Getting to Know You

Too many traditional job interviewing methods don’t seem to produce results. Randy Street and Geoff Smart authors of Who the A Method of Hiring examined over four thousand studies of hiring methods to find that most interviewing doesn’t correlate favorably with job performance. As a result they crafted a series of four interviews to use to increase the likelihood of selecting the most suitable candidate for your organization. It is work. It requires discipline. Their approach has been applied by many businesses over the years with great success. A principle of their process is adherence to a structured process. We’re encouraged to avoid winging it. The same questions should be posed to each candidate in the same order. Only with an objective, consistent approach can meaningful differences be reliably uncovered.

By the time a candidate is called in for an initial interview, great employers have already invested significant resources and effort to screening potential hires. Again, the interview process like each preceding and subsequent step is consciously cultivated. It’s not an impromptu conversation. There’s never just one. No one, no matter how great and wonderful their reputation or resume, is hired on the spot during the initial interview. How does this compare with some of the hiring we’ve been a part of whether being hired or doing the hiring? From the initial interview whether by phone, in person, or nowadays Zoom, the process continues. The four interviews proposed by Street and Smart are The Screening Interview, The Who Interview, The Focused Interview, and the Reference Interview.

The first type of interview Street and Smart suggest is the Screening interview. The objective here is to filter to a final few. We want to be left with two to five candidates for a position after the screening process for whom the additional steps and effort may be feasibly managed.

At a high level, the screening interview serves to find alignment between an individual and the organization. Screening interviews can be conducted via phone and can be done in 15 minutes or less. If a conversation is going well or if the position is higher level, screening interviews may stretch a little longer. Try to keep these to a maximum of a half hour. Some flexibility in time allotment should be considered to accommodate for the number of candidates being screened and the sophistication of the position. The goal is to not overwhelm you with work in the screening process.

As the screening interview is being conducted, interviewers are encouraged to consider the following questions. Have I been able to identify this candidate’s strengths? Are they compatible with what we’re seeking? Have weaknesses been identified? Are we able to work with these weaknesses or are weaknesses in areas we’ve deemed deal breakers? Am I intrigued enough with this individual to continue the conversation on a deeper level? Additionally, once an interview is completed make time to reflect on the conversation and score a candidate on your answers to these questions. The screening interview is like speed dating. We’re trying to swiftly sift through several people and make a decision of whether we want to invest additional time and energy evaluating further. Getting to no quickly is a good goal. If the initial response isn’t an enthusiastic one, err on the side of elimination. If your initial assessment is a 7 or less, then pass.

Street and Smart suggest four core questions to consider for your screening interviews.

  1. What are your career goals? Two things are disqualifiers here. An absence of clarity and what sounds like a canned response are to be guarded against. The ideal individual knows where they want to go and this direction is aligned with your organization’s needs. The perfect response is an individual that can clearly articulate their goals and these goals line up not just with your organization, but the role itself.
  2. What are you really good at professionally? From their answers ask for specific examples where they have displayed the trait noted. What you’re looking for here is a match between a candidate’s noted strengths and those you’ve noted as needed for the job.
  3. What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally?
  4. Who were your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1–10 scale when we talk to them?

For any of the questions offered for interviewing we can dig deeper if we’re not sure about the response received. To dig deeper we’re cultivating a posture of curiosity. We can prompt further detail by saying something like “tell me more,” or “how did you accomplish that.” Street and Smart suggest exploring questions like “What do you mean? What did that look like? What happened? What is a good example of that? What was your role? What did you do? What did your boss say? What were the results? What else? How did you do that? How did that go? How did you feel? How much money did you save? How did you deal with that? These types of questions build on the bricks of basic answers helping the interviewer make better assessments.

From the speed round, we can shift our attention to digging deeper. Now that we’ve narrowed our focus we want to spend more time getting to know our final few. Street and Smart call their second suggested interview the Who Interview. They consider it the heart of hiring. In this step, we’re allowing candidates to walk us through their career trajectory to date chronologically. It’s a structured version of “tell me about yourself.” Start with education. What schooling has been achieved? Where did they go? What did they study? What were the biggest lessons learned from studying? What were the highs and lows or learning? From education, Street and Smart suggest asking five questions related to each job held over the past ten to fifteen years.

