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In my own experiences conducting my first hiring interview as a new manager. I thought I was all set. After all, I had a freshly minted MBA and had been in my job for 5 years, so interviewing would be easy, right? Then the helpful woman in HR pointed out that we had missed a show stopping factor in the new candidate. In hindsight, I realized that in my MBA program we had not learned anything about interviewing. Nothing. So, when my clients tell me they are lousy interviewers, I get it. A key part of our service is to help people conduct more effective interviews, because better interviews lead to stronger hiring decisions, healthier team alignment, and better results for your customers.
Two valuable tips about interviewing:
- Do not stop with one question—dig deeper. Ask at least 2 or 3 related but more challenging questions to be sure you are hearing the candidate’s unvarnished response.
- Listen carefully to a candidate’s responses, but also “see” the candidate’s responses. 70% of communication is non-verbal, so watch their body language.
We build our interview questions around three assessments that provide a ready structure designed to reveal specific information about people.
The first is Behavior. You can read a companion blog on behavior here. Behavior is useful because it is all about perception and impressions. You may hesitate to send a chatterbox, super friendly extrovert to your #1 client who is a super serious and critical task-master. That chatterbox account manager may be very knowledgeable and effective, but the chemistry may be all wrong. You can read the behavior of the job candidate without asking any specific question, so use your power of observation throughout the interview to place the candidate in one or two of the following categories:
If you are uncomfortable with someone’s style or think it may be too much for the team or client to absorb, keep that in mind, but do not write off the candidate just yet. Behavior is superficial and you must go deeper. Likewise, do not fall in love with the candidate just because you like their behavior style. That may be a reflection of your bias more than a predictor of success.
If you take away nothing else from this blog, remember this: My business exists because of your behavioral bias. That you like or connect with the candidate has little to do with whether or not they can be successful and productive in a particular job in your particular culture.
The second assessment we turn to is Motivators. This is very useful because specific motivators are linked to success in specific jobs. If you can get a clear indication of the candidate’s world view, you will know if they have what it takes to be successful in the job and how well they will align with your culture.
Another valuable tip about interviewing:
- Ask the candidate what they would do if they had a free afternoon, day, or month to themselves. What are their hobbies? They may be too busy to indulge those hobbies today, but find out what they enjoy doing the most.
This is a great question because it is not a “serious” interview question, and opens a chance to get to know your candidate in a more personal way. It can lighten up the mood of the interview, but the candidate’s answer to the question about hobbies can provide direction to your first set of structured interview questions.
Consider these three Business Motivators. At least two of these motivators need to be strong for any business-oriented role like accounts, sales, or management.
For most positions today, learning and staying ahead of the curve is important, if not critical. But the most important thing to understand is that reading, taking classes, and teaching are all behaviors. You want to dig deeper into what they read, how often they read, and what they do with the information they read. Ask them what courses, books, webinars, and so on they have attended/read recently. If they tell you they read constantly, but they read romance novels, this reading behavior does not translate into a motivation to learn. General interest in science, documentaries, or the technical journals of their profession are better indicators of intellectual curiosity.
Follow up with questions that pinpoint whether they value taking the time and energy to investigate something or master a subject.
“Give me an example of research you did to validate or gain more information on the subject? Describe the project and what you were digging into. When was that?”
Note if they claim to love research, but the last project they researched was 3 years back, then learning is not a high priority compared to other factors.
General curiosity is also a very good sign and can be demonstrated by the candidate asking smart questions when given the opportunity in the interview.
Warning! Every motivator has a downfall if over-emphasized. In the case of Knowledge and Discovery, it is analysis paralysis. While intellectual curiosity is a positive trait, ultimately there’s a need for action. Give the candidate a situation like
“You have a big project, and lots of questions, and a deadline coming right up. How do you make sure all your questions get answered and you still deliver on time?”
Expect the candidate to give a good answer, so follow up with a couple more questions that build the stress level. For example:
“The client has called you to see about moving up the deadline. How do you keep the client happy and get those questions answered?”
Ideally you want a response that indicates the ability to make a decision or take action even when there’s ambiguity to the situation.
This is a good time to notice their body language! If the candidate seems anxious or nervous with a question like this, maybe they do not handle stress well or maybe they do not like to be pushed to make a decision….so keep probing with more questions. A practiced interviewer may give you all “right” answers, but it is hard to hide body language.
