The art of the interview: how to find great people

You can train a turkey to climb a tree but it’s easier to hire a squirrel”

art of the interview
If you want to have a successful business or lead a high performance team (and who doesn’t?) then you need to be excellent at interviews. Sitting down with people and talking to them in a structured way is at the heart of (i) identifying good people and (ii) motivating them to want to join the organisation!

This matters because, by and large, good people do good work and don’t need excessive amounts of management time to keep them on track. So it makes sense to take the time and trouble to hire capable staff. However, research by Korn Ferry suggests that 40% of newly appointed managers don’t live up to expectations and the cost of turnover, due to a poor appointment, is 2-4 times salary. Of course no approach to hiring can be perfect; we are trying to predict future behaviour and sometimes, try as we might, we are going to make the wrong choice. The question is ‘how to minimise the number of hiring mistakes we make?’ So how then is it possible to work out if someone is (most likely) the right person for the job?

Failing to plan is planning to fail

Great interviewing starts with proper preparation: it’s hard to make good choices if you don’t know what you want the person to do when they arrive in post, or if different hiring managers are at odds about what the ideal candidate should bring to the party. It’s also not easy to attract talented people if you don’t manage the obvious hygiene factors (like clear communication with the candidate, arriving on time for the interview, having a private setting for the meeting and turning your phone off etc.)

But getting consistently good results also requires the use of specific interview ‘processes’… so what are some examples of effective, standardised, research-based interviewing systems…?

Looking at the numbers

The research says [Oh, I-S., Postlethwaite, B.E., Schmidt, F.L. (2013)] that the best assessment method for deciding who will do well in a new job is a General Mental Ability test (also called psychometric reasoning tests e.g. verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, spatial awareness etc.)

This is then followed by interviews, which, as you might expect, provide insights into a candidate’s self-confidence, impact, relationship building skills etc.

Psychometric tests (as long as they are based on the ‘big five’ personality factors) also add predictive information about success in the job; so they are worth including as well. Initially proposed by W. Fiske (1949) the ‘big five’ are broad personality traits that researchers feel most reliably describe personality: 1. extraversion 2. agreeableness 3. openness 4. conscientiousness and 5. neuroticism

So it’s helpful to include a General Mental Ability test and a personality inventory as part of any hiring process. Tests are usually administered after the interview – why put someone through a testing process unless you’ve decided they are a good fit?

Competencies and why they matter

There are a number of structured formats that could be adopted to question the candidate, but one essential, and research-based component to the selection isprocess, is the “Competency Based Interviewing” method (also called Behavioural Event Interviews -[BEI] and Criterion Based Interviews. Developed by David McClelland of Harvard University in the 1970’s, BEI asks that we identify the distinctive Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes, Traits and Motives (competencies) of high performing people in a given occupation e.g. sales professionals, surgeons, technical support staff etc. and then ask questions of job candidates to see if they have those attributes associated with superior performance. So if our analysis found that (say) “Initiative – taking action, that no one has requested, to avoid problems or create new opportunities”, was important to success in a role, we could ask questions to explore if a candidate had those qualities…

Deceptively simple but very powerful, this takes the form of asking the person to tell you, in detail, about a specific situation when they demonstrated the competency in question…

“Tell me about a time when you… took action, without being prompted, to avoid a potential problem…”

Of course all candidates need to be asked the same questions and be given a similar amount of time to respond. The relative strength of the examples given can then be ranked against an agreed scale e.g. addresses current issues that will arise in the next few days Vs. is decisive in a crisis Vs. anticipates situations 2-5 years ahead etc.

Why competency interviews aren’t enough

One potential problem with competency interviewing is that experienced candidates come armed with a series of anecdotes and so do well by virtue of preparation, rather than necessarily the quality of their actual experiences. This means that BEI needs to be augmented with additional interview methods to get a clear sense of the candidate’s capabilities. For example, “Unstructured Interviews” to assess cultural fit and personal chemistry, and “, Biographical Interviews” to find out about drives, motivation and behaviour.

It’s worth noting that a structured approach that uses tests and a variety of interview techniques also helps to ensure that judgments comply with company policy and avoid legal challenge – recruitment isn’t only about getting the right person for the job, but should also show the workforce that the process was unbiased.

Selling the job

The interview is a two way process – so success doesn’t only mean spotting a talented person; it also means persuading them to accept the job offer. There are two aspects to this: (i) anticipate and answer the candidate’s questions about the role and, (ii) provide a Realistic Job Preview (RJP).

The RJP is a short ‘sales pitch’, which describes both the positive and potentially challenging aspects of the job (Premack & Wanous, 1985). It is based on the theory that there is a ‘psychological contract’ between the employee and the company that sets (informal) expectations about obligations and behaviours (Rousseau 1998). A good RJP excites the candidate about working in the company, but also means that they join with ‘their eyes open’ about any potential difficulties that they might face, so reducing any ‘nasty surprises’ for the new joiner, and by extension, minimising quick turnover.

Know the law

Most countries have legal do’s and don’ts that affect the hiring process, and failing to comply with them can lead to financial loss and reputational damage; so follow the letter of the law.

For example, In the UK it is illegal to discriminate against anyone when making hiring decisions on the grounds of:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Disability

This means that it is important to avoid asking questions of a candidate (or writing text in a advert) that touch on these areas, because it could lead to an unsuccessful candidate claiming that they didn’t get the job as a result of unfair bias. The remedy is to just stick to questions that relate directly to the job they’ve applied to do.

What’s next?

Reflect on how you handle your selection interviews at present. Do you plan thoroughly? Do you have a set formulae, or methodology that you’rer attempting to apply in the face-to-face meeting? What improvements could you make?

Read… Competence at Work; models for superior performance, L Spencer and S Spencer (John Wiley & Sons)

Watch… this three minute clip giving an overview of ‘bad’ interview techniques, followed by examples of competency based questions .

Consider sending your managers on our three day, “Managing the Individual Employee” course (which looks in detail at a wide range of interview situations and formats)…

We also have a half-day workshop on selection interviewing for managers that is a great way of ensuring consistency in the hiring process…

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one- to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you improve your interviewing skill.

And remember…

“People are not your most important asset. The RIGHT people are.”
Jim Collins