The questions to ask for each position held are:

  1. What were you hired to do?
  2. What accomplishments are you most proud of? Ideal responses would reflect accomplishments achieved which are similar to the role for which you are hiring. Additional questions to seek clarity with respect to accomplishments may be asked which allow for comparisons to prior years. For example, at position x, how did your performance in year y compare to that of the prior year? How did your performance compare to plan/budget? Did you meet expectations, exceed, or not meet? Finally, how was your performance relative to peers?
  3. What were some low points during that job? Every job has tedious parts to it. Will the candidate open up about these? The question can be rephrased as either, “what part of the job did you not like?” or “what would you have done differently?”
  4. Who were the people you worked with? A separate question to consider posing in order to test a candidate’s humility and self-awareness is “In what ways were your peers stronger than you?”
  5. Why did you leave that job? Potential positive answers include being promoted or recruited. These suggest the candidate displayed competence and has ambition. Negative aspects for which to be alert are being fired or leaving because of a problem they contributed to. In short, was the transition the part of a desired progression or forced upon them. Street and Smart make the distinction between push and pull. We either leave a job because we’re pushed out or we’re pulled to another opportunity. We’re trying to sort our candidates into one of these two buckets. High performers tend to be pulled up the ladder. We want to be wary of those that have been pushed out more than pulled up. We’re targeting those that have been pulled up.

This type of interview feels like less of an interrogation as the process allows the candidate to reflect and relay their past to the interviewer. The more senior the role, the more experience candidates will likely have. This implies that quite a bit of time may be required for these interviews. It can be 2-3 hours. This may seem like a burden, but every hour spent here culling for quality candidates will save hundreds of hours of pain and misery as well as thousands of dollars in productivity costs and legal expenses if ignored. There are no short cuts around this process if you want to be a hero of hiring. The person who will be responsible for managing the hire should be the leader of this interview. Outsourcing or delegating this task should be avoided. Having a colleague, a peer, or a separate leader within the organization as a set of eyes and ears to support the conversation is a bonus if resources permit. Diligently doing this type of interview with your core candidates is the best way to get to know people and improve your ability to make quality hires. It represents the best predictor of performance.

From the Who or chronological interview, Street and Smart suggest scheduling a third one. You can either refine your pool further to progress to this one or offer it to the same group that you do the chronological interview with. At this stage, many hulks of hiring have homework assigned to candidates. Sometimes some reading is provided which offers background and detail about corporate values to candidates. In other instances, a specific writing or project assignment is presented. The project may involve a commitment of effort which may or may not be paid by the employer. Whatever route, employers are adding a hurdle to test commitment and competence in a context relevant to them. Street and Smart refer to this as the Focused interview. The objective of this step is to evaluate candidates against the specific roles and responsibilities that will be required in the job. At this stage we’re focusing on assessing a candidate for fit for both the organization and position. This interview connects the candidate with the job description and performance outcomes that have been determined for the position. Consider your roles like those of a position on a sports team. You want to be able to define with absolute clarity what position your player will perform. Are you hiring for a left wing or right wing? A forward or defenseman? What exactly is this person going to be doing? Your ability to make progress here is directly related to the clarity your organization has with respect to its needs. What values, attitudes, and skills are required for the organization and job? The position must have a purpose which will include a list of outcomes that must be accomplished. Additionally, your job description will have included the competencies you’re seeking for both the culture and the job. During the focus interview, we’re asking questions to evaluate a candidate against their ability to fit as well as perform the specific functions required. As much as finding this fit, you’re also helping the prospective candidate get a sense of what will be asked of them.

