More hiring mistakes are made in the first 30 minutes of a job interview than at any other time. This is devastating if you’re a candidate who should have been hired. It’s equally devastating if you’re the hiring manger and hire the wrong person. I contend that these errors are the primary reason 70% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged. The solution is simple:
Don’t use the interview to make the hiring decision. Use the interview to collect the evidence needed to make the hiring decision.
Of course, if you don’t know what evidence to look for, this simple solution is a bit more challenging. To address this I suggest preparing a performance-based job description before the interview. A performance-based job description lists the top 6-8 things a person in the job needs to accomplish in order to be considered successful. For example, for a sales position one objective could be, “Open 3-4 new accounts per month by identifying and personally meeting with the key decision makers at each account.” This is a lot better than saying the person must have 5+ years of sales experience selling to the same types of customers in the same industry.
Determining the candidate’s ability and motivation to do the actual work required is the purpose of the interview. However, if the interviewer doesn’t know what’s actually required, the person is left to his or her own devices to determine this. Given this loosey-goosey condition, most interviewers determine if the candidate is hirable in the first 5-10 minutes of the interview based on affability, appearance and communication skills. Once this preliminary yes/no hiring decision is made, the balance of the interview is used to gather confirming evidence to validate the decision. It’s easy to see how the lack of job knowledge combined with unscientific and biased interviewing techniques can result in bad hiring decisions.
Given this state of affairs here’s a simple technique to convert the interview into an evidence-gathering process:
- Get every interviewer on the same page by sharing the performance-based job description ahead of time. Here’s a completed profile for a product manager. You can see how using this can instantly change the focus of the entire interviewing process.
- Do not give anyone a full yes/no hiring decision. Instead, assign each interviewer a narrower responsibility to evaluate the candidate’s ability to achieve just one or two of the performance objectives listed.
- Have each interviewer ask the one-question Performance-based Interview for each of the performance objectives assigned. This question provides all of the evidence needed to determine competency and motivation.
- Eliminate gladiator voting (up vs. down) to make the final hiring decision. Instead have each interviewer share his or her evidence using this type of Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard ranking system. Redo the interview if any rankings vary too much. This indicates a process that’s out of control.
Of course, first impressions and related biases will still get in the way. To short-circuit this I suggest interviewers recognize their initial positive or negative reaction to the candidate and then take some type of offsetting action. One way to do this is to be more cynical with those whom you like and more open-minded with those you don’t.
If you’re the candidate being improperly assessed, it’s unlikely the interviewer has read this posting and followed the techniques described. In this case you’ll need to take matters into your own hands. Here’s how to shift the odds back into your favor:
- If you feel the interviewer is purposely seeking negative information, you’ll need to intervene right away. One way to do this is to ask the interviewer how the trait, factor or skill being asked about is actually used on the job. Then give an example of something you’ve accomplished that relates to this requirement.
- To prevent the interviewer’s personal biases from kicking in too soon, ask the person to describe some of the big challenges involved with the open job at the beginning of the interview.
- You can force questions to be asked around your strengths by simply asking, “Is (major strength) an important aspect of this job?” Then give an example of something you’ve accomplished that best demonstrates your ability.
- Send the interviewer this introduction to the Performance-based Interview before your interview. Of course practice and record your answers. If they’re really good you might even want to send the interviewer your recording. This actually might get you the interview, too.
Bottom line: Don’t use the interview to make the hiring decision. Use the interview to collect the evidence needed to make the hiring decision. This simple change in perspective changes everything. More important, it will eliminate 50% of all hiring mistakes you’re ever likely to make.
In this series, professionals share how they rocked — or didn't! — the all-important first 90 days on the job. Follow the stories here and write your own (please include the hashtag #First90 in the body of your post).
There are two types of 90-day wonders: the good ones and the bad ones. The bad are those you don’t want to become. They’re the people you wonder why you hired in the first place. And if you’re the one hired, you wonder why you took the job.
The good ones are far different. They’re the people who make a significant impact in the first 90 days. Their insight and problem-solving skills are apparent right away, they’re excellent communicators and they collaborate effectively with others. If you’re the hiring manager, you thank your lucky stars. For you — and the person hired — it was serendipity. Luck and good fortune all rolled into one great hire and one great job.
Unfortunately, for most people taking a new job and for those doing the hiring, the good kind of 90-day wonders are rare. Surprisingly though, with a little planning and forethought, 90-day wonders can actually become commonplace. To achieve this you need to begin about 90 days before the person’s start date when the job requisition is first opened. Then the hiring manager has a choice: define the job as a generic list of technical skills and competencies, educational requirements and years of experience. This is the wrong choice. The right choice is preparing a job description describing the work that needs to be done. These types of performance-based job descriptions consist of 6-8 performance objectives each describing the most important tasks and key subtasks.
