During the course of my career, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people spanning virtually every role. I know a company is poised for success when the right people are in the right positions. So, I always strive to create a positive hiring experience through the interview process. Recently, the tables were turned, and I went through my own hiring experience, interviewing for an executive role. I’m happy to report I was ultimately successful, but along the way I was reminded of a few important things: always treat candidates with respect, and make sure to have a well-planned interview process.
My experience on the other side of the interview table gave me new insights into a strategic approach for finding the right candidate. I also saw how companies can learn how to effectively communicate the relationship between the specific role and business success.
Without the right approach, companies risk beginning strong but losing steam as they go along. A candidate’s enthusiasm can dampen because of lost momentum, poor communication and a disorganized process. Ironically, it can be like “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” which can leave the chosen candidate feeling unsure whether to come onboard.
The good news is, this primer on hiring strategy can help. Here, along with insights from recruiting experts, I illustrate how relatively easy it is to produce a streamlined and highly effective interview process.
Preparation is a critical part of the hiring strategy
The most important thing to emphasize for everyone involved is be prepared. Include anyone with a stake in the success of the role. Don’t just rely on the hiring manager/team.
Of course, this is particularly critical for a new role and executive positions. But even for a replacement, it’s important to confirm organizational alignment amongst stakeholders. Therefore, a comprehensive audit of the role should be done to determine the impact on all departments and programs.
Jesenka Duranovic, Development Manager at Electronic Arts, and former Senior Recruiter on EA’s Global Talent Acquisition Team, is a firm believer in aligning stakeholders around hiring criteria. She advises, “Make the kick-off meeting between stakeholders a standard practice in your organization. A 30-minute sync is often bypassed when competing priorities are present, but it has often been the x-factor for fast, quality hiring in my experience.
“The time spent at the beginning of the hiring process to align on the role and timeline will allow for laser-focused recruitment going forward. This is also the moment to bring up any potential roadblocks/risks/market conditions that might impede the hiring timeline or the “must haves” for your ideal candidate, setting the right expectations for all parties.”
Jesenka goes on to say, “Most importantly, I always treasured this initial meeting as the opportunity to challenge what we have done up-to-now. For example, if diversity is important to your organization, challenge your team to think about who would make a great “culture add” to make them more effective, creative, or stronger overall, instead of thinking about “culture fit”.
“Another example would be assessing where you look for ideal candidates and brainstorming 1-2 new avenues that you haven’t tried before to drum up a larger or different talent pool. This is the right moment to explore new ways of approaching recruitment, interviewing, or hiring, and the willingness to do things differently as it’s more difficult to pivot a search or change the hiring process when you’re in the thick of it.”
A comprehensive job description is a key element
The benefits of a well-written job description cannot be underestimated. This should include:
- An overview of the company’s line of business, including its unique business needs, with links to more detailed information,
- A clear and thorough summary of the core functions, the necessary competencies and experience required,
- Expectations for measurable success, and
- A description of company culture, with reference to its spirit and its values.
Dennis Troyanos, President of The Troyanos Group, a boutique retained executive search firm specializing in senior-level recruiting, strongly suggests you go well above and beyond the typical job description. He says, “Simply enumerating a boring laundry list of desired skills and requirements and then expecting to attract the rarefied 1% Player only works in the land of “wishful thinkers.”
Use engaging content to attract star quality candidates
Dennis goes on to say, “If your goal is to entice star quality candidates in the real world, you need to craft an engaging, creative and strategically compelling picture of the position, the team, the advancement track and, most importantly, YOUR vision for the role! The job description must resonate with the values and vision of the most coveted candidates. It must scream, “This is the opportunity I’ve been building my skills and working so hard for. I’m excited to meet the person who envisioned this role!”
Rich Tackenberg, Managing Director of Executive Search at Sucherman Group, emphasizes the importance of preparation once you’ve authored the perfect job description, “Getting on the phone with one of your first potential candidates and not having answers to basic questions communicates the wrong message. No matter how long we work on a job profile, I always try to read it with fresh eyes one last time, imagining someone was calling me about this role. What questions would I have? Are we ready to answer those questions?”
Location, location, location
I live in Los Angeles where public transportation is lacking, and commute times are lengthy. ‘Geographically undesirable’ is a term Angelenos often use to explain why they won’t date people who live outside their general neighborhood. But this phenomenon also applies to work opportunities.
For example, Marina del Rey and Silver Lake both display in LinkedIn job postings as located in the “Greater Los Angeles area.” Indeed, they are both technically in LA, but you have to really want the job if you’re going to commit to that commute. It can be onerous at 1 hour and 45 minutes to travel 22 miles (35 km).
So, if you’re posting a role that is located in a large, sprawling city, consider including specifics in the job description about the neighborhood in which your office is located. This will allow prospective candidates to self-select whether the commute works for them, or if it’s worth a relocation. This will save you the frustration of finding your perfect candidate only to realize s/he won’t be able to make the commute. The same goes for travel requirements. If the role involves significant travel (more than 30%), be sure to state that up front in the job description to properly set expectations.