There’s no question that businesses want people who appreciate the practical realities of making a profit. Almost everyone values money, and may negotiate hard for an increased salary, but do not be confused by those behaviors. Focus instead on a worldview that calculates cost/benefit as part of their decision-making process. On the question of hobbies, people with a strong ROI may not have true hobbies. They play golf not so much for the enjoyment of the game, but for staying in contact with prospects and clients. They flip houses not because they love carpentry, but for the payoff. Use situational questions to understand how they balance, for example, doing a little extra for a customer versus staying within budget.
“How do you handle a situation where a client wants more service, but makes it clear they are not willing to pay for it? What if this extra effort wipes out our profit margin or causes scheduling problems with other clients?”
Are they overly focused on pleasing the client, or because they want to provide more value for the money and maintain the margin?
Warning! An over-focus on ROI can lead to short-term thinking. With that in mind, ask more situational questions that weigh long-term planning and strategic thinking against a need for immediate payback.
“What if it is our best client? What if we have spare capacity right now?”
This factor measures the desire for command and control. This is not a measure of their competency as a people manager or executive leadership. Many owners and managers I talk to have a low leadership score; this simply means that they pursue leadership for other reasons, like the pay is better (ROI), or they will learn something new (Knowledge & Discovery).
For someone with a leadership background in chairing boards and committees, it may be just a behavior, and not necessarily an indication of leadership motivation. So, ask questions that help you understand why they spend their time in leadership roles.
“Those roles can be super time consuming, why take the time? What do you hope to accomplish by taking on a leadership role? What organizations are you currently in a leadership role?”
Someone motivated by leadership may do so to better control the organization’s direction or quality of their product. They may talk about visibility in the community but dig a little deeper because the real motivator there might be to make business connections and sell more widgets (ROI). You can ask a negative question like:
“Would you be as satisfied in your role if you had no leadership responsibilities whatsoever?”
Warning! Being overly focused on self-promotion; or being a “control freak” is a risk with very strong leadership focus. A steady drumbeat of responses that all point to control and being in charge may be too much for the job you have in mind, or the candidate is telling you that he or she is expecting rapid fire promotions to be content at your organization. A question I asked recently was
“Do you want to be the very best at your craft?”
A humble response like “no, I do not have to be the very best, but I want to be in the top 10%” may indicate a strong motivation for leadership, without the risk factors.
We also consider four Humanistic Motivators which are desirable to balance out a strong business focus and are appropriate in roles that are less business oriented or more support oriented.
On the surface this is about creativity and so artistic hobbies are a major clue – so the question about hobbies, once again, is a good place to start. Love of travel and experiences may be driven by an aesthetic motivator, especially if those experiences are not about competition. However, aesthetics is more than art and beauty; it is a measure of systems thinking.
“Do you speak any languages other than English? What attracted you to [digital position, programming, web design]? Provide an example of a system you built to solve a problem in your personal or professional life.”
Jobs like this benefit from someone who can see order in chaos. An example of this is where they routinely have created or implemented systems over the years.
Warning! Impracticality is a risk with an over focus on creativity and Aesthetics. Aesthetics is often the opposite of Leadership and ROI, which may be OK for a designer but not in a business-oriented role.
This is clearly a positive motivator in a support role and can take the “edge” off a style that is otherwise all about business, tasks, and projects. Ask something like:
“In what ways, if any, are you involved in your community?”
If they coached their daughter’s softball team, but only while their daughter was on the team, maybe they were just being a good parent. But if they have been a children’s sport coach for many years, that may be a sign of a giving nature. Go deeper and ask why they coach, volunteer, or what have you. If for example they donated to the United Way, but did it “for the tax deduction” this person might not really be motivated by helping people.
Warning! People who are extremely focused on Helping Others may take things very personally. Constructive feedback could be taken as a personal attack, and any hint of negativity or meanness is magnified for them. Ask them:
“Tell me about a time when your work was criticized. How did you handle the situation and how did it make you feel?”
Ideally you want a response indicating that they objectively listened to the criticism and implemented improvements, but did not take the criticism as a personal attack.
This motivator wants to do things “right” and can be narrowly focused on a few specific values or beliefs. This is attractive in fiduciary roles like accounting and auditing; but also customer service, for example.
Ask about a situation where they felt they could not be flexible or “rules” or principles that are not bendable. Paint a difficult situation with a client, employee or vendor and ask about the right way to handle it.
Most people will point to beliefs like honesty, but someone with especially strong values will have a more specific and comprehensive view of the situation.
Warning! For someone who is passionate about doing the “right” thing in the “right” way, there is a risk of rigidity. This is not always a problem and can be position specific. You want your auditors to be more inflexible, for example, but you and your staff will likely appreciate an HR officer who is less rigid.
Ask if there have been situations in their work experience when they were absolutely convinced their rules or standards were superior to their employer’s. If so, why were theirs better? Were they able to convince people that their beliefs were better?