With the job defined this way the interview consists of asking candidates to describe their most comparable accomplishments using the Performance-based Interview methodology I advocate. The big aha: if the person has been successful doing similar work he or she obviously has all of the skills required.
Since few managers use this approach, it’s up to the candidate to increase his or her likelihood of success. Here’s how:
How to Become a 90-Day Wonder – The Good Kind
- Don’t accept an offer until job expectations have been clarified. During the interviewing process, ask everyone to describe the job expectations. In essence you’re using reverse engineering to create a performance-based job description. Then make sure you’re hired based on your ability and motivation to achieve these objectives. If you don’t know what the work is before you start, or you don’t want to do it, you’re in trouble.
- Demonstrate the process of success during the first 30 days on the job. There’s a step-by-step process the best people follow to achieve any objective. It starts by understanding the problem, conducting tradeoff analyses, putting plans together, obtaining needed resources and approvals and then successfully executing the plan while overcoming obstacles and roadblocks along the way. Don’t wait for the onboarding period to get started on this.
- Demonstrate critical core competencies right away. Taking the initiative is probably the most important, so volunteer for something as soon possible. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate a technical skill or personal strength.
- Build up your personal capital. Accelerate your launch by working as long and as hard as necessary. This will quickly establish your reputation as someone who’s reliable, flexible, and hard-working. It’s hard to break a good reputation and harder to fix a bad one.
- Become visible. Don’t wait for things to happen. Make them happen. It could be finding a mentor, getting assigned to an important cross-functional team or handling a difficult assignment and presenting the results to an executive.
- Do something dramatic to establish your leadership style. If you’re in a critical role with tight deadlines, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re the right person to handle it right away. Being cautious isn’t always the safe thing to do.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking lots of questions demonstrates confidence and inquisitiveness. Not asking questions to prevent being considered foolish is foolish.
- Demonstrate strong team skills. You need to quickly forge important relationships with peers and subordinates. Volunteering to help or coach someone you don’t need to will pay dividends in the future. If you keep it up, it will pay dividends forever.
- Don’t make excuses. Just get it done. Somehow. It’s better to meet every deadline no matter what the challenge, even if the work isn’t perfect. You should do this after the first 90 days, too.
Take advantage of your first 90 days by demonstrating you’re hard-working, can achieve results, take the initiative, communicate extremely well, collaborate and work with others, understand and resolve job-related problems, and don’t make excuses. This is hard work, but it’s a lot harder if you haven’t clarified job expectations before you start. So start here. Everything else will soon be second nature.
Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.
How You Answer and Ask Questions Will Determine if You Get the Job
Over the past few weeks I've interviewed about 20 people for a VP-level position.
…. candidates aren’t judged on how well they do their jobs; they’re judged on how well they describe how they do their jobs.
Not one of these candidates applied for the job. I found them all through LinkedIn or via a referral. Nonetheless, I was dumbfounded that many of these people weren’t great interviewees, yet I suspect they were all remarkable people doing their jobs. Unfortunately, candidates aren’t judged on how well they do their jobs; they’re judged on how well they describe how they do their jobs. When hiring someone, it would be better if the person could go through an actual tryout, similar to how athletes are evaluated. But that will never happen, at least for candidates who are being aggressively wooed. So instead we’re left with judging potential employees via the one-on-one interview. Recognize that if you’re a candidate looking for a job, even a passive candidate, how you present yourself matters. With this in mind, here are some ideas on how to best present yourself.
First, understand that all interviewers are attempting to evaluate the following:
- How skilled you are and how you applied these skills on the job
- If what you've accomplished is comparable to what needs to be accomplished
- How you’d fit with the team, work well with the hiring manager, and fit with the company “culture”
- Your level of drive, initiative, and motivation
- Your upside potential
While all of these factors are important, how they’re measured is pretty unscientific. Techies overvalue the depth of a person’s technical brilliance. Just about all non-techies overvalue the candidate’s first impression, appearance, warmth, and friendliness. Most managers overvalue their intuition and gut feel. Just about everyone has their own pet questions and private techniques they swear by to decide yay or nay. And right or wrong, everyone makes their assessment on all of these things based on how well you communicate your answers. Given this state of affairs, here’s some advice on how to not blow the interview. It starts by communicating better.
Talk in paragraphs, not sentences
The big idea is to talk for 2-3 minutes in response to any question. Short one or two sentence answers are deal-breakers. In these cases, the interviewer has to work too hard to pry the information out of the candidate, and since they don't know what information they need pry out, it will likely be wrong. So talk more than less, but no more than 2-3 minutes per answer, otherwise you're considered boring, ego-centric, and insensitive.