As part of the Focus interview, candidates are typically brought in to take a more detailed tour of the business as well as to spend a bit of time with members of their prospective team. Granted, this is tougher in today’s environment. Candidates will be introduced to the business as a whole. They will be presented with how the business works, how each area or department integrates into the whole. Employers seek to help employees understand how each department is vital to the organization’s overall success and how each department is dependent on others. There are no small roles. Each person here matters and makes a difference. They will then emphasize the role and value the prospective candidate will be playing within their department. This process may be quite in depth and occur over the course of more than one session. Each visit may take several hours and involve several existing employees. This is an intense commitment to screening candidates and the process is both sided. Employees see where they will be and what they will be doing and with whom. Employers see the person in a more realistic work context.

During the first three interviews, interviewers are talking directly to candidates. If gaps on a resume can’t be explained, interviewers should be concerned. If past bosses are blamed for why they have left a role, interviewers should dig deeper to uncover real reasons. Have they had problems with past peers? What is their perspective with regards to problems encountered? Are they blaming or accepting responsibility? Can they illustrate how they have worked well with others in challenging circumstances? Some things to watch and listen for include candidates that are too confident or self-absorbed. Another concern would be candidates that seem to be more interested in the administrative details of the job as opposed to discussing their skills and opportunities for learning and growth. If they want to know pay, pay periods, job benefits, and vacation details instead of learning about the function, reporting hierarchy, and opportunities for learning, then they may not be your ideal candidate.

Street and Smart introduce us to Bill Johnson, the CEO of Heinz, who considers hiring one of his primary responsibilities. In interviews he’s trying to find first and foremost a chemistry between the individual and himself. Second, he’s looking for commitment. Street and Smart note the commitment is mutual, “Theirs to you and yours to them. That is a difficult thing to assess, but it really matters. I want people who are committed.” Then Johnson seeks to assess if the individual is coachable? It’s much easier to fast track onboarding and development with someone that is open to learning. Fourth, Johnson is looking for those who have their ego under control. Street and Smart acknowledge, “If they are thinking about the next job, they will fail. They must be focused on the job they have.” Only now does Johnson look for specific competencies like intelligence. Do they have what is required to do the job? In short, Johnson is using the interview process to probe and assess the 3 Cs of Character. He’s hitting commitment and coachability as primary targets.

The final stage of the interview process involves contacting references. Ideally, this would have been introduced to candidates earlier in the interview process. For example, as part of posing question four of the screening interview, the interviewer could ask the candidate to provide details about their boss. Ask for their name. Be clear about spelling and demonstrate that you’re writing these details down. Then ask what will this past boss offer as your best attributes or areas for improvement. This stage is sometimes referred to as the TORC or Threat Of Reference Check. Regardless of the position, TORC shouldn’t be a “threat.” It should be a promise. You should commit to contacting references to get a second perspective on your candidate from someone who has worked with them in the recent past. Street and Smart note that almost two thirds of those that are great at hiring are committed to completing reference conversations for every hire regardless of level in the organization.

Again, it’s best if you’re doing the reference interviews personally. It’s not a step to pass off to others. The more senior the role, the more reference interviews that should be conducted. For more senior roles, the range of references should include past peers, bosses, and subordinates. The full range of contexts can be explored to identify if a candidate works well with bosses but treats subordinates poorly, for example. Unlike the disclaimer paragraphs on financial prospectuses, the best predictor of future performance for individuals is past performance. It’s important to know where someone has been in order to assess how they are likely to perform in the future.

References that are reluctant to speak openly about a candidate should be cause for a pause. Additionally, filler sounds like, uhh, could reflect problems the reference has with the individual. If you don’t get the sense the reference is as enthused about the candidate as you are at this point, then you may want to rethink your perspective.

Pursuing these four interviews is work. Yet, they offer the only “shortcut” to happy hiring that is out there. The benefits of achieving a match between your role and a candidate in terms of will and skill is a worthwhile thrill. The best at hiring realize the importance of getting the right match. They are willing, if they work through this entire process and aren’t able to identify a suitable candidate, to avoid hiring and start the process all over again. If you have the luxury of having too many qualified candidates, then you’re forced to rank these and select the one that you determine is the best of these. The balance may become part of your future pool to consider and you’ll want to remain in touch with them. These become your first contacts for future recruiting efforts. Your business will be better when you become a better match maker.