The Unrivaled Leader : Part 5 – How to Interview

In the support of brevity, I will now provide some basic guidelines for interviewing and hiring that have worked well for me.  This again is based on both great successes and disturbing horror stories related to interviewing applicants.

One thing to keep in mind is that this whole notion of Human Resources giving you 90-days of probationary period in which you can release a new hire for “no reason” is pure bunk.  I’ve had little success in trying to accomplish this probationary release process.  In the end, handling new hire performance issues ends up being no different from doing the same for tenured staff.  Thus, hiring the right person is key, unless you like spending months documenting and reviewing performance issues.

Infrequently in my career I’ve wished that I could just “fire” someone on  the spot.  No, not a “you’re fired” because someone pushed my buttons.  Rather, in the case of a mediocre performer who is able to just bubble up high enough to get off of various warnings and probationary statuses.  I have also come across staff that can game the system and work their way around the various liability concerns Human Resources wraps around  performance management.  I understand why HR does this, but it’s still frustrating.  The same is true for someone who slowly destroys your culture.  There is a need to be able to say “you there, get out” with a modicum of HR documentation required.

And that’s why it’s important to get the hiring process right.

The key parts of the interview:

Your preparation – this is tantamount, and important, too!

Don’t show up at the interview not having read the applicant’s cover letter and resume.

It’s very obvious to me when someone is scanning my resume for the first time.  Schedule 15 minutes prior to the interview to read the resume and jot some questions.  You can even have a standard set of questions you start with in all interviews.  If you’re on a panel, share those questions with others on the panel.  This way they are aware where you’re going with the questions and can make sure they don’t go the same place, or can provide supporting questions.

The Technical Portion – this should be pretty clear.  In this case you want to verify that the person knows the technical skills they portrayed in their resume and that you will require on the job.  You should be able to ask very specific questions regarding technology, such as “so how does a web service work?”  But be specific.  And don’t resume-spew.  That is, don’t spend the time showing off just how much you know.

commentSide Note: For many years, I used a technical test that I wrote myself which was wide and shallow (just like me!).  It had a large number of questions across many IT disciplines (SQL, C programming, web programming, object-oriented programming).  The applicant was forced to take it in pen on paper.  The grading was not pass / fail.  While we did look for correct answers, we gave credit in areas where the person showed creativity or at least understood the concept.  Applicants hated that test.  I had my own team take it and they all fared very well.  It was very useful because it gave us a unique view into the problem-solving technique of each applicant.  We even had some that refused to take the test and thus we bade them farewell.  We EVEN had a headhunting organization try to steal a copy of the test because it was intimidating their applicants so much.

What doesn’t work well is having the applicant face a panel of technical staff members who then grill this person on all sorts of discrete information.  It’s glee-filling for the technical interviewers but borderline abusive for the applicant.  Unless the position is very, very technical, I would avoid a panel technical interview and instead do something one on one.

Also, don’t press the applicant with trick questions or questions so pathological that one would never use such a skill in the real job.

I was once asked how to fill an array of 256 unique random integers using a single C statement.  I was able to come up with a way, but not the way they were looking for.  Frankly, if any of my developers wrote code like that, I would have chased them around the department with a stick.  Useless questions that made me question the competence of my interviewers are not appropriate.

The “What If You Were A Tree?” Question – this is a classic.  You ask someone some odd question to see how they answer it.  Avoid this technique.  It’s a cliché.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – Actually, this is one of my favorite techniques.  The questions revolve around “describe a time when something went really well” and then “describe a time when something went very badly”.

First, if they cannot come up with a disaster in their career,  and this is not an entry-level position, then there’s a problem.  It’s the same problem if they cannot come up with something that went really well!  Maybe even a worse problem.

Listen for how the applicant describes the situation.

Do they say “I” and “me” a lot?  Was the good situation all about him/her and the bad all about the failures of others?  Press for details.  Was there any recognition after the good event?  Was there a price to pay for the bad event?  What was the root cause for the failure?  How was it mitigated going forward?  What could they have done differently?

This is a solid type of question you should ask at each interview.

