Targeted selection for job interviews

9:50 pm General, work

A post by Amanda McPherson about her best interviewing tip over on LinkedIn got me thinking about an interview technique I was taught while on the GNOME board many years ago:

Focus on behavior. In jobs related to product management, business development, sales, marketing or communications, you  have people who are verbally skilled. Ask them anything and you will likely get a good verbal response, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Focusing on behavior — how they follow up, how and when they respond to your emails and questions, how they treat you vs others on the team for instance — yields more accurate data of how they will be on a daily basis.

She quotes the story of a Charles Schwab executive who would take candidates to breakfast interviews, and ask the restaurant to mix up the order deliberately – just to see how they would react to the stressful event.

The technique, which was taught to the GNOME board by Jonathan Blandford, goes one step further. The principle of targeted selection is that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. So if you are hiring someone to manage a team, ask about a time they were a manager in the past. If you need someone who can learn quickly in a new and fast moving domain, ask them about a time they were in a similar situation. Then dig deep for details – what did they do, how did they interact with others, how effective was the outcome of the situation?

As an example: if you want to know how someone reacts under pressure, ask about a time that they were working on a project that ran late. Ask them to describe the moment when they realised that they were not going to make the release date on time, on quality, as planned. Then ask how they reacted – did they reduce scope, fight for a schedule extension, add people, get everyone working weekends? Was there a post mortem after the project shipped? Who took the lead on that? How were the lessons applied in the next project? You can use a line of questioning like this to identify the people who will power through obstacles, regardless of the cost; people who are more consensual, but may lack decisiveness; people who seek help versus taking on too much burden. This type of insight is gold-dust when you are evaluating a candidate.

Some other ideas for questions:

  • If you want someone who can ramp up quickly in a new area, ask about the last technology they discovered and became expert on. Then ask about the early days – was their instinct to read blogs, books, tutorials? To follow practical labs? To pay for training? Did they seek out people to ask questions and share knowledge? How did they evaluate where they were in the learning process? Have they stayed active and learning, or did they stop once they had enough knowledge to do the job? There is no right answer, but the approach they took will give you an idea of how they would attack a similar challenge in the future.
  • If inter-personal relationships are key to success in the job, dig into a time they had a significant disagreement (with a boss, with a subordinate, with a colleague, with someone in a community project) – something meaningful and important to them. How did they go about arguing their case? Was winning more important than getting a good solution? How important was the relationship to them?
  • If organisational skills are key: ask for an example of a time when they had to clean up after someone else. How did they go about draining the swamp? What do they say about the former organiser? How did they balance organising the existing system with allowing people to interact with the system and continue doing their jobs?

It isn’t just prospective employers who can use this technique to have better interviews. For candidates, this method can be awesome to allow you to prepare and take ownership of an interview. Look at the job requirements and required experience. When were you in a situation when you got to show the skills required? What were your actions, and what were the results?You can tell a story about your experience that hits all of the job requirements, even if your interviewer is not asking questions about it.

Go one step further: interview your interviewer! Think about the situations in the past where you have been successful and unsuccessful, and come up with your requirements – take that knowledge into the interview, and ask questions to check whether the position is a good match for you. Interviews are a two-way street, and you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you. Ask interviewers when they were confronted with certain situations, and dig into their experiences as employees of the company. Is this a company that expects you to work weekends to meet unrealistic deadlines? Are you thrown a life buoy and expected to sink or swim? Is there a strict hierarchical structure, or are everyone’s perspectives heard and respected? Is there mobility within the company, or do people hit a developmental ceiling?

The great thing about this line of questioning is that it is not accessing the hypothetical side of the brain – you are not getting the idealised “I would…” answer where infinite time and resources, and everyone’s buy-in can be assumed. You are accessing memory banks, and the more details you get, the closer you get to the truth of how the person reacts. Especially great for providing insights are trade-offs, where there is no right answer – when two people want different things and you are there to adjudicate or be the intermediary, when you have to choose between two top priorities, when you only have enough time to do one of the three things that are important. In situations like that, you can really get insight into the approach and mentality of candidates, and also help candidates judge the culture and priorities of a company.


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