Structuring Effective Interviews

This post is the second of a three-part series that starts here.

I once read that a job interview is just a conversation with a purpose. I agree with this sentiment (though I believe that all conversations should have a purpose). The purpose of good interviewing simply is to get to know the candidate.

It’s important to think of it like a conversation because a lot of people think of interviewing as the act of judging or evaluating people – casting them into “good/smart/talented” or “bad/dumb/clueless” categories. I think that this adds to the fear people have of interviewing, since most dislike judging others as much as they dislike being judged. The true objective of interviewing is not to judge. Rather, it is to learn as much as you can about the candidate and determine whether or not he/she fits with the abilities, skills and culture required to be successful in the position.

To be clear, this isn’t idle chit-chat. By that I mean that you are looking to understand what motivates them; how they approach their work; what jobs they’ve done; what accomplishments they are most proud of; and what they’ve learned from mistakes (among many, many other aspects of their lives and careers). So your conversation had better cover these areas and avoid games, gimmicks, and too much small talk.

Of course, before you get into structuring the interview process, you’ve done your homework. You have written a thoughtful job description and you know what you are looking for. You’ve also posted the position online and shared it with your network as well as your employees (and anyone else in your world, including customers and vendors). After screening resumes and a few phone screens, hopefully you’ve got 3-5 candidates of which you’re very excited.

Now what?

Get Everyone on the Same Page. Most interview processes will involve multiple interviewers. It is important to get different perspectives on a candidate as well as to present multiple faces of an organization to a candidate. Remember that you are selling as much as you are buying when interviewing great candidates. They’ll want to meet multiple people in your organization to make sure that everyone’s singing from the same song sheet, as well as gauging your ability to attract top entrepreneurial talent. So, it is important that you keep each interviewer focused on the important criteria for the job and give them what they need to perform an effective interview. For that, you need a scorecard. A scorecard essentially lists the following:

  • 3-5 desired, measurable outcomes that define success in the role
  • 5-7 essential functions of the role
  • 3-7 essential core values you seek in all employees

A scorecard has two benefits. First, it keeps the interviewer focused on asking those questions most relevant to the position. Second, everyone is evaluating the candidate’s fit for the role against the same, consistent criteria.

Maximize the Value of Your Time. There is NOTHING worse than starting an interview late, leaving to answer a phone call, or click-clacking on your Blackberry/iPhone. This not only sends the worst message to the people you’re trying to recruit, it wastes precious time in which you should be getting to know the candidate. Unfortunately, this happens all the time. I’m even guilty of it from time to time. So here are some simple do’s and don’ts:

  • Be here now – no distractions, no cell phones, no Blackberries.
  • Expect at least 90 minutes to get a BASIC understanding of your candidate’s background, abilities, core values, and motivations. Anything less is small talk. Most recruiters recommend a minimum of 3 hours.
  • Read the resume or bio before. Come with areas in which you want to probe.
  • If you are the hiring manager, make sure other interviewers are prepared. Send out questions, areas in which you’d like them to probe, and the candidate’s resume well in advance.

Another tip: spend the first 5 minutes making your candidate comfortable so that they are at their best. Welcome them, get them a drink, and make sure they know that you appreciate the fact that they are interested in your company. Again, think of it like a conversation.

Behavioral interviewing – Really Getting to Know the Candidate. You’ve heard them all. What sort of animal are you? How many marbles can you fit into the Grand Canyon? A train is speeding west at 50 MPH… You might have even asked one of these questions, telling yourself that it helps you understand how the candidate thinks through a problem. The truth is you have a fixed set of responses that you’re looking to hear. Worse, these questions don’t tell you anything meaningful about the candidate and can easily be faked. On the other end of the spectrum, “so, tell me about yourself” doesn’t do much either. How do you really get to know someone in under 90 minutes?

Behavioral interviewing is based on the concept that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. If you want to know if a candidate can quickly make good decisions, using limited data, adapt when necessary and persevere through adversity… ask them to explain specific instances in their past where they have used these behaviors. These aren’t hypothetical questions of the “whatwould you do” sort. The key is to ask for real, concrete examples from the candidate’s past where they have performed in a similar fashion to what you expect in this new position. There are many models out there for behavioral interviewing.

The one that I’ve found most effective is the TopGrading interview. The TopGrading interview uses a highly detailed, chronological interview where conclusions are determined from patterns which have emerged across the candidate’s career. It involves detailed probing into every success, failure, and relationship experienced in each job. Since a true TopGrading interview can take somewhere between 4 hours and 3 days, I recommend a lighter version that gets to the same core patterns. Here is what I suggest: For Each job/role in the last 10-15 years, ask:

  1. What were you hired to do?
  2. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  3. What were some low points during that job?
    1. What mistakes did you make?
    2. What do you regret not knowing when you started?
  4. Let’s talk about the people:
    1. What was your boss’ name? What was it like working with him/her? What will he/she say were your biggest strengths and areas for improvement? This is a great way to get honest responses.
    2. Please tell me about the team you worked with or who worked for you. Did you ever have to fire anyone?
  5. Why did you leave that job?
  6. Why did you choose the next job/promotion?

Clearly, you are not looking for simple, yes/no responses. You want context, outcomes, lessons learned, and changes in behavior that resulted from mistakes. So it is important to probe. For each of the candidates responses, ask follow-up questions to fully understand the context, complexity and completeness of the response.

  • Level 1 – Ask candidate the question
  • Level 2 – Ask what actions were taken or how situation was handled, if there were challenges
  • Level 3 – Ask about the results or outcome, what happened as a result of their actions
  • Level 4 – Ask how results compare to “3-P’s” (especially for sales positions)
  • Relative to plan, previous year and peer group
  • Level 5 – Ask candidate to describe what they learned from the experience and if they’ve applied this to future situations

This should cover between 3-5 years of experience and take you 20-30 minutes. Now do that for the 2-4 jobs (in my case 9) that they’ve held over the last 10-15 years. From these responses, you should know plenty about this candidate. Take LOTS of notes and let the candidate do most of the talking. With probing questions and context setting, you should be talking only 20% of the time. Green Flags:

  • What they are fundamentally good at (and enjoy) matches the scorecard.
  • They have achieved successful outcomes similar to the measureable results you will need from the position.
  • They move from job to job with purpose.
  • They make decisions and consistently operate in a manner that aligns with your core values.

Red Flags:

  • Unimpressive circumstances changing jobs
  • Any areas they won’t provide references for, or names of former bosses/colleagues that they are reluctant to provide
  • Who in the past haven’t they gotten along with – what sort of people?
  • Excuse-y sounding criticisms of former bosses or colleagues
  • Career decisions made without purpose

Don’t Forget to Sell! If you start to feel like the candidate is a strong fit for the position, your company, and your culture, make sure that you spend a few minutes at the end selling the opportunity. I don’t mean hire them on the spot, tell them that they are a sure-thing, or set the expectation that you plan to hire them after making a couple of reference calls. The process isn’t over yet (I’ll cover getting the most from references and background checks in my next post). But you should spend some time introducing them to other talented people in your business or on your board. Show them around your facility, brag about the crappy furniture and dangling wires (it is a startup, after all). Let them know that this ship is taking off and that they’d do well to be on it.

If you’ve run an efficient, effective interview process, they are likely to think highly of your company and your leadership already. For those that are not a great fit, make them feel good as well. Thank them for their time and interest and tell them that you’ll be in touch after you’ve gone through all of the candidates (and mean it). Not everyone can get the job, but everyone should leave knowing that they were treated with respect. As a reward for those few readers who have made it this far, I end with a video of my all-time favorite job interview scene in a movie.