Learning From Idol: The Most Brutal (and Effective) Interview I Ever Went Through

The other day, after a series of workshops on retiree health care for one of our clients, I decided I needed to unwind. It was time to rid my mind of HR issues completely, and enjoy some mindless entertainment.

So, I’m in the hotel room flipping through the channels, when I come across the latest season of American Idol. The perfect way to unwind and get out of my own head! Or so I thought. It worked for about 10 minutes, then out of nowhere, it hit me:

American Idol has the best hiring process around.

I was suddenly back in HR world, thinking of the lessons HR could take from American Idol and wondering if our CEO, on some sub-conscious level, created our planner recruiting process to mimic the high pressure, prove your talent or die, environment that the show so beautifully creates?

A revamped recruiting process

Let me back up a bit.

About nine years ago, a couple of years before I started at Financial Finesse, the company revamped its planner recruiting process to actually force planners to audition as opposed to going through a traditional interview process. The thinking was that the best way to predict which planners would excel at the job of conducting financial workshops — in person financial planning sessions and financial counseling over the phone — was to have them actually perform these tasks, in a high pressure group judging environment.

The company intentionally made the process intimidating, with minimal upfront direction for candidates and minimal time to prepare for each phase (particularly the workshop audition where candidates get the topic 15 minutes before they have to present). I thrive under pressure, and it was the most daunting career experience I ever had. At almost every step in the seven (7) step recruiting process, I was sure I was toast.

Somehow, I made it through. I found out later that only 2 percent of planners who apply for the position are hired, but that the vast majority of those planners thrived in Financial Finesse’s environment and the company had very little planner turnover (after the initial training process which was designed as a more expanded audition).

I was amazed at the other planners on my team. I literally couldn’t believe I was in their company — it was like meeting other athletes on an Olympic team and being astonished that you made the cut and that you had reached an elite level of performance.

Intimidating, but ultimately inspiring

Initially it’s intimidating, but as you prove yourself and achieve the 4.7 out of 5.0 company standard on employee feedback surveys, you become inspired by the team. You become proud to be a part of it, and you become eager to learn from other team members so you can improve your own performance, and help them do the same.

Each person’s unique talents become obvious quickly, and the team coalesces around these talents naturally, much like a soccer team where players play specific positions based on their skills, only it’s less formal than that.

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Everyone knows I’m the HR Guru – an employee benefits expert; it’s not something I had to ever call out. Greg is the quant jock, who can run numbers in his head and build complex financial models in a matter of minutes. Bruce was our mentor long before he officially became our trainer — with a personality that gets more satisfaction at other people’s success than his own.

Bottom line: the American Idol-like audition process, brutal as it was, created a team and a culture of excellence. I hated going through it, but I love that I made the final cut.

Yes, an American Idol hiring process can work

And even more, I love what I have been able to accomplish in the company of team members who are the best of the best. Not to mention that we will be forever bonded by the fact we all had to go through what was undeniably the most difficult job interview process of our careers. And by the fact that we were among the 2 percent that made it.

Every job at every company is unique, and I’m not advocating that all companies move to an American Idol hiring process. But I do think there is something to be said for a hiring process that requires candidates to actually perform the job responsibilities as part of the interview process.

This is especially important in service-oriented companies where your people are your products and services. Think of all the time and money that companies put into research and development for new products. If your product is in fact your people, then shouldn’t that same amount of time, effort, and money go into hiring the right people so you can have the best possible product?

Simon Cowell would agree. I’m not sure yet about the new judges — I was too busy thinking about this blog post to pay much attention. 🙂

This was originally published on the Financial Finesse blog for Workplace Financial Planning and Education.

Linda Robertson is an experienced financial planner with FinancialFinesse.com, the nation’s leading provider of unbiased financial education programs to corporations, credit unions and municipalities with over 400 clients across the country. Her focus is on retirement and tax planning, and her background includes positions with NationsBank, H & R Block, and Metropolitan Life. Contact her at linda.robertson@financialfinesse.com .