This 6-Step Prep Process Is the Difference Between a Great Interview and an Ineffective One

April 24, 2017

Lately, there’s been debate over how much interviews really matter. But for me, there’s no question. After eight years in talent acquisition, I’m convinced the interview is the linchpin to making the right hire.

The problem is, few recruiters and hiring managers take the time to really prepare. And, preparing isn’t just jotting down a few of your favorite questions (or one’s that Google suggests). It’s taking time to figure what you are looking for and, based on that, creating a “true north” that guides every step in your interview process.

When interviews are unstructured, there’s no surprise that they don’t predict future performance and fit. By outlining what you are really looking for, you’ll be able to avoid biases and assess candidates for the skills and traits they need to do they job well.

So to create an interview process that really works, I’ve formulated this step-by-step guide:

1. Get clear on your company’s talent brand and culture

Start by being mindful of your employer brand. If yours is already delineated, think about the characteristics of the people it appeals to. If it isn’t, I’d suggest researching companies whose employer brands you admire (for me, it’s Google, Facebook, and GE).

What are your key employee value propositions? How do these relate to your company’s core values? Are you all about transparency? Teamwork? Keep these in mind.

2. Define the key qualities inherent to the role

Next, make a list of what you want and don’t want in an applicant. What personality traits, past experiences, and other telltale cues are important for this role?

If the role requires drawing on years of work experience, then you don’t want someone fresh out of school. If you value loyalty, you’ll want to understand a candidate’s reason for leaving his or her current role.

It’s also helpful to study people that are already succeeding in a similar role. What makes your best sales rep a star? How is your marketing manager able to accomplish so much on any given day? Touchstones like these help you avoid sacrificing essential job requirements in lieu of someone that just “seems” good.

3. Identify 5-10 traits that foretell candidate success--both in the company and for the role

With your touchstones, your core values, and your employer brand in mind, create two lists of “essential traits” in a candidate—one for the company and another for the role. Ask:

  • What are the 5-10 essentials to the company?
  • What are the 5-10 essentials to the role?
  • What are the things you and the company don’t need?

I recommend steering clear of basic traits like honesty, trustworthiness, and decency. That way, you’re not setting too low of a bar (trust me: you’ll screen out applicants that don’t pass muster). Instead, list higher traits like leadership, accountability, loyalty.

For the company, look to your culture: not whether you’d like to get a beer with this person on Friday night, but whether the person reflects your company’s values—and will push them forward. Is customer service a company tenet? Write down friendliness, attentiveness. Is entrepreneurship one of the rules everyone lives by? Write down risk-taking, innovation, and ownership.

For the role, identify your top priorities. Maybe you want your controller to be meticulous, organized, and methodical. Maybe the new analyst should be data driven, inquisitive, insightful.

4. Craft action-oriented interview questions around those essential traits

Now, craft questions that test those traits. Aim for 1-2 questions per trait, or a total of 10-40 questions.

At my company, we value risk-takers, so I make sure to include at least one question that gauges this factor. I ask every candidate to describe a time they took a chance that led to a success or a failure—and relay how they handled the outcome.

If you value excellence, ask candidates to define what going above and beyond means to them, and to describe a time they did so—and tell you what happened. I’ve listed many more questions below, so you can pick and choose according to your needs.

Sample questions for key traits:

Level setting: Company basics & role alignment

  • What do you know about the company?
  • Describe the role you’re interviewing for.
  • What interests you about the company / role?

Proof points: Subject expertise & problem-solving

  • Walk me through your past work history that is similar/relevant/related to this role.
  • Give me an example of one of the most challenging situations/projects and how did you overcome it. What did you learn?
  • Here is a scenario [xyz]. How would you handle it?

Drive for excellence: Gauge in dedication & drive for excellence

  • Tell me about what you’re most passionate about in the work you do.
  • What does going above and beyond on a project mean to you?
  • Please give me an example and describe a time when you went above and beyond.

Ability to lead: Effective communications & influence

  • Describe a situation where you needed to use persuasion to convince someone to see things your way. What steps did you take? What were the results?
  • Give me an example of a time when you felt you led by example. What did you do and how did others react?

Judgement & prioritization: Ability to self-manage

  • Recall a time when your manager was unavailable when a problem arose. What was the nature of the problem? How did you handle that situation? What happened as a result?
  • How have you contributed to a more productive team?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to juggle several projects at the same time. How did you organize your time? What happened as a result?

Accountability: Ownership and integrity in role and/or project

  • Describe a time when you thought the decision made was NOT the right thing to do. How did you address your concerns? What was the result?
  • Describe a project that you owned where in hindsight, would have managed differently.
  • How would you work with less motivated team members? How would you handle it?

Data driven: Level of comfort with data, insights & analysis

  • How are you measured in your current role?
  • What are the key metrics you measure for [xyz]?
  • Share an example where you were responsible for analyzing the performance of a project, the data gathered, and and insights you gained. What actions did you take as a result of your analysis?

Culture: Working with others & cultural fit

  • What do you think your colleagues / manager would say about you?
  • What type of management style do you work well with? What management styles do you not work well with?
  • Describe an ideal culture you are looking for.

Motivations: Needs & wants

  • What would motivate you to make a move from your current role?
  • Where do you see yourself 5-10 years from now?
  • What motivates/inspires you to come to work and do your best

5. Ask all of your candidates the same questions.

Asking every candidate for each role the same set of questions is more strategic than it sounds. Done right, it replaces guesswork with data, and shows you who will succeed. Also, it treats your candidates fairly, and prevents the interview from being guided by a particularly vivacious personality or an Ivy League education.

I start by showing interest in the candidate. Then I ask “why us?” Finally, I elicit a few proof points—and get clear on which of our essential traits they embody, and which they do not. And I’d know all of this ahead of time because I took the time to plan.

6. Pay attention to what candidates say and how they say it

During the interview, ask yourself:

  • Does the candidate provide a succinct answer with a clear and defined example. How they answer questions can be indicative of how they communicate overall.
  • Are they detail oriented? Or do they leave a lot to be questioned?

Be sure to look out for candidates who take credit for themselves, but blame their mistakes on others. Do they say “we” or “they” a lot, instead of taking responsibility for their actions? Another red flag—candidates who spend a lot of time speaking ill of previous employers. Accountability is important and this may mean they will make excuses when they work for you. Body language can also offer some insight. Does the candidate seem comfortable and open? Or the opposite?

With all that said, you’re interviewing a person. And people get nervous during interviews. If a candidate’s first answer isn’t what you’re looking for, see if you can ask them a few follow up questions to get them to open up.

Final thoughts

Forget about the “beer test,” or first impressions, or stellar rapport. Your hiring process needs to measure a candidate’s skill set, not how well they interview. And in my book, the best way to do that is to sit down, figure out what matters most to the role, craft your interview questions, then systematically ask them of all qualified candidates, and really listen to the answers. Follow this process, and watch your recruiting process go smoothly—and lead to better, happier hires.

*Image by Andrés Nieto Porras

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