“If you wanted to stack quarters to the ceiling of this room, how many would it take?”
“If a penguin wearing a sombrero walked in here right now, what would you say?”
These quirky, off-the-wall questions are one way for interviewers to gain insight into how people react to the unexpected and how they think. But there is another way, especially for the busy manager who, in addition to interviewing six candidates in one day, has a long list of priorities to accomplish.
Given today’s tight labor market, the temptation often is to hire someone who looks good, just to fill the position. And face it, many managers aren’t good interviewers: It’s not a natural skill and they haven’t been coached on doing it well. Rather than relying on interviewing tricks and gimmicks, a far better approach is to do the interview “three-step” —an artful dance between questioning and connecting. This process is more productive for the manager and helps establish a connection with the candidate.
Whether you are an HR professional or a manager, the interview three-step will help you achieve the fundamental objectives of determining who this person is, how he/she can contribute to the team, and whether this person will fit the culture.
Just as the interviewee should try to connect with you, as the manager you should be doing your best to connect with the candidate.
Step 1: Establishing a Connection
An interview is really nothing more than two people having a conversation. Just as the interviewee should try to connect with you, as the manager you should be doing your best to connect with the candidate. As the interviewer, you should adopt the attitude of being a host—as if you were welcoming this person to your home. As a host, you want to make sure the person feels comfortable. The same goes for the interview, which isn’t a “gotcha” moment to trip someone up. You want to see the candidate in his/her best light, so you get a real feeling for who the candidate is and what he/she brings to the team.
Do your homework, which means reading the candidate’s resume. Yes, this takes time—but it’s an investment of minutes, not hours. The night before, review the resumes of the candidates you’ll be speaking with the next day, take notes, and then review it all briefly before the meeting. This advance work will enable you to skip the time-consuming (and rather lame) request to “walk me through your resume.” Instead, you’ll engage in a more meaningful discussion about the person’s specific accomplishments and how they were achieved.
At the appointed time, go to the reception area to greet the candidate and escort the person to your office or conference room. One thing I like to do is to stop by the kitchen in our office to get coffee or water together. This is an opportunity to make a connection while engaging in small talk—the weather, traffic that morning, the person’s flight in the night before. By the time we reach my office, we should already be talking in a give-and-take pattern that eases the transition to the second phase.
Step 2: Discovering the “How” Behind the “What”
As the manager, your number one objective in the interview is not determining what the person has done (their resume should handle that). More important, you want to know “how” those accomplishments were achieved, and with as much detail as possible. Listen for the pronouns: Does the person speak only as “I” and “me” as if he/she is a superhero who can accomplish all things singlehandedly? Or does the candidate use “we” and “us,” revealing a team player who isn’t afraid to give credit where it’s due. This will also give you a taste of what the person is like and how he/she will fit on your team.
Another way to explore the “how” is to ask the candidate what he/she is working on right now. You’ll quickly discover two things: How engaged and enthusiastic is the person right now? Does the scale and scope of the current project fit the position and level of responsibility listed on the resume. (I’ve encountered some surprises here—candidates who describe projects that are many levels below the kind of job and scope of responsibilities they’ve “invented” for their resumes.)
Throughout this give-and-take listen for the questions the person asks. Does the candidate show enthusiasm? Does the person truly understand what your company does and what’s involved in this position?
Step 3: Bringing It to a Close
This last stage can be a danger for both parties. Dragging things on and on wastes your time (there are a half-dozen candidates to interview today…) and doesn’t do the interviewee any favors either. A commonly used tactic is to ask the candidate, “Do you have any more questions? Is there anything I can clarify?”
I like to add further punctuation. I bring the interview around to the kind of personal connection we started with, such as by asking, “What’s the rest of your day like? Where are you going from here?” The answer may give you another look into motivation and work habits (does the person seem engaged in what he/she is doing—or looking to escape the boredom of their current job). In addition, you’re helping the person shift focus back to the present moment.
From one interview to the next, these three steps will help you move with the flow of interviews into a manageable and repeatable process with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. You’ll feel more in control of your time and the task at hand, while presenting yourself and the company in the best light to someone who could very well become the newest and potentially the most valuable member of your team.