Begin at the End
When interviewing job candidates,
know where you are going before you begin.
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
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
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
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.