Q – I’ve been managing a team for a couple years and I’ve had my ups and downs from a hiring perspective. I’ve made some good hires and some not so good hires along the way – nothing crazy, but not awesome either. It occurred to me recently that nobody ever really taught me to be a good interviewer. Do you have some tips you can share to help me improve my interview skills?
A – Interviewing is one of those weird things in our careers where it seems like we’re just supposed to know how to do it. We’re meant to pick it up by osmosis. Like if we interview enough for our own jobs, we’ll somehow learn to be good at discovering and recruiting talent. Some companies, especially the bigger ones, have programs in place for managers to become stronger interviewers, but even these rarely scratch the surface of what it takes to actually be able to distinguish a great candidate from a good one.
It’s actually getting tougher for hiring managers because there is so much information out and so many tools (like the ones I give away J) designed to give candidates an edge. This leg up doesn’t discriminate either – all candidates benefit – bad ones and good ones. It’s gotten incredibly easy to do research on people and companies, and to study common interview questions and download free interview tools. When used correctly, you can create the illusion you have more expertise than you actually do. Unfortunately, as the interviewees have gotten stronger, the interviewers have not. The outcome, as you’ve experienced, is that it’s tougher than ever to consistently identify great people.
To be perfectly fair, I was a terrible interviewer until pretty recently. And there’s a decent chance some of you have even been interviewed by me and weren’t all that impressed. The truth is, like many of you, for the longest time I don’t think I really had a clear picture of why I was doing certain things in my interviews – I just kinda did them.
The impact of this ill-conceived interview approach was that I ended up relying solely on intuition and feel to select candidates. My interview process was so weak it didn’t actually add any value in identifying the best person for the job so I’d just go on gut feel. Sure, the charade of interviewing was there but I wasn’t really doing anything with purpose. And while I think your instinct about a person has value, it can’t be the only thing you go on. In my experience, the best you can really hope to do when hiring by feel alone, is a 60-70% success rate and that’s not good enough.
Unfortunately, there is no way I can give a full course on interviewing in one newsletter edition, but I can share five core principles that outline my approach to the matter. My hope is that these fundamentals can help you get off to a good start if you’re new to interviewing or tighten up your game if you’ve been doing it for a while.
Here are my 5 core interview principles that help me discover and recruit great people.
1. Always Make the Candidate as Comfortable as Possible
The temptation is going to be to gloss over this one. But it’s my number one tip for a reason. As you know, having interviewed for jobs yourself, the interview process is a nerve wracking affair. And for many people – talented people – it can be a serious source of anxiety. This is why I try to make people as comfortable as I possibly can at the very beginning of the interview. I want to set them at ease. I purposefully make things as easy and relaxed and friendly as possible. If I didn’t do this, if I contributed to the anxiety and nervousness of the candidate by being cold or tough or abrupt, I’d effectively be eliminating a significant portion of potentially great candidates who are supremely talented but don’t perform their best when uncomfortable. I want to see people at their absolute best – not at their most nervous – because that’s not representative of an actual work environment on a day to day basis. You might counter that with, “well don’t you want to see how they perform under pressure?” and I would argue, not really. I am mostly concerned with seeing a candidate’s full potential. That’s what tells me if I want to make an investment in them or not. It’s important to be clear the goal is not to discover the best interviewer, it’s to find the person who is going to be best when the job is at hand.
My recommendation to interviewers is to go out of your way to make candidates as comfortable as you can. Be extremely friendly, start with easier questions, help them settle it, and smile a lot. I think you’ll discover by doing this, the average quality of candidates you interview will magically go up just by you helping them be at their best instead of at their worst.
2. Always be Selling the Job
For similar reasons, I want every candidate to covet the job I’m hiring for. Good candidates, bad candidates, average candidates, I try to sell everyone on how great the job is. There are two reasons I do this and the first one is I want to create an environment where candidates will go the extra mile to get hired. I want to see their absolute best effort. If you can make a job seem attractive enough (without lying of course), you will get a chance to see the maximum potential in every candidate. It’s a really great way to gauge what a person can do when they have the right motivation.
The other reason I sell the job to everyone is that its super competitive out there to hire the best people. In many fields, the best candidates have two or three competing offers and I want to make sure my job is the most attractive to them. I see way too many managers conducting interviews as though they (the company) have all the power and that the candidate is the only one auditioning for the role. The only time that is true is when the candidate is weak. Acting like this is a really good way to ensure you end up recruiting a mediocre team.