Someone with strong guiding principles will tend to hold firmly to their beliefs.
People who are motivated by peace and harmony typically will not rock the boat and are good peacemakers. For individuals who exhibit behaviors and competencies that are “less sensitive”, this motivator may add some calm to their style.
Pose a hypothetical situation where a team member or employee has made a mistake. What does the candidate do? Do they just let it go (an indicator of peace & harmony) or do they confront it immediately?
Warning! An over-emphasis on Peace & Harmony can result in absolute conflict avoidance. To get to this potential problem, intensify the hypothetical situation above:
this person keeps making mistakes over and over. A what point are you forced to take serious action like confronting this person, reporting them to their manager, or even firing the person?
Preferably you want to hear a response that indicates the candidate brings the mistake to the person’s attention before it turns into a bigger problem. Total conflict avoidance is rarely helpful.
Another possibility with this style is the issue of work-life balance. It is fair to say everyone looks for this, but those who are over-focused on Peace & Harmony may consider any demand to work extra hours on a project or to interfere with any part of a family event is unacceptable. Ask about this directly,
“how do you maintain your work-life balance? What if there is a conflict in either direction, how do you deal with that? What if a team member or colleague refused to work extra hours that interfered with his or her personal plans?”
You are looking for flexibility, empathy and creative approaches to deal with the type of situations.
The final assessment we turn to is Competencies. This is where you can interview for attitudes, work or leadership style, and the energy and drive for performance.
This is not about being nice, it is about seeing people as individuals and reading them well. Pay attention to the interviewee’s ability to listen, understand, and fully respond to your questions. Slip ups in this area may indicate a deeper lack of capacity to listen or to read people well.
Ask the candidate to describe how they have handled a difficult customer or colleague. Inappropriate comments such as “oh I just ignore them; I don’t have time to listen to their complaining” might point to lack of empathy. On the other hand, someone with too much empathy may not be able to set boundaries and can be a people pleaser.
Paint a situation where a colleague or employee is always late or not performing well, what is their initial response? If the behavior continues, how does their response change?
Look for responses where they attempt to understand the individual’s situation or state of mind before coming down hard with penalties or warnings.
Over focus: You still need to see action to turn around the problem! Super strong empathy may mean they never hold people accountable. You can explore this by expanding the situation described above and ask pointedly, “what action will do you take to stop the problem?” This is a good time to remind you to pay attention to body language, if empathy is a problem, the candidate may be visibly uncomfortable with this example.
EXECUTING PLANS and ACHIEVING RESULTS
Whether a leader or worker, a candidate needs to understand the mechanics of their craft and appreciate the practical aspects of getting a job done with appropriate focus on detail.
In the interview, have them discuss the key tools they use on complex projects, and how they keep themselves or their teams organized. In an ideal response, they demonstrate a deep understanding of the tools but also a deep understanding of why you need to use tools.
“How do you keep up when you have multiple tasks to handle at once, and make sure each job gets done correctly and on time?”
A leader who does not fully understand the mechanics of managing people or projects, or a worker who does not understand how to manage details will make mistakes.
Over focus: Someone who is overfocused in this area prefers to roll up their sleeves and do the work. For a leader, you might ask:
“Is it better to take the time to explain a task to someone else or to just do it yourself? Talk about a time where you took the time to teach someone and it backfired. Talk about a time where you did it yourself and that backfired.”
For a worker, modify the question slightly:
“On a challenging project, where do you draw the line about asking for help or just diving into the project? Give an example of where you resisted the temptation to just get it done, and how that paid off or not.”
For both the leader and the worker, you really want to hear that they know how to keep things in balance.
STRATEGY, PLANNING and ORGANIZATION
The key is to explore if the candidate understands that plans and strategy are necessary to facilitate communication of what is important—direction, values, outcomes, expectations.
Create a situation where bending the rules helps get a project done more quickly. Ask a series of questions that will help you understand how the candidate balances practicality and rule-following, such as:
“If you had been in a leadership position in your last company, what changes would you make to improve systems or results?”
If they seem too quick to throw the previous employer under the bus, this may indicate a disrespect for rules of any kind.
“If you are in charge of a project or a team, where do you draw the line between micro-managing and providing enough information?”
You want a response that is calibrated to the audience. If it is a new team or colleague, the candidate will understand they need to be more prescriptive in their directions. If it is a well-seasoned team, they will understand that a simple order to proceed is all that is required.
Over focus: If the candidate is extremely focused on being directive no matter the situation he or she may be inflexible and controlling. Get to this by building on the above situation:
“What if you give a directive and the individual or team takes some license with your direction and something goes wrong? What if the outcome is just fine?”
