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How to Be a Great Interviewer

Monday, October 27, 2014
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Wouldn’t it be nice to finish interviewing a candidate and be able to say, “This is the one” or even “This isn’t the one!”  But so often, we’re left somewhere in between. It’s worthwhile honing your interviewing skills to save your company the time and money that’s involved in making wrong talent decisions. The added benefit for you personally is that if you become a good interviewer, you will certainly become a better interviewee.

Case in point

My friend Andy recently felt confused after a full hour interview with a company high on his target list. He told me that the interviewer, his prospective manager, didn’t ask him a single question other than “Is there anything you would like to ask me?” Andy came away with a good feeling about the company, the position, and the people after he spent the hour asking questions and hearing responses, But he wasn’t sure how the manager could have been able to assess him.   

Apparently, his prospective boss felt as though he had all the information he needed, and Andy received an offer the next day. After he accepted, Andy asked his new boss about the interview. The manager replied that Andy’s questions and observations told him that he was smart and had the right skills, creativity, and vision for the position. More important, the interviewer said that Andy had the same values as the company’s most successful professionals.

While Andy’s manager’s approach was a little unusual, it emphasizes that deciphering the way a candidate thinks can be the most important determinant in assessing his fit for a job.  More conventional ways to figure out whether the prospective hire is appropriate for the position are explained below.

Offer a challenge

When I first started interviewing recent grads, I always seemed to think the candidates were smart and nice. They all earned high marks on my review sheet. I then figured out that they can’t all be the perfect fit. I wondered what I was missing.

Then I began to realize that I needed to challenge them to see how they would respond. After that realization, I learned a lot more about each candidate.

For you to challenge a prospective hire, you don’t have to play the classic intimidating interviewer—and you may give the company a bad image if you do. You just need to ask a question or illicit a response that lets you watch how the candidate responds under pressure. You can ask a tough skill-based question or challenge a statement she made (whether or not you disagree).

You want to determine the interviewee’s poise under pressure as well as her analytical/creative capabilities. For example, the famous Google interview questions serve that purpose. Often the interviewer doesn’t care what answer she receives, she just wants to see how the candidate goes about arriving at it.

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Interview staples

Some questions are more illuminating than others, and should always be part of your interviewing question list. “Briefly, tell me about yourself…” is a good way to get a summary view of the candidate’s background and what he believes are his strengths. Savvy interviewees will have a concise two-minute elevator pitch ready when they hear this question.

“Why did you leave your last job?” can be revealing not only because it may uncover relevant issues to explore, but also because you can get a feel for the candidate’s ability to maturely reflect on distasteful or difficult situations. There’s a good chance a griper at one job is going to be a griper at the next.

A third useful question is “Give me an example of when you used x skill (showed leadership/performed under stress).” You want them to see if they can fill in the blank with whatever skillset is particularly necessary for the type of job you are offering.

Dig deep

If you hear an answer that doesn’t sit well with you, don’t move on. Instead, be sure to ask the interviewee more about that topic. You may find that the candidate did exactly what you would have done given the situation, and that you hadn’t initially fully understood all of the factors involved.

I mentored a young professional once who did not receive an offer from his summer employer before graduating. When I asked him why, he gave a quick answer that almost sounded like an excuse. But after probing a bit more, I found he was in an unlucky situation involving a reorganization and a summer offer was the last thing his managers were thinking about.

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If you don’t pursue a topic when you get an answer you don’t like, you may be overlooking one of your best candidates.

Post interview take-away

There is some basic information that you need to ascertain before you can get a real feel for an interviewee. First, does she have the specific skills needed for the job? Ask the right questions to uncover answers about her background and experience.

Next, is she a fit with your company’s culture? You can find out how well a candidate will work on your team by asking them about her last position and what she valued in her job. And there’s no better feel for fit than figuring out if you would like to work with them. Can you imagine yourself day in and day out on a team with this person?

Lastly, determine how difficult it will be to hire this candidate. What will influence his decision to take the job if offered? If you conclude the candidate is a winner during your interview, try to get a feel for the factors that will make him accept an offer.

Every Interviewer is also a PR professional

Whether you feel the potential hire is a good candidate or not, always try to leave her with a good impression of you and your company. You want her to say good things about your company, even if she doesn’t work there. You never know…her roommate may be the perfect candidate.


About the Author

Terri Tierney Clark, a graduate of Smith College and Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, is the #1 best-selling author of Learn, Work, Lead: Things Your Mentor Won’t Tell You. She was among the first female managing directors in investment banking on Wall Street and was elected to Merrill Lynch’s first women's steering committee. Terri has presented to corporations and colleges on a variety of professional topics and has been published on F orbes, Business Insider, Newsweek, Huffington Post, The Muse, Wall Street Oasis, Resume Edge, and several college career websites. You can find Terri at TTierneyClark.com and @TheNewCareerist.  

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