Identify what does good look like
Jesenka adds that it’s important to “Understand what “good looks like” for your competitors or industry in general for relocation services, immigration support, office space and amenities, and keep up. In a highly competitive market, the sought-after candidate will have multiple options to consider, and you want to put your best foot forward. Although you might not be able to surpass all competitors in all categories, find what sets your facility or location apart that is important to the candidate, and communicate it effectively during the interview process.”
The right profile
Before you start your search for the right people, it can be a good idea to imagine who they are, not just as core functions and competencies, but as a well-rounded person. One way to do this is to borrow a page from product designers and create something like a “candidate persona.”
When I was at the Vancouver Film School, part of my role focused on creating a higher performing sales team. This involved restructuring and hiring additional team members. It was vitally important to identify the attributes related to top performing sales representatives in our specific B2C environment.
To help pull this off, we worked with Matt Goff, now Managing Director at Shaker International, a predictive talent intelligence company that helps companies improve quality of hire, reduce turnover, create recruiting efficiencies, and deliver a candidate experience that is second to none. Matt helped us reverse engineer the characteristics that made our sales superstars so incredibly effective and, armed with that knowledge, created the following to guide our interview efforts:
- Role Profile Analysis: A granular overview of the sales representative position that went well beyond the job description and spelled out what constitutes success in the role.
- Success Profile Survey & Reports: An online questionnaire that assessed the suitability of candidates for the position, and detailed reports for each respondent.
Honestly, I was dubious at first, but now I’m a firm believer in pre-employment assessments for particular roles, when conducted by a skilled practitioner. Matt’s analysis helped us identify the best candidates, and also outlined their growth areas, so we knew how best to support them to evolve once they were on board.
As Matt aptly states, “When you’re attempting to isolate the behavioral traits that make up an exceptional performer in any role, it’s important to, not just focus on high performers, but also evaluate the entire team. The reason is simple — if you only look at the characteristics of the highest performers, you won’t know for sure that what is prevalent in high performers is absent in others.
“With the Vancouver Film School project, we were able to look at different profiles across the whole sales organization to drill down on the behaviors and competencies that the top sales representatives demonstrated and others did not. This is a very powerful approach to create a blueprint of exceptional performance. You can use it to both assist in the selection process (including the interview questions you SHOULD be asking) and create a robust training program to develop the skills of the entire team.”
Interview best practices
Make one person (e.g., an HR representative or a hiring manager) responsible for orchestrating the interview process. This doesn’t mean they’re the only ones involved. Every orchestra needs a conductor and recruiting is no different. One person is needed to arrange the process and communicate progress to stakeholders.
As previously mentioned, it’s important that key departmental stakeholders who will be impacted by the hiring choice be included in the process (i.e., volunteering input or feedback). This is particularly true when it comes to choosing executive positions, as many departments within the company have an interest in the success of this position as it relates to the success of their respective business units.
Some might weigh in on the job description. Others might contribute to the question script. While others could contribute at the point of assessment and selection. Choose the people strategically with whom candidates will meet and be respectful of everyone’s time.
Learn from what wasn’t said and don’t forget to sell
Rich offers another insight as it relates to interviewing best practices, “Looking back at my interview notes, in addition to reviewing what the candidate said, I’ll also try to note what the candidate did not say. This is often a valuable data point. Is there a pattern? Might there be a reason? This is information I might ask the next person in the interview chain to address directly, and/or make sure is being addressed in reference checks.”
Jesenka Duranovic sagely reminds us, “Don’t forget to sell! Yes, the interview is generally an assessment of the candidate, but your organization is also competing in a larger market for each candidate. Find out and document what sets your organization and/or team apart, and don’t forget to talk about it.”
Ensure it’s a collaborative effort
Make sure all interviewers have been given the candidates’ resumes and background on each person they will be interviewing. Decide who does the initial screening call, who is leading the interviews and who is providing input. The main hiring manager should set the stage and provide context in the first post-screening interview (i.e., what the company does; what the core focus of the role is and success criteria; what the person interviewing does and how s/he will interact with this position).
Orchestrate the interviews to ensure interviewers have ownership of the questions they are asking the candidate (i.e., they understand how an answer is relevant to the role and their own relationship to it). Don’t make the candidate repeat their history six times in six interviews.
A shared interviewing script, with all the questions written out, can serve as a basis for the team to understand the staging of the hiring process. It’s important to know not just what questions are being asked, but also what answers people wish to hear.
Remember, it’s a dialogue, not an interrogation
Any hiring manager or team can find questions to ask from many online resources, but it’s more important to determine the right questions, uniquely based upon an understanding of the role and the company’s mission and strategy for growth/success.
Once the interview is in flow, let the candidate do 90% of the talking. Interviewers can veer “off script” for more depth or clarity when the candidate says something interesting or is speaking in generalities.
The questions you ask are important, but an effective interview requires more than just moving from one question to another to check it off your list. Think of the interview as a conversation, not just a test. It is an opportunity to explore beyond the skills and experience outlined in a resume. In this respect, the follow-up question can be even more important than the initial query.
And, remember that, while you’re assessing fit, you should also be exciting candidates about the opportunity during the interview. Dennis wisely offers that “You can rate candidates all day and night, but in reality, what really matters is how the really great candidates rate YOU!”
Ask the right questions
It’s important that once you know what you are looking for, you frame your questions in a way that allows candidates to offer evidence of their capabilities.
Fran Helms, who guides media and entertainment practice efforts for Spencer Stuart, says, “The best type of evidence comes in the form of stories candidates share, which give visibility into how they conquered the same sorts of challenges in similar settings. This is really the heart of a strong assessment. Are you looking for a leader with strengths in setting strategy, driving results or leading others?
“Simply asking the candidate to describe their proudest recent accomplishments and how they achieved them creates a dialog that may give clues as to where their leadership strengths lie. Asking for specific stories outlining how they demonstrated those leadership capabilities gives them a chance to share deep examples of experience in the areas that matter most for your organization.”
“Importantly,” adds Fran, “if the candidate struggles to provide concrete examples, their capability may not be at the level you need.”
Assess beyond the resume
Observe whether and how a candidate uses a question to present their qualifications and experience beyond their resume.
- Communicate well?
- Tell their story effectively?
- Engage with enthusiasm?
- Present themselves in a positive way?
- Appear likely to represent the brand and its values in an inspiring way?
- Come off as disciplined?
- Have a life outside of work?
- Impress you as someone with whom you’d like to spend time?
Respect the interview process and everyone involved
Start phone interviews on time. Always double check it’s still a good time for the candidate to speak. You want to give her the chance to shine and she can’t do that if her boss has just asked her to step into an emergency meeting and she’s trying to rush through the interview.
If candidates are interviewing at your office, make sure they can use the facilities before starting and are offered water. Allow for flexibility in the interview schedule for conversations that run long. If a candidate is in your office for a full day of meetings, provide regular breaks to use the facilities, collect thoughts and prepare for the next set of meetings.
Take each of your candidates out to lunch — this can be a great opportunity for team members to experience each candidate in a less formal way.
For a senior hire, especially if they have flown in, take them to dinner. If they are relocating, consider flying in their spouse and having that person join you at dinner. While the person is interviewing, offer to have someone from Human Resources show the spouse around town.
Make the evaluation process a critical part of your hiring strategy
Determine in advance your method for assessing candidates and who has the ultimate say in the hiring decision. Do team members, whether peers or direct reports, have a voice in the decision? Or, is it a simple courtesy to them that they meet candidates prior to a final hire?
In general, you should train your team members on how to be good interviewers. They shouldn’t just “wing it.” Strategic alignment to the process and objectives is necessary to ensure a positive outcome.
To make sure you’re all on the same page, create a common template — a scorecard, to keep track with, discreetly, during the interview — and include elements beyond technical skills and experience.
For example, look for enthusiasm, signs of a positive, take-charge attitude, a lack of ego, innovation insights, etc. Use a common framework to provide feedback so responses are apples to apples, and easy to review. Give interviewers a relatively short window of time (~2 days) to provide feedback so the conversation is fresh in their minds and they reflect it properly in their report.
Use a scorecard to separate good from great
Dennis and his team at The Troyanos Group have crafted an incredibly informative eBooklet they give to clients entitled, The CMO’s Guide to Hiring Marketing Stars: How to Attract and Hire the “1%” Players. It’s a masterclass in effective recruiting. Within this guide is a Compare & Contrast Scorecard that serves as a template to record the interviewing team’s real-time reactions to candidate responses to key questions. If you would like to receive a complimentary copy of this valuable hiring guide, please email: [email protected].
Below is an example of a typical scorecard for separating the “good” from truly “great” candidates. It’s useful for driving consensus about which of the finalists have emerged as the top choice of the team.
Troyanos suggests that your team create this scorecard by isolating the top skillsets that you have collectively identified as being critical to the success of a candidate and that are listed within the job description you’ve crafted. He goes on to say, “Soon after a complete round of interviews is concluded, meet as a team to collectively compare and contrast candidates based on the scorecards. Consider only those candidates whose scores cluster at or near the upper right-hand quadrant of the chart. This revealing analytical process makes it clear which candidates make the final cut.”
A better interview process means better business value
Finding the right person demands serious work. The right resume does not guarantee the right fit. It’s not just a matter of their pedigree and credentials. You should consider their suitability for the company, the team, and your management style. Ask yourself, does this person bring new perspectives and enhance your company’s culture?
A better interview process leads to improved business success, and it’s an opportunity to exemplify your brand’s mission and purpose. That means effective communication of your company’s unique value proposition for more targeted results.
Please share your thoughts on your own interviewing and hiring experiences, and your recommendations for a better interview process.