A controlling type may not like any deviation from the instructions no matter the outcome, where others may turn this into a teaching moment.
The core attitudes we just reviewed will tell you about a candidate’s talent and how they use it. Now we look at whether they can pull it altogether and fulfill their promise in the role you have in mind and interview to their energy and drive to perform.
EGOTISTICAL or SELF CONFIDENT?
Pay attention throughout the interview to things like if they always refer to “me/my/I” or if they frequently talk about their “team/colleagues/we” in describing their successes.
If you ask:
“Which area of your work needs the most improvement?”
An answer like, “I work too hard”, may reveal an attitude that the candidate has no real faults, and feels there are no areas for self-improvement. If you get an answer like that, I would come back with:
“most employers do not mind if you work too hard, but what about your approach to work [or leadership] would you say could be improved? What feedback have you most often gotten about your work [or leadership] style?”
And a good follow up to the last question: “What have you done about it?”
Over focus: People who might be considered egotistical or narcissistic are more than unpleasant to be around, they have no energy & drive for performance. If they feel they have already arrived, and have nothing more to learn, then they will not take your constructive feedback seriously, and stop growing. An exception to this might be a very young candidate looking for his or her first position. They may appear egotistical, and trying too hard to make a positive impression or simply have not been seriously tested. If you suspect ego is an issue, address it with questions like:
“Describe a time when you got some tough feedback from a boss or colleague. How did that make you feel? What did you do with that information?”
Again, this might be an especially good time to judge the candidate’s emotional state or body language.
Ask what they like and dislike about their current or past positions. Dig in with more questions when you hear something they love doing that is not part of the role for which they are being considered, or something they hate doing that is definitely part of the job. You want to make sure they understand they job you are offering and that this is something they want, as opposed to being steppingstone to something else.
Pay attention to humor and other hints about what they really think about their work. Keep in mind that they are applying to your company undoubtedly for some dissatisfaction in their current position. If they appear to love everything about their current position, I might ask:
“Why are you leaving?”
This has the potential for stirring up the emotions, especially if they are being fired for cause, or laid off as they are the least productive member of the team.
Over focus: This can be an issue if the candidate takes on too much and does not know how to say “no”. One cause might be perfectionism particularly if combined with a very strong score in STRATEGY, PLANNING and ORGANIZATION. Explore for this possibility with questions like:
“What does ‘100% complete’ mean to you? When is 98% ‘good enough’?”
Ask about specific situations where these issues came up and what were the consequences of their actions? A perfectionist will not miss a deadline, but may work unsustainable hours to get the job done to perfection.
The classic question is to ask where they want to be in 2, 5, or more years. Pay attention to the words but pay more attention to the clarity of the picture the candidate paints of the future. Is their description of their goals so clear and compelling that you can see it too? They should talk about their future as if they have talked or thought about it 1,000 times. You are looking for clarity, not generic lines, or trendy, vague sentiments that they have read in business headlines or heard in a recent podcast.
A good answer to this question might be:
“I want to have earned your trust to take lead this department not only to accomplish all your business goals, but to be considered the place for young digital talent to come to work, learn and grow. I believe you do that by embracing the possibilities of new fields like AI, so that we can take on challenging new projects and distinguish us in the marketplace.”
This candidate’s focus may signal a strong energy & drive that pulls him or her into the future.
A weak answer to the same question might sound as good but lack specificity of purpose:
“In three years I would like to be the department head, overseeing a team of highly talented individuals who will keep us on the cutting edge of technology. Our customers will be thrilled with the outcomes and job candidates will be knocking down the doors to work here.”
A lack of clarity about what they want, may mean a lack of energy & drive for performance as any bright, shiny opportunity will lure them away from you.
Over focus: If their future is super clear and specific, be cautious of whether their goals can be achieved at your company, because they will achieve them, with or without you. In my “good answer” above, for example, if you have decided AI is a step too far for your company, then you should quiz this candidate on what that looks like or what he or she would be uncomfortable giving up with a restricted budget or mandate.
Motivator and Competency assessments pick up where Behavior assessments end. focus on additional factors that more accurately predict job performance.
- Behavior assessments are useful in determining how someone will interact with others but are not predictive of success in the job or fit to your culture.
- Dive below the surface and learn what a person values, how they see the world, their attitudes, leadership/work style, and most critically, their energy and drive for performance.
- Adopt a structured interview approach get to all these factors.
- Don’t stop with the first answer, dig deeper for validation.
- Pay attention body language to and non-verbal cues.
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