Effective Interviewing (or how to REALLY get to know someone in 60 minutes)

Hiring is a funny thing – no where else in life do you choose a partner for a long-term, co-dependent relationship based on an hour-long conversation. Thankfully, there are some proven tactics you can use to get the best possible sense for how a candidate will behave on the job, however they do require some work up-front and some discipline when it comes to the interview.

Preparing for interviews and planning your questions

70% of your success lies in this step. The goal of preparing interview questions ahead of time is to make sure you compare candidates on equal footing, and to help you stay on track in the interview. Have you ever concluded an interview only to realize that you chatted for 10 minutes about their experience, but had a great 20 minute chat about the NHL playoffs?

To start creating a list of interview questions, dig out the job description you wrote for the posting. Using the preliminary job description as a starting point, list the essential job functions – the 6 to 10 tasks, goals, or projects that the new hire will focus on day-to-day. For example, a few essential job functions for a VP of Sales might be:

  • Create the yearly sales forecast and break the forecast down into team and individual sales goals
  • Build the overall sales strategy for the company
  • Create and maintain sales funnel metrics to track overall progress

Again, you should have somewhere between 6 and 10 essential job functions for a given job.

Now, for each essential function, list out the technical skills and work habits required for each of those functions – 1 or 2 for each function. Technical skills are WHAT a candidate needs to know to do the job, while work habits describe HOW they perform in a job. For example, if you were hiring a social media coordinator, and an essential job function is to update the Instagram account daily, a technical skill would be “digital photography” and a work habit would be “self-organizing”. When you’re done, prioritize the list and you should have around 5 skills and 5 habits that are a must for the role. You’re ready to start crafting your questions.

Behavior-based interview questions

Behavior-based interviewing isn’t my idea – rather it’s the central theme of an excellent booked titled “High Impact Hiring”. In my opinion, behavior-based interviewing is the least error prone and most effective interviewing method for technical managers.

Candidates are savvy – they’ve read the books, been to many interviews, and are locked and loaded for the “what is your biggest weakness” questions. The purpose of behavior-based interviewing is to dig into the candidate’s behavior – how do they behave on the job? Past behavior is an indicator of future behavior. The trick is to dig beyond what they want you to hear and find specific examples of how they handled tasks and situations on previous jobs.

From each job function you should have about five technical skills and work habits. For each of these skills and habits, you need to come up with at least two questions (for a total of around 10) that help you determine if this person meets your criteria. Use open-ended questions rather than closed-ended questions.  

Open-ended questions start with: “Give me an example of” or “tell me the story about”. An open-ended question gives the candidate the opportunity to describe behaviors in their own words.

Avoid closed-ended questions such as: “Do you have experience working with Salesforce?” or “Have you ever worked in a fast-paced environment?”. When confronted with a closed-ended question, the candidate will tell you what you want to hear, and nothing more.

Behavior-based interviewing requires that you train the candidate to respond with behavior-based examples. Typically, candidates answer questions with a characteristic, for example, “I’m a good problem solver”. If you dig a little more, they might answer with a general process or testimonial, for example, “In my last job I successfully solved a lot of problems using a problem solving method I learned in school”. Pressed further, they may talk about “what we did at Acme co” (as opposed to “what I did at Acme Co). All of these rely on the candidate’s own view of themselves, or their ability to sell themselves – both completely useless to you. None of these responses tell you “does this person really know what they say they know”.

What you need is a behavior-based description – a story recalling a single event with considerable detail what they did given a certain problem or situation. You can train the candidate by asking them open-ended questions built around a handy acronym – STAR: Situation or Task, Action and Result. For example: “Tell me about a specific time when you used your problem solving skills. Tell me about the Situation or Task, what Action you took, and what the Result was.” Keep digging – ask for more detail and rephrase the question until you find out what the real action and result was.

Beyond behavior-based interviewing, here are a few other tips we’ve picked up to getting the most out of every interview:  

Use silence to your advantage. Silence is uncomfortable, but fight the urge to  help the candidate along and give them hints about what you’d like to hear; let them know they have time to think and let them formulate the answer.

Interrupt to maintain control: Mom always taught you that interrupting is rude, but in an interview, you have to interrupt from time to time to make sure you get through the full set of questions. If you run out of time with seven questions unanswered, you will have no way of comparing this candidate on an equal, objective footing.

Never answer your own questions: It’s tempting sometimes, especially if the candidate is keen, to give hints or help answer questions. Let the candidate sweat it out if they don’t know the answer. Give them a reasonable amount of time (a minute) to answer and move on to the next question. If they don’t know the answer, it’s not your responsibility to teach them either.

Pressure cooker questions: I like to introduce a question or two that is a little uncomfortable to answer, but will give me some insight into how they work with others. One of my favorites is “what did you and your manager disagree on most often?”. The key is to not let them off the hook. Their first answer will almost always be “nothing, we got along great”, to which your follow up should be “Of course, but there has to be something on which you didn’t see eye to eye”. Their answer can give you interesting insights into how they manage conflict.

The Impossible Question: The Impossible Question is something I borrowed from Microsoft and Joel Spolsky. It’s fallen a little out of favor lately, but I still like it as a way of judging how open-minded someone is, and how they react to challenges. It’s a question the candidate will have no hope of answering correctly, which gives you a strong indication of how they will react to tough problems. An example of an impossible question would be, “how many gas stations are there in Philidelphia?” or “how would you move the Washington Monument to Los Angeles?”  A smart candidate will realize you’re not quizzing them on their knowledge, and enthusiastically jump into trying to solve it – these are the people I look for. Others will look at you like you’re crazy, and will need a lot of prompting. An important thing to note is that The Impossible Question is NOT a puzzle or a brainteaser. Brainteasers tell you nothing except whether or not the candidate has heard the puzzle in the past.

Leave time for their questions: One of the most insightful parts of an interview are when you turn it over to the candidate and say “What would you like to know about working here? Ask me anything”. What they ask (and don’t ask) tells you a lot about their values, and about how well they prepared for the interview.

In the next (and final) installment on hiring, I’ll dig into how to decide among candidates, how (and why) to do reference checks, and making the offer. Stay tuned!