21 Feb

Ok so I know what you’re thinking: “if I can’t interview them how do I assess them?”

Well you have to change the way you think about what an interview actually is. Don’t go in there thinking that it’s your job to assess them and their suitability for the role by throwing them a series of increasingly difficult curve ball questions.

If that’s how you see the interview then already you’re in trouble, in fact I’d go further: don’t even write into your diary that it’s an interview, instead simply put….”Meeting xxxxxx” ...and that’s it.

It’s time we kicked the word interview from our lexicon completely. Ok so where am I going with this well I used to interview people as a full time recruiter, probably 10 - 15 people a week for many years. That’s a lot of people and over the thousands of interviews I did I often wondered what exactly I was accomplishing by actually meeting these people in such a formulaic, formal way. One day when sitting opposite a clearly nervous 20 something, the thought occurred to me that maybe we’d both be better in a less formal environment so after about 2 minutes I stopped the guy and said………..”Let’s go for a coffee up the road”....... so we did. We sat down in the coffee shop with people milling around us and I deliberately made no real attempt to interview him, we just chatted about football (soccer !) and something magical happened, he completely relaxed and let his guard down and came across as a very different person with a far greater breadth of knowledge than I had realised. Gradually I steered the conversation towards him, what he wanted from his next employer and what he really wanted to do and by the end he’d revealed the real him…...and he was good. Had we stayed in an office, divided bya desk…….I’m not sure he would have relaxed enough for me to see the real him.

The problem with interviewing someone in the traditional sense is it feels like an exam. One slip and that’s it. Experience has taught me (both good and bad) that people rarely show their real personalities and their true abilities in a formal interview so you need to try damn hard so that it doesn’t feel like an interview. The atmosphere you want to try to create is one of equals having a wide ranging discussion ideally focused on a particular industry (the one you’re in!), very similar to the way you would talk to someone at a seminar or conference who you’d just met and are chatting away to without the sword of Damocles hanging over either of you.

If you think about it, what’s the actual point of an interview? Well it has 4 objectives..…

  1. To assess their ability to do the job

  2. To compare them with others to see who is the best for the role

  3. To assess their likely cultural fit

  4. To assess the x-factor

But I think point number 1 should be a given. If you’re meeting them you should already know they have the skills required for the job. You review the resume….that will give you a good clue, then if you need more information you either telephone screen them or send them a list of questions to allow you to get more information from them relating to those essential skills. Ok I accept for positions like school leavers and graduates, it’s not so easy to assess their suitability purely from a resume but for most, the ‘interview’ should be about point 2,3 and 4.

So here’s how you do it:

Rule 1:  Don’t meet someone if you don’t yet know they can do the job

If you don’t know after reviewing their resume, email them questions seeking clarification on what they can do/have done.

Rule 2:  Avoid talking with them in an office

Go to the cafeteria, go to a coffee shop up the road, go to the pub…..go wherever you like…..just don’t sit one side of a desk with them sitting the other side. It creates a physical barrier which leads to a psychological one.

On the walk up to the coffee shop, sell your company a bit…….”The good thing about where we’re based is we’re close to loads of nice restaurants, bars, lunch cafes”. It breaks the ice and sells the company a little bit.

Rule 3: Don’t interview them…...chat

Every interview I’ve ever been on the receiving end of felt incredibly tense, stiff, formal…...that’s completely the wrong way to approach it. Yes you should be professional but talk to them as you would someone you just met at a conference. Don’t go in with the mind set of thinking you have to grill them, go in with the mind set that first and foremost you have to create an environment that allows them to relax and flourish. Smile a bit…..crack a joke if you can. They want to see a human, not a machine firing questions at them.

To an extent it’s tone of voice, your ability to strike up a rapport very quickly with a complete stranger which some people obviously have in spades and others need to work at it but the key is to talk/chat in a way that relaxes them and lets you see the real them.

Avoid awful questions like ‘Why should I hire you?’. Instead ask ‘Who do you most admire?’

Rule 4: When scheduling the ‘interview’ ask them to think about how they think your company could improve or pick a famous company ….”What should Apple do next?”

So when you meet them let them talk about anything they want related to how they think your company could improve. That’s what I do right now when we recruit and you’d be amazed how people come at the answer from different angles. This is what you might call the x-factor question as it allows the ‘interviewee’ free rein to talk about pretty much anything they like. Most will give the fairly standard answer you might expect, but just occasionally (as has happened when we have hired) you get an answer that blows you away. The Elon Musk / Steve Jobs type thinking that is so vital to a company’s long term ability to innovate. Personally, even if someone lacked a little of the key skills we wanted I might still hire them if they had the x-factor. What I’m looking for is someone with vision, a wider appreciation of business issues….strengths/opportunities/weaknesses/threats etc. To have a field of vision way beyond the confines of the job that I may be asking them to do. You should be looking to hire people with the ability to see things in a way others just don’t…..I suppose you could call it the x-factor…..the genius gene.

Rule 5: If you think they’re good, tell them.

Imagine you’re finishing up the ‘interview’ and you’re the candidate. What would you rather hear from the person you’ve just met:

“We’ll be in touch again shortly to let you know if you have been selected for a 2nd interview”

“I’d like you to come back and meet xxxx”

“Jack/Fred/Sarah….I’ll be perfectly honest, I think you’re great. I love what you were saying and I’m keen to hear more. Are you free right now to come and meet xxxx  ?”

Obviously the last one…..so say it !

For me ‘interviewing’ someone is about assessing how well they would fit within the existing team and for getting a feel for the x-factor. Do they look critically at things and think…..”how could we do that better” or do they just accept that’s the way it’s done and their job is to just keep doing it that way. How many great talents have been overlooked by companies using a standard interviewing approach? Probably an awful lot. It doesn’t matter which role you’re hiring for every interview should be focused around trying to identify a potential CEO of your company in 3, 5, 20 years time. Your job as the interviewer is to try to identify real talent…..someone with the genius gene and not just someone who can do the job you’re considering them for. 

Here’s a simple test: if the person you’re meeting comes out of the ‘meeting’ with you feeling like they’ve just gone through an interview then you haven’t done it right. So next time you are hiring, do it differently and maybe, just maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have someone apply to you with the genius gene. Your job when you first meet them is to let them shine. 

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