request seemed a little odd. (By the way, I got the job.)
I often make the same request of senior-level folks I interview. Their response is more important than their driving abilities, though I’m happy to say no one has crashed my car. It’s a way to assess how someone will react in real-life situations.
My company, Trex, is a maker of wood alternative decking and railing with $342 million in sales. Most executives in manufacturing will tell you that one of the most essential skills they look for in new employees is the ability to switch tasks quickly. Any general manager who works for Trex has to be nimble enough to go from dealing with a marketing issue to a financial one, to operations, to human resources in a matter of minutes. People who can multitask and don’t get rattled by constant interruption are more successful in our business than those who like problems to come at them one at a time, although I’ve never experience that utopian existence in my career.
One man I was interviewing declined the suggestion/request that he drive my car. He was intelligent, methodical, prudent—a great guy to be chief financial officer but not to be general manager of a manufacturing plant, the position I was trying to fill. I probably would have reached the same conclusion anyway, but this was both a shortcut and confirmation.
Of course, this is only one mechanism for evaluating people. I’ve used it maybe a dozen times over the years, and I’ve always found it gave me useful insight into the person in question. I want to come away from an interview with a strong understanding of who the person is, not what their credentials are. Is he or she someone who is going to control the agenda, or be the victim of it?
I think the most reliable indicator of long-term success is someone’s fundamental level of energy. Does he take the steps two at a time, or does he amble? That’s another way I assess people. These nuanced, qualitative judgments are made along with quantitative, factual ones, but the success I’ve had in assembling teams that can get their hands dirty and do what’s needed proves to me the merit of this approach.