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Why “Thin-Slicing” Matters in a Data-Driven World

The essential role your gut instinct plays when recruiting new executives to your family business.

Executive leadership and succession decisions in the family business are unavoidable and critical, whether considering family members, non-family executives, or both. Historically, many recruiters rely heavily on “gut instinct,” while recently data-driven approaches have become best practice. So, which is right? In short, the answer is “both.” Perhaps in the future there will be a powerful set of all-encompassing algorithms that can perfectly reduce a candidate to a set of numbers. But until then, recruiters will need to rely on their training and experience to read the intangibles that can only be observed person-to-person.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking provides a number of perspectives that can be useful in executive search and talent selection. Blink introduces the concept of thin-slicing, which is how we instinctively make quick decisions based on the “thin” amount of information picked up in the first moments of an encounter: posture, handshake, facial expressions. Put another way, thin-slicing is your intuition, and as Gladwell explains, these quick judgments have been proven to be quite accurate.  

Thin-slicing in executive search

One of my earliest and most unforgettable managers in executive search adamantly believed that your decision on a candidate should always be made in the first few minutes of an interview. In his mind, if you couldn’t decide on a candidate in five minutes or less, you didn’t know how to do your job. As a young consultant, filled with idealism, this flabbergasted me. It seemed utterly unfair and bordered on unprofessional. Many years and thousands of interviews later, I have come to appreciate thin-slicing as a valuable tool--but importantly, only as a part of a larger tool kit.  

The best results come from a combination of thin-slicing and thick-slicing. Thick-slicing refers to detailed, structured interviews, and thin-slicing to those uber-valuable first few minutes. The thin-slice portion is observational but deliberate--the less you say and the more you listen and watch, the better the result. What do I look for in those first few minutes? Energy, openness, confidence, communication ability, and focus. Basically, the candidate must be able to grab and keep my interest, and make me want to learn more about this person.

Finding the substance behind the style

The hard part about using both types of slicing is not letting your thin-slice conclusion blind you to what might come through better from thick-slicing. We all know engaging people that lack substance as well as talented people that lack the style points and communication skills required for a strong first impression. When taking a thick-slice view of these people, true strengths become more visible and can overcome a lack of “pop” in the first impression. It can also prevent you from hiring someone who is all show.


Effective use of both types of slicing requires intentionality on the part of the interviewer. During the thin-slice portion, you need to remind yourself what it is you are seeking in a candidate. Keep your antenna up and record your reactions. Evaluate how effective you think the candidate will be on those variables that are important to you.  Similarly, the structured interview needs to be just that: structured. Have a plan and ask consistent questions with the purpose of revealing the skills and innate abilities of the candidate.

After the thick-slice interview, revisit your thin-slice observations and bring the two views together. What this means to your decision then needs to be weighed against the responsibilities, context, and demands of the role and working environment. Using this approach gives you us the ability to fairly assess internal and external candidates in relation to a family business’s unique dynamics and situations, ensuring the selected leader has what it takes to succeed.  

If you want to learn more about how we can apply the thin-slice/thick-slice technique to your current recruiting strategy, feel free to give us a call at (847) 816-1775 or email


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