Interviews are a crucial part of the recruiting process and when I surveyed recruiters as to what their purpose is, I got the following responses:
- Assess competency and fit: 100%
- Take money off the table: 20%
- Demonstrate to the candidate the recruiter is a career counselor: 13%
- Defend good candidates from bad decisions: 13%
- Assess someone who doesn’t want to be interviewed: 0%
I would argue that while assessing competency and fit is important, the purpose of the interview is actually all of the above. As a recruiter, getting tough-to-impress passive candidates to the interview is quite the feat, and you cannot completely leave the assessment process up to overworking hiring managers who are likely to make mistakes and often times fall for the best presenter instead of the best candidate.
To ensure that the best people make it to the interview and that you are setting up the candidate and the manager for a productive discussion, following these steps:
1. Set the stage by preparing a performance-based job description that describes the job as a series of performance objectives rather than a list of skills and experiences.
Of course you need to get the hiring manager to agree to this profile as the criteria for hiring. Surprisingly, this is not hard. For example, one client wanted a top-notch circuit designer with a MSEE and 10 years of applicable experience. When I asked if he’d interview someone who had less experience but had designed similar state-of-the-art circuits to some acclaim, he instantly agreed.
2. Ask candidates to describe work they’ve accomplished that best compares to what needs to be done.
I suggest the most significant accomplishment question as the primary means for this. This involves 15-20 minutes of digging into each of the person’s comparable accomplishments that best relate to those on the performance-based job description. A pattern soon emerges of where the candidate excels and what organizations best meet their needs.
I used this exact approach to persuade a CFO to hire someone to lead a worldwide implementation of a major ERP-based cost system. The CFO initially thought the candidate didn’t have the technical competence or fortitude to do the job. When I described how he did something similar at a larger firm and was recognized as a global leader in the company the CFO relented and re-interviewed and hired the candidate.
3. Take compensation off the table by showing that the job is a significant career move.
I’ve used these identical techniques for hundreds of searches over the past 20-30 years but have never had enough money in the compensation budget to pay these top-notch people what they initially wanted. However, by demonstrating that the job represents a career move the money became less important.
The key here is to suggest that a career move requires a minimum 30% non-monetary increase consisting of a bigger job, faster growth, more important work and more satisfying work. Just mentioning this as the purpose of the call is enough to get passive candidates to agree to a screening interview. Then, if the job is big enough, compensation is rarely a bottleneck by making it a negotiating item, not a filter.
These are the things you need to do to hire top tier passive candidates on a consistent basis. And most of it takes place during the interview. That’s why its purpose is much more than assessing competency and fit. It’s to make sure the best person, not the most charismatic interviewee, gets hired.
The seductive power of first impressions causes 50% of all hiring mistakes. They can all be eliminated by asking this one simple question about team accomplishments.
When you get emotionally impacted by a candidate's first impression the likelihood of making the best hiring decision is reduced by 50%.
As bad, when you overvalue a person's technical skills before the person's team skills the likelihood of making the best hiring decision is reduced by another 50%.
However, by putting your reaction to a candidate's first impression into the parking and assessing the person's team skills first, you'll increase the accuracy of every single hiring decision you'll ever make.
Here's the why and the how of this rather contentious contention.
Most interviewers tend to unconsciously go out of their way to prove a person with a good first impression is competent. Similarly, they go out of their way to prove a person with a weak first impression is incompetent. Under this spell of first impression bias many attractive, affable, articulate and assertive candidates are hired who under-perform. Under the same spell many top people are not hired since they don't fit the hiring manager's mistaken belief of what a strong candidate needs to look, act and sound like.
The problem is demonstrated in the 2X2 grid. What I've discovered through trial and error is that hiring errors due to first impression bias can be eliminated by assessing team skills at the beginning of the interview. Here's how this is done.
- Script the opening of the interview to increase objectivity. By scripting the first 30 minutes of the interview, everyone will be asked the same questions. The Appendix to The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired has a complete set of sample scripts that cover the first 30 minutes of the interview.
- Measure first impressions at the end of the interview. Whether the impact of first impressions is important for on-the-job success or not, it's important to assess it objectively. At the end of the interview ask yourself whether the person's first impression will help or hinder on-the-job performance.
- Shift your point of view 180°. By assessing team skills before technical skills, you'll quickly understand how others reacted to the candidate both technically and interpersonally. Start with a work history review looking for the Achiever pattern and as part of this ask this team question:
Can you please describe a major recent team accomplishment?
Role playing this question will help to better understand its value. Have the candidate start by describing the accomplishments and then ask the following clarifying questions:
- Who was on the team and what roles did they play?
- When did it occur and what was your assigned role? Did this change at all during the project?
