The Internet is awash with strategies for interview techniques, with this that and the other in relation to interviews. It can be easy to lose sight of a few really important and simple aspects that can make the difference in making the right decision.
I’ve been interviewing now for over 20 years, and for the last 15 years, I’ve interviewed most days I’ve worked. For me, there are a few simple things that are key to establishing the quality and suitability of a candidate.
For the benefit of this article, we will assume you’ve already used your market expertise to establish the candidate's credibility for the role to justify selection for interview.
1. You need to be really clear in advance what it is you want.
So often we are handed a job spec, and that’s the extent of the information we are expected to recruit from. If we proceed on this basis results will be, at best, hit and miss.
To establish what is really required, you need a good discussion with the hiring manager. Team dynamics, along with current product strategies, or perhaps succession planning, can all play a major role in whether a candidate will be suitable for hiring. In sales, for example, the type of candidate required to protect the high market share of an established product may be very different from that for a new product launch into a highly competitive market. Every manager will have an opinion on their present team and the dynamics. Perhaps an energetic young gun to shake an established team up a bit or perhaps an old hand to offer some mentorship to a young team. This can vary hire by hire for the same manager, so without the discussion, you could be heading right down the wrong path. These are the nuances if interview techniques that can often define a hiring decision.
2. What can you learn before the interview
Recruitment can be frantic, and we’ve probably all arrived at an appointment without having given it a second's thought beforehand. For me, it’s always worth allocating time in advance to study the CV, perhaps making a few relevant Google searches, the odd phone call, and certainly writing down any key questions that arise as you read the CV. It’s much easier to spot themes and issues in a quiet moment before an interview than during.
You can learn a lot about a candidate before an interview just from initial communications. How quickly do they respond to messages, emails and texts? In the current age of mobile communications, I think any job seeker should be checking and responding to messages at least every few hours. Once a message goes overnight without a response, it immediately starts to raise questions. For the best candidates, it never seems to be a struggle to reach them and get a response. If you find you're chasing at every stage, it may be better to move on to someone else.
3. Putting candidates at ease.
I know there are situations where you would like to see how someone handles pressure, but for me, this needs to be at an assessment. For an interview, you really want to see an accurate representation of the person in front of you, and for this, you need to put them at ease as soon as possible.
An immediate ‘go to’ for this myself, is if I see a strong hobby or interest in the CV that I can relate to, whether it’s an interest in rugby, classic cars or cooking, a quick chat about this can often have them forgetting they are in an interview and puts them into their comfort zone where behaviour becomes natural and less manufactured. Other openings could be as simple as their journey to the interview, or the town they live in. All perhaps boring and mundane, but this is what they need to talk about, without feeling stressed, for long enough to shake off the nerves. It also gives them enough from you to realise you are not the viper they’d worried about!
4. A good old-fashioned CV run through
Quite often, nearly all the questions I may have about a candidate can be answered with a simple invitation to give a brief run through of their CV with insights into
- Their presentation style. Confident and bold or timid and apologetic
- Top line and punchy or long-winded and analytical
- Self/CV awareness. Are they answering the obvious questions I had on the CV? For example, regarding job movements and career decisions made
- Do I find them engaging or is it all a little boring?
- Communication skills. Are they conscious of whether they are keeping my attention, perhaps checking if too much or too little detail?
- I like it when somebody volunteers something they didn’t have to say, which could even be negative, for the sake of transparency and honesty, versus those who try to conceal the more difficult areas of their CV and leave me to ask questions.
- Drive and ambition. Is there a clear career narrative, or is someone just drifting from role to role?
5. Candidate fit for the role - my killer question
After your discussion with the hiring manager, there may be some obvious killer questions you need ask if you haven’t already answered them in their CV run through. I prefer to get them to do the hard work themselves and have one all-encompassing question which is usually highly effective in giving you all of what may be missing after point 4.
I ask candidates to tell me where they feel they fit the job spec and requirements most strongly, followed by where they feel they would be weakest against the spec and would need development.
In some cases, you will learn that they haven’t actually studied the spec in any great detail at all, which for me can be a decision made. If they have read it, the answer and discussion that follows will give you great insight into so many things you really need to know; from their self-awareness, their knowledge of essential job areas and of course their willingness to be open and honest about their capabilities.
The issue of ‘weaknesses’
This still fascinates me. Ask a general manager where they are strong and where they are weak, and you will more often than not get a detailed answer to both without hesitation. Ask someone more junior what their weakness is, and you will nearly always get a veiled attempt to deliver something that sounds like a weakness but could be construed as a strength. The classic example would be ‘impatience’, which although delivered as a weakness can, of course, be used to portray energy and dynamism to get results.
My conclusion is that more senior people have already had such career success that they not only appreciate that everyone has their good and bad bits, but they also feel less of a need to portray only strength and hide weakness. In addition, at senior level, self-awareness of one's own weakness and how to mitigate it is more important than not having any, and this is why many top executives invest in a coach.
So, when interviewing the more junior folk, I tend to pre-set my question by stating my opinion that self-awareness is a key quality of the most successful people. I phrase the question differently by asking them to imagine I’d been their manager for the last year and I’m doing their appraisal. What would I say is the reason they are doing so well, and then what would I say are the themes to work on and develop next year? This often encourages a more honest self-appraisal.
6. And finally – their current activity
This is often absent from your average Internet list of interview techniques. This is perhaps the weakest suit for most of our clients. If candidates are hot property, the chances are they are talking to other companies too, and it’s a highly competitive situation to acquire the best talent. The end result can be frustration as a great candidate pulls out days before a final stage due to another job offer.
Most candidates are willing to be open about other processes. This information can be key. Contrary to the logical assumption that candidates will select the best job offer and accept it, we tend to find that candidates often take the first job offer they receive. It’s as if they get a warm fuzzy feeling about the company after the offer that overrides previous logical assessments of the most suitable company.
If you are aware of all of their options, you may at least be able to adjust plans to have a better chance of securing the best available candidate.