I don’t do job interviews well, at least not as an interviewee. But I do a great job when I’m on the interviewer side of the desk. And it’s partly because I’ve learned from my mistakes as an interviewee.
What a lot of people don’t seem to realize is that interviewee performance is not at all related to job performance, unless the job for which you’re hiring is an actor. That’s what being a successful interviewee is all about: acting. But even the acting is tough, since you have to figure out as you go along what part you’re supposed to be playing. You might start out thinking that you’re playing a confident, well-informed manager type person, and then you realize after a few minutes that this particular interviewer wants you to be a yes-man flatterer. If you’re good as an interviewee, you adapt on the spot, just like a chameleon. Good interviewees are hired not because they’ll be good at the job, but because they figure out how to push the right buttons for the interviewer. That’s too bad.
My own biggest problem as an interviewee is that I care too much about the job. I tend to think two or three steps ahead, and I start solving the problems of being in the job before I ever get the job in the first place. It’s like the football player who starts to take off toward the goal line before he has a firm grip on the ball he’s just caught. The result isn’t pretty.
I’ve heard of all sorts of trick questions to ask people during interviews, but I’ve never found much use for them. Yes, you can ask the interviewees why manhole covers are round or how long it would take a coin dropped overboard in the deepest part of the ocean to reach bottom (both questions are supposed to help you understand the way they think). Or you can have applicants drive you to lunch so you can assess their driving style (aggressive or too cautious) or their way of handling incorrect food orders (tolerate it or make an issue). But what’s the point? Why is it that you think this type of behavior will directly translate into job performance?
Even worse, I’ve seen interviewers start participating in the play acting themselves, deliberately being overly aggressive to see how the interviewee reacts, or putting on little skits with multiple interviewees simultaneously. How ridiculous is that!
When I’m interviewing candidates for a job, I use a different approach. First, I try to get a feel for the person’s motivation, because motivation is what ultimately is going to make the person successful. I like it when I see people who want to work because they’re curious or because they sincerely want to solve problems or make things better for others. I avoid people who consider their work “just a job” and give signs that they’ll walk away in the middle of solving a critical problem just because it’s dinner time (I’m not advocating long hours as a requirement, but I don’t like clock watchers). And I quickly rule out people who are in it for the money. They’re welcome to use money as a scorecard, but truly successful people don’t have money as their primary motivator. If money is your motivator, then how ethical will you be?
How do you assess motivation in an interview? Ask what they enjoy about a job. But don’t listen to the words of their answer; listen to the “music” instead. Listen to the emotion (or lack of it) that they have in their voice. Listen for someone who still has the energy and drive to be truly great, and who isn’t burned out or jaded. Many people will be reluctant to answer the question honestly – they’ll still be acting – so you may have to approach the question indirectly. Ask what they enjoy doing when they’re not working. Ask what caused them to pick their major in school. You’ll begin to get a feel for their real motivation in spite of any acting attempts.
The second thing I look for in an interview is the person’s qualifications for the position, but I don’t do it in the usual way. Most interviewers want proof that the interviewee can do the job, and the more proof the better. If you think this way, then someone who has done the exact same job for twenty years or more is the best candidate. But that’s not the one I would choose. I want to hire someone who has the capabilities to do the job but who is still challenged by it, at least a little bit. I prefer someone to be challenged because it means they’ll look at the position with a fresh viewpoint and they’ll spend time thinking about how to do the job better. If you hire people who have done a similar job for twenty years then there’s no doubt how they’ll do – they’ll do the job exactly the way they’ve done it for twenty years, whether or not that’s the best way to do the job in this particular case. I don’t want repetition – I want fresh perspective and high motivation.
I remember a champion downhill ski racer who talked about his winning strategy. The way to win, he said, is to ski almost out of control. You have to ski so close to the edge of your capabilities that if you skied any faster you would fall. You have to push yourself to the edge to win, and, similarly, you have to be working at the limit of your capabilities to really be motivated and do your best in a job. I look for people who want to work at the limit of their capabilities, and I look for a match between their limits and the requirements of the position.
The third thing I look for in an interviewee is the person’s communication ability and style. There are a lot of different characteristics rolled up in this one area, everything from intelligence to listening skills. I try to assess whether I’ll be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with this person in the future. Do I have to spell things out, or can the person read between the lines? Will my intent be misinterpreted because the person imposes a different agenda on the words? In IT, this is especially important because we have to communicate constantly with both technical and non-technical people. Requirements are often stated in ways that aren’t absolutely clear, and it’s up to the individual to sort out the true intent. People who jump too quickly to conclusions based on speculation have no place in my organization.
Communication goes the other way too, and the person should be able to clearly summarize a situation and net it out. This is partly verbal skills and partly reasoning ability, the experience to know what’s important to say and what’s fluff.
The interviewee’s personality comes across in the interview if you can pierce the actor’s veneer. I don’t look for any one type of personality – I appreciate diversity. But there are a few personality types that I try to weed out in the interview process. I don’t want know-it-alls; they’re dangerous and they poison an organization. I don’t want people who think it’s all about them; they need to be part of a team. I value both introversion and extroversion as long as the personality is a fit for the particular job. I tend to weed out people who constantly talk when they have nothing to say, but that’s just my own preference.
Salvaging Bad Interviews
I sometimes run into people who are worse at being an interviewee than I am, but I’ve learned to deal with the situation. I interviewed one woman who was incredibly nervous and could hardly respond to questions. I spent a few minutes with her, then pointed out the problem and suggested a solution. I said, “Ok, let’s forget about this job, but I’ll help you practice for your next interview.” I told her to start over, just for the practice. She left the room, came back, and we proceeded to do a “practice interview” in which she reverted to her normal self. The interview went well. I didn’t hire her, but not because of her bad first interview – she just didn’t have the qualifications I was looking for.
Another time I was interviewing to hire a recruiter, and I turned the interview around to get a sense of the recruiter’s own interviewing skills. I described a hypothetical job, then switched chairs and had the recruiter interview me for that job. The result told me exactly what I needed to know.
If you hire people for their interview performance, then you deserve the actors you get. Try to see through the performance to get to the underlying qualities of the person. Why do they want the job and what will they do with it? Are they qualified but not jaded? Can they listen and understand? Can they communicate their thoughts clearly to you? Do they have a personality that’s appropriate for the position?
An interview is an artificial situation that doesn’t at all reflect someone’s ability to do a job. Keep that in mind when you’re hiring, and remember that interview performance doesn’t equate to job performance unless you’re hiring actors.