You should practice the multi-paragraph response approach using the SAFW structure below. Then use the SMARTTe or STAR acronym to clarify the example.
- SAFW – just Say A Few Words. To format your basic answers start by making a general opening Statement, Amplify or clarify this opening with a few sentences, then provide a Few examples to prove your opening point. End your answer with a summary Wrap-up and some hooks to get the interviewer to ask a logical follow-up question. Add depth to the example by using SMARTTe or STAR to paint in the important details.
- Give SMARTTe Examples. For the example chosen, describe the Specific task; throw in some Metrics to add color, scope, and scale; add Action verbs describing what you Actually did; define the Result as a deliverable; put a Timeframe around the task, describing when it took place and how long it took; describe the Team involved; and then describe the environment including the pace, the resources available, the challenges involved, and role your boss played.
- Use STAR. This is an alternative approach for interviewers asking behavioral questions. When they ask you to give an example of when you used some behavior, skill, or competency, they’ll follow up by asking about the Situation, Task, Action taken, and the Result achieved. You can beat them to the punch by framing your responses the STAR way.
- End with a Hook. Don’t spill everything out at once. You only have 2-3 minutes, so leave a few key details unanswered. This will prompt the interviewer to follow up with some logical questions. A forced hook is something like, “Is this type of project relevant to what you need done?”
- Remember the Big E for Example. If you forget all of this, don’t forget to give lots of examples of actual accomplishments to prove every strength and neutralize every weakness.
Interviewers really like it when they don’t have to work too hard to figure out if you’re any good. Well-constructed answers provide insight into your intelligence and potential, your enthusiasm and motivation, your ability to deal with people, and of course how competent you are. Most important of all: your ability to influence others to make important decisions starts by influencing them to hire you.
Note: if you don’t want to wait for more job-seeker advice on this blog, I’ve put a video series together that covers job-seeking from A-Z. There’s also a bunch of job-seeker secrets hidden in plain sight in The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired. This post, Learn to Dance and Other Job-Hunting Secrets, provides a non-traditional approach to finding a job and getting interviewed.
(NOTE - this is not the ONLY question, just the most important. Make sure you check out THE ANSWER (Part 2) post. Part 3 is for job-seekers on how to prepare for the interview.)
Over the past 30+ years as a recruiter, I can confirm that at least two-thirds of my hiring manager clients weren’t very good at interviewing. Yet, over 90% thought they were. To overcome this situation, it was critical that I became a better interviewer than them, to prove with evidence that the candidate was competent and motivated to do the work required. This led me on a quest for the single best interview question that would allow me to overcome any incorrect assessment with actual evidence.
It took about 10 years of trial and error. Then I finally hit upon one question that did it all.
Here’s it is:
What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far?
To see why this simple question is so powerful, imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select? Then imagine over the course of the next 15-20 minutes I dug deeper and asked you about the following. How would you respond?
- Can you give me a detailed overview of the accomplishment?
- Tell me about the company, your title, your position, your role, and the team involved.
- What were the actual results achieved?
- When did it take place and how long did the project take.
- Why you were chosen?
- What were the 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
- Where did you go the extra mile or take the initiative?
- Walk me through the plan, how you managed to it, and if it was successful.
- Describe the environment and resources.
- Describe your manager’s style and whether you liked it or not.
- Describe the technical skills needed to accomplish the objective and how they were used.
- Some of the biggest mistakes you made.
- Aspects of the project you truly enjoyed.
- Aspects you didn’t especially care about and how you handled them.
- How you managed and influenced others, with lots of examples.
- How you were managed, coached, and influenced by others, with lots of examples.
- How you changed and grew as a person.
- What you would do differently if you could do it again.
- What type of formal recognition did you receive?
If the accomplishment was comparable to a real job requirement, and if the answer was detailed enough to take 15-20 minutes to complete, consider how much an interviewer would know about your ability to handle the job. The insight gained from this type of question would be remarkable. But the real issue is not the question, this is just a setup. The details underlying the accomplishment are what's most important. This is what real interviewing is about – getting into the details and comparing what the candidate has accomplished in comparison to what needs to be accomplished. Don’t waste time asking a lot of clever questions during the interview, or box checking their skills and experiences: spend time learning to get the answer to just this one question.
As you’ll discover you’ll then have all of the information to prove to other interviewers that their assessments were biased, superficial, emotional, too technical, intuitive or based on whether they liked the candidate or not. Getting the answer to this one question is all it takes.