- How did you get on the team and did you select any of the team members?
- What were the objectives of the team and were they met?
- Describe the plan or project and how the team was managed. Were you part of this?
- What was your biggest contribution to the team? How were you recognized formally for this?
- Who did you influence the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
- What did you like most about the team? Least?
- What would you change if you could about the team makeup?
- Who were the executives on the team and did you influence them in any way?
- What was the biggest team problem or conflict you faced and how did you handle it?
This team question and fact-finding reveals a lot about any candidate's team skills. When the same questions are asked for other major team accomplishments with different timeframes even more is learned. The trend of a person's team accomplishments provides tremendous insight about the candidate. Growth in the size, scope, scale and importance of the teams indicates the candidate is respected and trusted by senior people in the company. How and why the person got selected confirms work quality, reliability, cultural fit, the ability to deal with customers, vendors and executives and if the person has developed a cross-functional and strategic perspective.
Focusing on team skills this way is vital, especially since too many interviewers overvalue a candidate's first impressions and his/her individual contribution and technical skills when deciding whether to hire the person or not. You can improve your hiring success rate by more than 100% by putting your first impression bias in the parking lot for 30-60 minutes and focusing on the person's team skills and team growth. As you'll discover, some of the best people in the world aren't great interviewers and some of the least best are.
At a recent recruiting and interviewing course for hiring managers, one of the managers contended that most recruiters aren’t very good at assessing technical skills. Another said they’re not very good at assessing team skills, either.
This is a serious problem.
To minimize the chance of a hiring manager revolt as it becomes easier for them to shift to a do-it-yourself recruiting model, I suggest that recruiters need to become better interviewers than their hiring manager clients. This includes leading panel interviews and debriefing sessions with the hiring team. A critical part of this is being able to assess technical and team skills. Towards this goal, I learned a few tricks along the way I’d like to share with you.
The best techies get assigned stretch jobs soon after starting
I discovered very early in my recruiting career that the best technical people quickly got assigned bigger projects once they proved themselves to their managers and peers. The same is true for the best accountants, the best sales reps, the best marketing people, and the best people in any field. An example will help clarify this technique.
I remember interviewing an engineering manager long ago who told me he was assigned to lead a complex project to minimize the footprint of an electronics circuit for a piece of in-flight test equipment. He had only been on the job a few months – and this was his first full-time job right out of university – but it was apparent to those he worked with he could handle the task.
This would be work that would be typical of a mid-level staff engineer with 3-5 years of experience so it was clear to me the person was a top technical person. I validated this by asking about the results of the project and what other projects he had been assigned to subsequently. Most were stretch jobs or ones that were important to the overall project’s success. When my very technical hiring manager client interviewed the person he agreed he was a top-notch techie whose ability was far beyond his years of experience.
From an interviewing standpoint the conclusion is obvious: The best techies get assigned to jobs over their heads to accelerate their learning and also get assigned to handle critical tasks since their managers trust their ability to successfully handle them.
You don’t need technical skills to come to this conclusion. You just need insightful interviewing skills. Start by asking, “What was the biggest project you were assigned soon after starting on the last job?” Then ask enough follow-up questions to understand why the person was assigned the project, the results of the effort and what happened next.
Those with the strongest team skills get assigned to the strongest teams
A few years ago I was interviewing a person for a controller’s role at an entertainment company. The candidate had only about eight years total experience but she was already a director of accounting, managing a staff of 65 people. She told me that within her first six months at a Big 4 accounting firm she was assigned to advise a major client on how to handle complex international consolidations issues for tax purposes.
I asked who was on the team and what her role was. I then dug into the results that were achieved and what happened due to this work. She told me the CFO of the client firm – a multi-billion group at a Fortune 100 company – personally asked if the accounting firm would make her available to lead an international project team of IT people and mid-level accounting managers for an even larger effort involving the systems integration of her work.
Two years later she left public accounting and was hired by the same firm and rapidly progressed to her current position.
You can figure out this same rate of team progression by having candidates draw 360° work charts for all of their past positions. A work chart describes the people the candidate works for and with and who works for the candidate. Get the titles of the people involved and their functions. You’ll discover the best people get quickly assigned to important projects with visibility to senior managers and executives including those in other functions. If successful, they get assigned to even bigger and more important teams.
The best sales people get assigned the toughest accounts. The best software developers get assigned to build applications that have never been built before. The strongest managers get assigned the toughest management problems. And the best executives get assigned to run companies that need the best executives.
When you’re interviewing candidates find out why they got assigned to these projects, the results they achieved and what happened next. Then use this information to defend you assessment from hiring managers who are using superficial or flawed interviewing techniques. That’s how non-techies can become better interviewers than their clients and become valued advisors throughout the hiring process.