That annoying tick – this one is simple.  Think back to when you were dating someone and how on the first one or two dates, some particular habit was cute.  For example, being called “babe”.  Then think about how after fifteen dates, you cringed each time your significant other said “babe”, often thirty or forty times each day.  Little habits that come up during an interview will be unbelievably irritating and not so endearing months later.

Other “affectations” to look for include:

  • Lots of sarcasm or joking. Some joking is fine, but you don’t want to hire a clown or someone insulting.
  • Lots of talking.  Simple questions that turn into long-winded expositions that wander here and there.
  • A lot of “me” talk, as in describing in great detail the wonderful traits they have, the amazing places they’ve been, the totally desirable lifestyle they lead and so on.
  • Not answering questions.  Listen to the answer.  Are they answering the question you asked?  If not, interrupt them and pose the question again.
  • Too loud / too soft.  Does the applicant speak so quietly that you have to strain to hear or are they very loud?  If those sorts of things matter, think about passing on this applicant.
  • They only speak to the males (females) on the interview panel.  Odd behavior, something to keep an eye on.  Is there some sexism going on?
  • They don’t seem to know anything about your organization (outside applicants).  Really?  They never took the time to Google information on your organization?  To me that smacks of being unprepared.  Ask directly “did you research our organization prior to coming to the interview?”  If they say “yes”, ask them some specific questions.  Do they know what the job entails?  Ask them to describe what they think the position is responsible for.
  • They speak very poorly of their previous position.  Not a good technique and shows a lack of professionalism.
  • They can’t come up with any reasonable things that they could improve upon.  When you hear things like “I’m too smart for my own good” or “I work way too hard”, that’s a fluff answer.  Press for something substantial.
  • Very specific, pointed questions (or uncomfortable questions) about you or the organization.  Again, bad sign that this person has no tact.

What’s this on your ray-zoom-meh? (Resume) – worrisome things to look for on the resume:

  • Job hopping.  Did they spend one year or 18 months at the least four jobs?  Why?  Ask them to explain.  Are they chasing money.  Do you want to invest time and training and have them skip out?
  • Breaks in their employment times.  What happened those four years between these two jobs?
  • No jobs recently.  This one is a tough because, if this is an older applicant or someone who maybe took a sabbatical, it may be okay that they haven’t worked for a few years.  But check it out.
  • Generic information.  Look for specifics.  How much did they actually contribute to the bottom line?
  • The Slasher.  Is the resume peppered with this person coming into a job and slashing costs?  Is that what you want?   Maybe you do.  But you can’t save your way to success, so maybe you should look for things that show growth in revenue rather than slashing of costs.
  • Prison Time. Why and why did they include this on their resume?

Too Friendly – does the applicant act “too familiar”?  Are they touching your hand or shoulder too much?  Do they act like they’ve known you previously?  Are they too informal?  Do they kiddingly tease you or comment on how nice looking you are? All bad omens.  Steer clear of these people.

Closing the Interview – it’s very important to cut the interview somewhat short.  There are few interviews that deserve to be more than an hour in length, especially first interviews.  For an hour interview, use the last fifteen minutes for the applicants questions.

Also, make sure up front that the applicant knows how long the interview should take.

Take note of the types of questions they ask.

It’s okay if they don’t have questions.  In fact, I prefer that I’m not met with a litany of questions from the applicant, especially if this is one in a series of interviews.

If the interview is not going well and this is clearly not the right person, cut the interview short.  There are few things more painful in trying to drag out an interview where both parties are clear that this is not a good fit.  It’s far more professional to say something like “honestly, it looks like this is not the right position for you – let’s wrap this up and save the time for some future position that you may be more qualified for”.

After the interview – take your notes and staple them to the applicants resume and hold onto both for some time.   When you get back to your desk, make note of the positives and negatives and write down whether you think this person should be considered for the position.  This is important so that when you review these notes later (sometimes much later), it reminds you what the outcome was.

In some cases, you may be required to provide HR with your recommendation.  Don’t send them your notes.  Summarize them and include your final disposition.  Provide clear and exact information on the decision you made.


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