How to interview candidates, not educate them

By: Eric Herrenkohl

A director of sales was frustrated by the fact that her boss was always more impressed with certain sales candidates than she was. She interviewed these people when they first came into the office and did not find them to be all that remarkable. Then other sales managers interviewed each candidate.

Finally, the candidate met with her superior, the senior vice president, at the end of the day. By that time, the interviewees really knew how to sell themselves and wowed her boss. Why?

It turned out that that the other sales managers were spending too much time talking about the company and not enough time asking good questions. Instead of digging into people’s past sales accomplishments, these interviewers were educating job candidates about the company and its industry. Being salespeople, the candidates used this information to hone their personal sales pitches.

To remedy this situation, the company moved to a team interview approach. It controlled the questions that were asked and the amount of information that was provided to job candidates early in the interview process. This helped to reduce its hiring mistakes. Here's how to make sure job candidates do their homework and you don’t do it for them.

Ask the Right Interview Questions
Open-ended questions always trump closed-ended questions in the interview process. Take a look at these two sample interview questions and ask yourself how effective they are. In this case, the hiring manager wants to probe into a candidate’s leadership skills.

Open-Ended Interview Questions
‘‘Tell me about a time when you had to lead your team in a new direction.’’ Candidates will have to provide you with one or more challenges that they faced and the specific steps they took with their team to meet them. It will be clear to you if they fudge their answer and if the experience is genuine.

Closed-Ended Interview Questions
‘‘Do you consider yourself to be a leader?’’ This question lets candidates off the hook by allowing them to give a one-word (or at least very limited) answer.You have learned nothing.

Unlike mutual funds, interview questions about people’s past performance is the best indicator of their future results. A simple but powerful approach to interviewing is to use open-ended questions to get people talking about their accomplishments at every stage of their life and career. If you ask the questions correctly, you will obtain an accurate picture of what they’ve achieved up to this point. Then you can decide if they are likely to realize the results you want from your next hire.

A-Player Principle: A well-conducted interview always focuses on getting people to elaborate in detail about their past accomplishments. Use open-ended questions to encourage a conversation, not just yes-and-no answers.

Always Ask Follow-Up Questions
Even when you ask open-ended questions about people’s accomplishments, you often receive rehearsed answers. Don’t just accept these responses and move on. Always ask one or more follow-up interview questions.

Dr. Kurt Einstein was an executive recruiter who conducted research on interviewing techniques. One of Einstein’s key points was that follow-up questions force job candidates to reveal if there is any substance behind their initial programmed responses. If candidates can describe in living detail how they accomplished something, they are likely telling the truth. If they provide broad-brush generalities in response to repeated follow-up questions, they are probably embellishing their achievements or overemphasizing their role in some way.

Using follow-up questions makes your job as an interviewer easier, since there are as many follow-up questions as there are accomplishments to discuss. You can simply ask about specific accomplishments and then follow up with ‘‘Tell me more’’ and ‘‘Why so?’’ and run a very effective interview. In addition, you can ask questions such as:

 ‘‘Why did you choose that strategy?’’
 ‘‘What made you believe that layoffs were the right answer?’’
 ‘‘What steps did you take to make purchasing more efficient?’’
 ‘‘What specific things did you do to reduce the time to close the books from 30 days to7days?’’

This tactic puts less pressure on you to come up with a lot of ‘‘creative’’ interview questions. Instead, you spend your time listening in the interview process. If you follow this simple approach, you will conduct a strong interview every time.

A-Player Principle: The most important question to ask in an interview is the follow-up question. Don’t let candidates get away with just providing their rehearsed answers to your inquiries about their past accomplishments.

Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Copyright© 2010 by Eric Herrenkohl & Herrenkohl Consulting.

Author Bio
Eric Herrenkohl
is the author of the book, How to Hire A-Players, (John Wiley & Sons, 2010) and is President of Herrenkohl Consulting. Herrenkohl Consulting helps executives create the organizations they need to build the businesses they want. To receive Eric’s free monthly e-letter Performance Principles, go to herrenkohlconsulting to subscribe.

Know exactly what to ask job seekers

There is a time and place in the recruitment process for educating people about your organization, but make sure not to overdo it early in the interview process. You want to spend valuable interview time asking questions that will help you understand the candidate sitting in front of you. Could you use some help with that? Sign up for exclusive Monster Hiring advice and we’ll send you the latest recruiting tips, hiring trends, management strategies, and even some awesome Monster deals. You can rely on Monster's expertise to help you craft smart, insightful interview questions that will help you make your next terrific hire.