My recommendation for hiring managers is to spend time in every interview, whether the candidate seems great or not, selling them on how attractive the opportunity is. For those of you wondering why you’d do this for below average candidates, my answer is, why not? There is zero downside to taking this approach. In the worst case scenario, you’re bolstering the reputation of your company and your team by having one more person thinking highly of you. As an interviewer, you goal should be to have every single person leaving the interview desperately wanting to land the job.
3. Talk Less
I won’t spend a ton of time on this one but I’ve sat through enough interviews where the hiring manager dominates the conversation to know it’s a problem. For the love of god, stop talking so much. I was definitely a culprit of this early in my career and it’s a really bad habit. If you’re talking any more than 30% of the duration of the interview, you need to stop. The primary goal of an interview is to understand the candidate, not to hear yourself speak. The best interviews (on both sides) feel like conversations where the interviewer is clearly interested in what the candidate has to say. That’s just not possible if you’re the one doing all the talking.
4. Always Ask One More Question
One great way to keep a conversation flowing and to test the depth in candidates is to automatically ask one follow on or probing question after every answer a candidate gives. Incidentally, it’s also a great way to ensure you’re only talking 30% of the time since you effectively pass the microphone back for more depth on every question. Early in my career, I’d just run through a list of questions I found on the internet and then try to figure out who I liked the best based on their answers. But I almost always accepted the first answer at face value. I’ve since learned that all the gold – what differentiates good candidates from great ones – lives in the next level down.
How will they react to a request for more depth?
What will they say if I challenge something in their answer?
Can they evaluate another perspective?
You can only get to that highly valuable insight if you press a little deeper after each question.
My recommendation to hiring managers is to automatically ask a follow-up for each question posed. I don’t pick and choose the spots I do this; I just do it every time. And it’s far less important how you ask follow up questions and more that you just get the candidate off their prepared script and basic research and giving greater visibility into how they really think. Here are some examples:
You mentioned the importance of performance metrics, is there ever a time when measuring performance isn’t important?
You talked about being a self-starter. That’s a great gift to have but tell me about the process you go through to ensure you start quickly and deliver with quality in the end.
It’s great to hear you’re passionate about the discipline of marketing. What companies do you think are doing the best marketing in the world right now and walk me through why you think that is the case.
If you start adding a follow-up probe to every question you ask, I think you’ll start finding it easier to differentiate average candidates from awesome ones.
5. Test for Approach vs. Facts
The internet has just made it too easy to prepare for interviews. As a hiring manager, you need to go much further in how you’re testing candidates. 15 years ago it may have been impressive that a prospective hire knew about you and your company and the market, but now that’s a 5-minute google search. For this reason, almost all of my standard interview questions are designed to help me understand how a candidate thinks vs. test what they know. For some of you, this might seem obvious but I still don’t see it being employed enough in practice.
It’s one thing to nod your head at the importance of testing for approach vs. rote knowledge and a very different thing entirely to execute it in the interview. One thing I see a lot of hiring managers do these days is assign homework to late stage candidates. Build a plan or design a strategy or something like that. And while this can be moderately effective, it still doesn’t really give you a window into how the candidate approaches a problem at the most fundamental level. It’s just too easy to download a template or get a friend to help with an assignment.
My recommendation for hiring managers is to spend most of your energy getting the candidate to explain how they would go about attacking a problem vs. solving the problem itself. Here are a few example questions I might use:
Imagine we have a new product coming out and our goal is to get it into the hands of 1000 small businesses in the US and Canada. What would be your approach to make that happen?
In this job you’re going to be managing a pretty big team where the team members work closely with people from many departments. Inevitably situations are going to arise where you hear complaints about the performance of someone on your team. Walk me through how you would you deal with that?
It’s very likely when you start your new job, there will be more work than you can handle. There will be many competing priorities and only one of you. Walk me through how you would manage a situation where demands on your time exceed your capacity.
Unfortunately for many of us, interview training is not readily available. But as we progress in our careers as managers, it quickly becomes one of the most important skills to be successful. And while learning to be a great interviewer takes a lot of time and practice, I hope, at the very least, these core principles I use will be helpful to you and offer a perspective you can build on.