How a Memo Can Beat an Interview

Making candidates put their thoughts in writing about a job opportunity is a powerful tool to help you make the right choice

By Liz Ryan

A few years ago I was in a jam. I had interviewed two strong candidates for a senior-level marketing position and was having trouble choosing between them. Both looked terrific on paper -- smart, energetic, and experienced. I tossed and turned for a week, then took action.

I told both candidates I was nearing a decision and had one more request. I asked each to write a one-page memo sharing their thoughts about the job opportunity, describing their approach to the issues we were facing, and laying out a high-level plan for making the company successful.

The results were revealing.


  One memo put forth a well-reasoned and compelling argument for an innovative strategy going forward. It included observations on our team, our competitors, and our industry, plus a short list of critical actions complete with time frames, expected results, and associated risks.

The other memo included a long list of tactics for solving conventional marketing challenges, plus personal experiences with particular suppliers; costs for projects such as post card mailings; and even suggestions on the color of logos. You could have included these memos in a textbook on leadership, labeling one "Strategic Thinking," and the other "Tactical Thinking."

It was clear who I should hire.

Now, you might ask how I had made it through several rounds of interviews without ferreting out the crucial differences between these candidates. I'll take the blame for that. But haven't we all encountered people who talk the talk much more impressively than they walk the walk? The "show me your approach" memo made the gulf between these individuals as clear as day.


  Another time, I interviewed a man for a new opportunity in our firm, one with profit-and-loss responsibilities for a division we were launching. The role was unscripted and entrepreneurial. This gentleman and I had three great meetings, but I wasn't sure that Carl, as I'll call him, fully understood the entrepreneurial nature of the role he was to play. I asked him for a "show me your approach" memo. Here's what I got back:

"Dear Ms. Ryan,

Thank you for your time over the last few weeks sharing with me the challenges faced by XYZ Products Inc. I know I could add value to your team. My experience with A, B, and C make me the ideal candidate, etc..."

I felt that I'd dodged a bullet that time! Carl's letter included nothing of "here's what I will do," "here's how we will win," or "I can't wait to take the bull by the horns." It was clear that he mainly wanted a job, while I wanted a business owner. Lesson: An old-fashioned "thought memo" can be worth its weight in gold.


  There are other uses for the "show me what you're thinking" letter." Recall the times when you've met with a subordinate to share your thoughts on a problem to be solved or a new opportunity. You feel that you've been clear, but what did the other person hear? How did he or she interpret your direction, and what is he or she planning to do about it?

Ask for a memo that will reveal what information got through and what didn't. This could be called the "same page" memo, since it helps you see where you and another person are thinking in concert, and where you aren't.

You can use this approach with a boss, too. You may not be able to ask this person to commit to writing every directive you're given. But you can ask in writing for a clarification or confirmation of what you heard, and describe what you're planning to accomplish.


  This is a great use of the "same page" concept. Too often, business people don't share their thinking on projects and initiatives. As a result, employees often do the opposite of what the boss intended. You don't have to get every little request in writing. But when the initiative is large and/or theoretical, and you're about to devote big resources to a project, you had better make sure you clearly understand the orders you've been given.

One last story will illustrate the point.

I was once part of an integration team for two companies that were merging -- the largest merger to date in their industry. I was on the integration subteam that was charged with planning an event to commemorate (celebrate or commiserate, depending on which side you were on) the big event. We spent weeks preparing a front-lawn tent party at each of the merged companies' international locations.

We tweaked the menu and the budget. We designed T-shirts for employees and wrote speeches for execs. We put the whole thing together, and then -- only then -- did the acquiring company's public relations chief write a note to his CEO to keep him in the loop.

"Heavens no!" was the CEO's reaction. "We can't spend the shareholders' money eating hot dogs and printing T-shirts! Kill the merger party!" So we did. But tens of thousands of shareholder dollars had already gone into planning the event. My air fare and lodging alone were in the low five digits, and the planning group was enormous. Oops. We should all have been on the same page.


  So to get back to my original point: When you're hiring, bake the "same page" memo into the selection process. "Thanks for meeting with us today, Angela," you'll write. "It was terrific sharing ideas with you. May I ask you to send me a one-page memo, outlining your thoughts on how you'd approach the Call Center Manager role, and what you view as the short-term and long-term priorities for the department? I would love to get the benefit of your thinking."

See what happens: You'll learn loads -- including gaining a better feel for the candidate's writing skills and sense of logic, for her listening skills, and for her understanding of your department's current situation. Her memo can help you move forward with confidence to make a job offer -- or start interviewing other people.

And when you hire your wunderkind and people congratulate you, you can say: "It was Angela's 'same page' memo that persuaded me she should be our new hire." Make this tool a part of both your recruiting process and your internal project-assignment process, and you'll become an evangelist for it, too.

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE