ventureI had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the all-time great venture capitalists last week. By working with him on four separate successful CFO searches and now a Board search, I have come to respect this individual more than words can describe. He has not needed to work for financial gain for many years, yet he remains committed to his partners, his CEOs and the community at large.

My guess is that he is in the top ten most successful venture investors of all time.

As we were wrapping up talking about the new Board search, I asked him some questions about how he evaluates talent. We always read that a company’s success is more dependent on the people than the technology, and I believe that to be true. I wondered whether his ability to spot exceptional talent was the key to his success. I am sharing his answers to my questions below; I hope you find the knowledge he graciously shared of value.

How do you evaluate a potential C-level candidate?

“The first thing I look for is their track record. Have they picked winners? What are their specific accomplishments within that track record─how did they specifically contribute to the successful outcome? It is OK if someone takes a risk on a company that does not work out, but I do not like to see a series of loser companies on one resume. In the case of a CFO, he/she may not be to blame for a technology failure, but they should be held accountable for being astute enough to pick more winners than losers.”

What are the most important questions you ask a C-level candidate when they get to you?

“I always ask: ’What is your biggest success and what is your biggest failure?’ If I get a lot of hemming and hawing on the failure question, that is a big red flag. We have all had failures. If you have not, then you have not lived and you have not worked in technology! I am looking for transparency mostly. If this person is going to be on a team with me, in a Board meeting with me, I need to know they can be transparent to what is happening in the company. If they cannot be totally honest with me in a first interview, then I have no time for them.”

What else do you look for?

“Preparation. They need to come to my office prepared. It shocks me that someone who has been through several meetings before getting to me is not prepared with really intelligent, well thought-out questions. Are you kidding me? They should know the company through and through and be asking really deep questions about the strategy and the execution of that strategy. If they are unprepared there is no excuse.”

Final comments by the Legend

Bottom line for this investor is that the interview is only good for so much, and he never relies on his personal impression: “Anyone can put on a good act for an hour interview and I have been fooled before.” He says there is no substitute for reference checking. 10 plus references on a CEO are typically checked, and perhaps a few less on a CFO. After doing venture work in the Valley for so long, he has access to just about anyone he wants for a reference, and critical hires are never made without talking to people that he trusts. This tidbit does not surprise me in itself. Checking references is obvious. But what is refreshing is that here is a guy who has hired 100s of C-suite executives and he still is humble enough to not trust his own excellent judgment! Who are we to disagree? Do not make a hire without checking on-list and off-list references.

Some key takeaways: if you are a C-suite candidate, your track record should include successful companies, significant accomplishments and people to back you up. If you are CEO or VC looking for talent, Arnold Partners strategic executive search will find you candidates with these winning qualities.

Contact Dave Arnold at 408-205-7373 or Dave@arnoldpartners.com.