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Leader's Edge Begin at the End

When interviewing job candidates, know where you are going before you begin.

By  Julia Kramer

You have a job opening and post a great advertisement. Résumés are pouring in, and some of them look really good. As the hiring machine pushes things along, it’ll soon be your turn to meet the candidate. You dive in, have a lengthy discussion and talk about next steps. But, like many hiring managers, after the interview you scratch your head, unsure what you’ve learned from all the talking.

Planning for an interview may relieve this post-parting confusion. Planning doesn’t just include reviewing the job description, screening the résumé and selecting the questions you will ask. Planning also means contemplating your desired outcomes and working backwards to put in place those steps that will ensure you get the results you want. By beginning at the end, you can separate the ineffective procedures from those that really matter. Try the following upside-down methodology and see if it works for you.

The End. Ask yourself, “When this interview is over, what must I know about this candidate?” Separate those must-know items into categories such as interpersonal skills, communication skills, job knowledge and performance history. Define each of these categories. For example, interpersonal skills may include the ability to quickly establish rapport, to contribute to a positive and participative dialogue, to demonstrate understanding, and to display professionalism and credibility. Job knowledge, as opposed to experience, could be defined in terms of the industry, the organization, the function or the specific position. It could also be defined as competency in defined areas or a skill set that may require testing. Don’t assume that a candidate will be an automatic fit just because his or her job title matches the one you need to fill.

The Middle. Once you have your list of required informational outcomes, you’ll need to figure out how to uncover this information during the interview. Interpersonal skills are not determined via questions, so you must carefully observe the interaction even as you are a part of it. Note the candidate’s level of confidence, handshake and effectiveness of initial greeting. During the interview, take a moment to reflect on how this candidate makes you feel—comfortable or tense, good-humored or defensive, eager to continue or ready to push the eject button. For other skill sets and experience, ask carefully selected questions to start a discussion, but prepare to piggyback others based on the candidate’s answers. There is little to gain in sticking to a list of questions if you don’t go with the flow and follow up on interesting or suspect answers. Don’t worry that every interview is not identical—your goal is to gather pertinent information about the same general categories so that you can compare apples to apples, with the understanding that there are many varieties of that same fruit.

The Beginning. Once you’ve worked backwards to the beginning based on clearly identified goals and objectives, check your job posting to make sure it’s in line with your goals, meet with HR or the team that is helping you in the interview process to make sure you’re on the same page, and select your questions. There are innumerable great questions that you can ask an applicant. Not one of them can be answered with a yes or no. That’s rule number one. Don’t create a conversation around yes-and-no questions.

Second, know that even the best questions will probably not uncover inconsistencies or outright lies on the résumé. That’s what reference checks are for. The most productive questions require applicants to reach back into their experiences, synthesize data, and respond with an appropriate answer. For example, if you are interested in a candidate with leadership potential, you might ask: “Tell me about the last time that you spontaneously took on a leadership role on the job.” This approach will let you know whether the candidate can step up when the opportunity presents itself and how the candidate defines leadership. You’ll also learn something from the experience conveyed in the candidate’s answer. If you are seeking someone with service skills, ask the candidate to describe an instance when they successfully handled a difficult interaction with a client.

Let the candidates know that you are not looking for theoretical answers but want them to relate real-life experiences. Remind them if they seem to be making it up as they go along.

Starting an interview without knowing where you want it to end is like jumping off a cliff without knowing the length of your bungee cord. You’re leaving it to chance that you’ll arrive at your goal in good shape. Begin at the end by first identifying the desired outcome of the interview. Then plan the middle to ensure that you’ll get there in the most efficient way possible. Only then are you ready to start a dialogue following a process that is well conceived, from end to beginning.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.

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