The Art of the Interview

By Scott Westerman

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“I had a job interview at an insurance company once and the lady said ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ and i said ‘Celebrating the fifth year anniversary of you asking me this question’” Mitch Hedberg

I LOVE interviews. They are a fascinating way to understand what makes people tick and are perhaps the most important exercise we’ll ever do in business. So when my friend Susan Flynn asked about my process for finding the best suited player to add to a team, it was an opportunity to review the Art of the Interview both from the perspective of the employer and the candidate.

Once we have whittled down the forest of applications to the handful who will earn some face time, I like to send them some pre-work. Since most interviews are an hour or less, the “tell me your life story” approach isn’t very productive. I like to guide the candidate’s preparation in the direction of the core competencies we seek.

The letter I send goes something like this:

“Since our time together will be short and we want to get the best feel for your skills and experience, here is a brief prep sheet with some of the key questions we may ask. Also included is a scenario that mirrors a real life situation here at our organization. Please prepare this ahead of time. You are also welcome to bring any supporting documents or other information that can give us a sense of how well your skill set might fit into the organization.”

This levels the playing field and will immediately show you who is serious about the job. I find that 20% of my applicants drop out when they get this. The degree of preparation will be evident and is a great indicator of how well they will fit once they get into the company.

Now to the questions. Think about the dimensions of the job you are hiring for and ask yourself the following:

What is the company’s purpose?
Who are your clients?
How many team members do you have?
How do you measure success?
What’s your current biggest challenge?
How much collaborative work goes on? Who will the new people work with?
How would you describe the culture? What’s the vibe like around the office?

How you answer these questions can help frame your conversation with the applicants. For example, if you are an investment firm who works with an older demographic, made up of ultra successful people, one question might be:

“Most of the clients you will work with are seasoned professionals with a high net worth. Describe two experiences where you have successfully interacted with clients like these.”

If you’ve shared your company’s success metrics, you can ask, the candidates how THEIR previous employers measured success. If you shared metrics, they should be able to reflexively tell you theirs.

If your office environment is all Type A, with lots of overtime and a driven CEO who doesn’t offer much praise, you might ask:

“Our office culture attracts self-starters who often work extra hours and don’t require a lot of praise to feel successful. Have you ever worked in an environment like this? If so, tell us about the environment and how you were able to thrive in it.”

If you’re hiring for a customer service position a great question to ask is,

“Tell me about your favorite customer recovery story. A situation where you turned an unhappy client into a cheerleader.”

If you use certain tools, like Excel or Access, ask them to explain how pivot tables work and if they have ever written an SQL query.

And consider giving them a project to prepare for you. Here’s one I used for a recent opening we had at MSUAA:

Create an on-line career development application to help people around the world grow in skill and confidence in their chosen profession. What are the key components of the program? What budget and resources will you need? How will you measure its success? How would you roll it out? Prepare a ten minute, high level briefing on your program, designed to be presented to the vice president of the unit.

By giving your applicants this head start you can jump into the conversation with a question like this: “So.. you’ve had a chance to digest the pre-work we sent you. How did it strike you?”

How they answer that will say a lot. Then you can dig in on the details.

Make sure you save at least 15 minutes at the end for this one: “We’ve put you through the ringer for most of the last hour. I wanted to make sure you had the chance to ask us any questions you may have.”

Now put on your interviewee hat. How can you use this intelligence to present yourself as a winner? The best candidates will go into “consultant” mode and will give you the sense that they already work for you. They will roll up their sleeves and start solving problems with you right during the interview. These are the people you want to hire.

The interview mating dance isn’t about finding the “best qualified” person for the job. There are a lot of people who have excellent qualifications. It’s about discovering the person “best suited” to be a successful member of your team. Skills and abilities are important, but so is chemistry. So create an interview team of individuals who will interact with the new team member on a daily basis. Remind each of them that a “yes” vote for that person means that they, too, have accountability for the candidate’s success on the job.

And if you don’t find the right person in the first round of interviews, keep looking. It will be time consuming and expensive to toss someone out the door, so take your time on the front end and be very careful who you let inside.

Understanding the nuances of a job interview can help you effectively prepare, no matter which side of the desk you’re on. And sharing some guidelines to focus a candidate’s preparation will help you think deeply about the true core competencies your team will need to be successful.