Interviewing for Success

This was originally published in skalsi.com on September 17, 2016.

*The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect upon any organization the author currently works or has worked for.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been interviewed and have interviewed others many times. I’ve given great interviews and delivered terrible ones. I’ve interviewed awesome candidates and have had to hang up on others. I’ve even been part of an group phone interview where if I was the candidate, I would’ve refused any offer because the interviewing impression given was so poor. Based on these experiences, I’d like to share how I have learned to interview candidates and why I interview that way.

I’ve been on the receiving end of several phone interviews where the interviewers go stoic on you after asking a question without any follow-up or interaction. It’s an interviewing tactic where the script advises lobbing a vague open ended question grenade over the fence and waiting for the other person to maybe self-destruct in some form. All you hear on the other end is typing. They furiously type away, taking notes, writing how the inflection point of your “hums” and “uh’s” corresponds to the context of your brief. When you realize there’s no feedback, it can get you frazzled because in a typical conversation you get visual or verbal feedback providing directional waypoints on whether the conversation is moving forward or not.

These types of interviews are great if the job requires you to partner with a Vulcan or a Beefeater. In fact, I think these are the worst types of interviews because you typically leave feeling like a putz with little clue how the interview went. It’s designed to be uncomfortable, to see how you’d handle the equivalent of an emotionless face staring back at you. I call this the interviewing death stare.

Then there’s the interview where they ask you about what book you’re reading, or what non-profit work you’re engaged in aside from your current job. If you’re reading a book related to your profession, does that count? Not everyone has time to read a novel all the time; not everyone has the time to do charity or non-profit work especially if you’re in a work environment requiring high billable utilization, such as in a Consulting firm. Although it would be good for the soul to do so and I highly encourage you to try. But if you have kids or elderly parents to care for, for example, your free time is understandably reduced. Therefore what these types of questions convey to the interviewee is, “are you single or kid-free with tons of time to devote to the company?”

Nowadays, a lot of employers are “encouraging” their employees to be efficient, practice multi-tasking, and take on more work. Time to pause and think is often a joke. It doesn’t exist for many, so we should be realistic about the hiring demands and impressions being made during an interview. Having said this though, if the employers business is related to the questions at hand, my diatribe is not relevant. But hopefully, you get my intent.

Once, I was recruiting for over twenty positions on my team at IBM. I must have run over fifty to seventy five interviews and my script was simple. I was recruiting for technical folks of varying levels and expertise. I’d start by first making the interviewee feel comfortable by revealing that I wasn’t going to ambush them. Then I’d disclose my agenda that there will be a business and technical side of the interview. I’d proceed to ask a bunch of questions to understand who they were, the way they communicate, and to determine the manner in which they can discuss and report on complex or simple situations and experiences relevant to the position at hand. This, I would do in as calm and encouraging a manner as possible. I even got technical when needed. Are they listeners, complainers, chatty, pensive, et cetera? My intent was to gauge who they were at a purely gut level perspective. You see, I’d tell them I wanted them to succeed in the interview. I wanted to give them the opportunity to show me who they were when they’re not nervous. So I engage in a conversation.

Then my Subject Matter Technical expert would begin questioning to gauge the level of technical competence. Afterwards we’d compare notes; Gut instinct and technical competence. If by the end they were still nervous and had a tough time moving their lips to express their capabilities, I’d consider a follow up interview. Yes, it took a lot of my time, but it was worth it because if and when I finally hired them they not only knew my expectation of them, but also that I’d be there for them. I’d finally rate the candidates and let the HR side of the house work their bit from the salary perspective by focusing on the top candidates first.

This approach worked extremely well for me. Of all the people I ended up hiring, only one was reassigned to another project. The others rose to the occasion and were fantastic. One of the best hires I made was a young mother coming back into the workforce after a few years away. Her eagerness was immediate and she was clearly competent despite her years away. At that time I had small children of my own and I experienced first hand the struggles my wife faced and what she had to give up. I hired the candidate on the spot and she became a highly valued member of our team. I would strongly encourage anyone out there hiring to consider mums who’ve been away for several years that are trying to get back into the workforce. They will be some of your best employees because they have something to prove. Don’t get hung up on the employment gap — it’s a rubbish point to focus on anyways.

This particular assignment I was hiring for was an extremely difficult and high pressure one of significant national importance. The process I used worked for me. Maybe it could work for you too.

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