Interviewing for an HR Role? Ask About the Company’s HR IQ.

You’re an HR executive interviewing with the CEO at a company you may choose to join. How do you accurately assess the organization’s view of the HR function and the CEO’s true appetite for strategic talent thinking and initiatives? According to John McMahon, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Cumberland Farms, you start by asking the CEO about his or her company’s HR IQ.

Over McMahon’s 35+year career as a transformative CHRO in industries ranging from technology to healthcare to life sciences, he has learned how to effectively assess a CEO’s appetite for progressive and innovative HR initiatives. “HR IQ is a theme I raise to determine what the CEO considers the role of an HR leader and what value he or she thinks HR provides. I ask CEOs to rank themselves and their organization on a scale of 1 to 10 – both where they are today and where they want to be,” explains McMahon.

More important than the actual score a CEO assigns is the conversation the HR IQ question sparks. McMahon notes that the perception of HR as a one-dimensional function still exists, so asking the question uncovers whether the company is looking for a one-trick pony or a multi-faceted HR leader to work collaboratively with the CEO. “Having the right person as CHRO should be a business imperative for the CEO. He or she should be looking for a true partner and not approaching the process in a perfunctory fill-the-slot manner, but instead as a priority hire to drive workforce engagement to radically improve company performance.”

The ensuing dialogue around HR IQ enables an HR executive to get a feel for the talent challenges and initiatives the CEO views as most critical. McMahon says, “I like to ask a CEO what are your top three business priorities and what are the biggest impediments to reaching them.” McMahon warns that if you don’t hear “HR,” “people” or “talent” as either a priority or an impediment, then consider that omission a red flag.

McMahon also advises that where a CEO places his or her company on the HR IQ spectrum matters less than the reasons he or she states for the score. “If a CEO puts him or herself high on the spectrum and attributes the placement on the tired, old adage — ‘People are my most important asset’ — then I ask them, ‘Why do you say that?’” McMahon also believes it’s good measure to ask the same question of the CEO’s executive team and listen for consistency and depth in the staffs’ responses. If you hear alignment, then it likely validates the CEO’s scoring.

Last, the HR IQ question uncovers if there’s enthusiasm for moving the company further along the spectrum. McMahon looks for indications in the CEO’s response as to whether he or she considers it “mission accomplished” or “there’s still lots of work to be done.”  McMahon concludes, “I would much rather work for a CEO who scores his company a three but has the appetite to be an 8, versus one who places the organization at 5 and isn’t motivated to evolve further.”