A rare drawback of being with my wife since I was 19 is that she’s now seen me through my “glory years.” In fact, one of her favorite responses to my grandiose stories of yesteryear is that I’ll never be as good as I used to be, and I was never as good as I remember being. Thanks honey. Well, in the spirit of sharing the same “tough love” with all of you, I offer this tidbit: you’re probably not nearly as good at interviewing as you think you are. And even if you are, it’s probably not as helpful as you think. But despair not – there’s something we can do about it!
Why you aren’t nearly as good as you think you are:
I think it’s time we all admit that we just haven’t cracked the code on this “interview” thing yet. There are as many interviewing techniques as there are HR professionals, implying there isn’t yet a recognized “standard.”
As a result, we aren’t really sure what we’re getting when we make a hire. How frequently is your impression of someone 6 months into the job different than what you expected on Day 0? More often than not, my hires aren’t exactly what I expected: either they’re not as good as I’d hoped, are better than I thought, or are just as good overall but on different dimensions than I anticipated. Often it’s a pleasant surprise, but it’s almost always a surprise.
But, let’s say you can identify each candidate’s unique strengths, values, and development areas. You’re one of the exceptions. If so, I’d argue that skill probably isn’t as helpful as you think.
We interview for competencies or “fit” with a particular job description. But that job description is likely wrong, or will be wrong soon! We operate in a dynamic world where roles frequently change, business re-organize, and strategies name new priorities. Even when you absolutely nail someone’s profile, it’s a moving target to try to match that candidate up with the right job.
What to do about it?
As a result of accepting my wife’s sage advice and acknowledging that I’ve never been as good at this as I thought, I worry less about finding the perfect fit for my job description. Chances are I won’t be great at nailing each candidate’s specific competencies and values. And even if I do, chances are I’m evaluating those against a job description that is about to change.
Rather, I focus on hiring someone who is coachable (e.g., wants to learn and grow, can take feedback, is willing to be vulnerable, etc.). You likely can’t figure out in a 1-hour interview whether someone has what it takes to succeed in this specific job. But you might be able to figure out whether the person can be developed and molded into exactly what you need over time.
How? Bad news: there’s no exact science. But the following two questions should help:
1) Ask the candidate for some constructive feedback they’ve received in the past 12 months and what they’re doing to address it. In this question, look for someone who knows clearly what they’re working on, is managing a plan to improve on those dimensions, and isn’t embarrassed or afraid to discuss their development agenda. If you hear things like “I just don’t get constructive feedback” or “I don’t have anything I am working on” then think seriously about whether this person will be sufficiently introspective and coachable in the job.
2) In response to a success story, ask the candidate what, in hindsight, they’d do differently. In this question, look for critical thinking – someone who can recognize that, despite a positive outcome, there are still ways to reflect and grow.
These questions should help you distinguish those candidates who are particularly coachable and introspective. These are the candidates that you can likely mold into the job you need now (in the likely event that you didn’t perfectly nail their competencies), and when that job inevitably changes in 8 months (in the likely event that you didn’t perfectly nail the job description forever). I prefer to spend far more of my limited interview time pressure testing coachability than any competencies specific to the current job description. I’m essentially reducing the need to be good, since I’ll never be as good as I remember being.
Do you have better/different advice? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!