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Candidate Interviews 101

by Guest Blogger
MANP presents the following guest blog post by Jessica Smart of The Smart Group Executive Search, an endorsed provider of executive search services, as part of our ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition. 

Although most people have been interviewed at some point in their careers and many others have participated in recruitment efforts for their company or organization, I’ve discovered in the 20+ years I’ve been in this business, most people (at all levels) don’t really know what constitutes a good interview.

What exactly is a good interview?

To put it simply, a good interview is one where you actually get the information you need from the candidate and the candidate gets the information they need from you in an efficient, respectful and timely manner.  Easy right? Not really. But it does get easier with practice.

If you are lucky, your HR department will have had the time to train you (and if they ever offer interview skills training run, don’t walk, to the training), but if you are like most of us, you just learn by trial and error—mostly error. Sometimes you just participate in a group interview or a meet and greet but eventually you will need to lead an interview and when you do so, you want it to be good.

Many inexperienced though well-meaning interviewers either overprepare, making the interview stiff and awkward—so worried are they that they won’t get it right, or they totally underprepare and end up having nice conversations with candidates but aren’t really able to make any true assessments as to skills and fit.

Following are tips for leading good candidate interviews. However, before we dig in, it’s important to first understand that not all interviews are the same. Regardless of whether you are hiring a CEO or an entry-level intern these are the three most common types of interviews. Not three people, or three rounds of interviews, but three types.

Three Types of Interviews

Interview Type 1: The screening interview

This is often over the phone or via Skype or Zoom. If your organization is big enough for a recruitment department or if you are working with an executive recruiter, you won’t have to do this one yourself.  This interview is generally 30-45 minutes in length and should confirm basic qualifications, fill in any resume gaps, confirm interest in the company and the role, etc. This interview includes the interviewer sharing pertinent information about the role, the timeline of the hiring process (and why), confirmation of salary requirements (note: I write salary requirements not history purposefully) and availability for interviews.

Interview Type 2: The what-have-you-done and what-can-you-do- for-us interview

This interview is typically done by the hiring manager and/or hiring committee and digs more deeply into the qualifications and skills for the role. This can be one interview with a group or several interviews on the same day but with different member of the hiring team. This interview should essentially go through the position description and ensure this candidate has all the must-have skills and at least some of the nice-to-have skills.

Interview Type 3: The what-will-it-be-like-to- work-with this person interview

This interview occurs only when candidates have made it through interview one and two—essentially, the candidate has the skills and experience to perform in the role and possesses the right qualifications (as well as interest), but the organization still needs to understand if they will do the work the they need them to and whether they will fit in.  It’s important to understand that this interview is not about finding the next robot or the next person who looks and acts exactly like everyone else but about whether or not the greater organization can work well with this person and vice versa. This interview will look very different for different positions and companies, but this is often called the final interview. For nonprofits, it’s often a meet and greet with key staff and board. For the top job in any organization, it’s often with the entire board versus a subset.

Tips for Interviewing

Regardless of the type of interview you are participating in or leading, here are five tips to help make them more successful.

  1. Prepare. Make sure you have a job description and the candidate’s resume. Read them both. Some job descriptions are out of date and rely heavily on jargon so make sure you have read the description and if you are leading the interview alone, you can explain the role. Be sure to have read the candidate’s resume AND cover letter. There is often very helpful information in the cover letter that can be a great conversation starter. Be sure you have a list of questions to cover. If you don’t know what to ask and need help, your HR department or recruiter can help you craft some. The better you get at interviewing, the more conversational your interviews can be. I’ve been doing this work for so long, I often get questions answered without having to actually ask the exact questions on my list. But, unless and until it’s second nature, it’s better to stick with the list. Read those questions to yourself out loud—and think about how you would answer those same questions to ensure you understand what you are asking.
  2. Set the tone. As soon as you sit down, if you are the first interviewer, provide the candidate with an overview of how the interview or day will go. You get much better interviews from candidates when they are relaxed, so do what you can to make them comfortable. Think about the set-up of the room: Will the sun be in their eyes? Is it too hot? Is it loud? Is the room cavernous and intimidating? Offer water. Start with small talk and then work into the questions. Tell them you plan to take notes. If you tell them you are taking notes, they won’t try to read what you write down (awkward). Try not to interview people in your office–too many distractions and interruptions.
  3. Ask candidates open ended questions that require them to think. Ask them how and why. Don’t ask what they would do in a particular situation, ask them what they’ve actually done in a similar situation. Instead of creating scenarios for candidates, ask them real life questions. For example, instead of asking “what would you do if you had to deliver unpopular news to your team, ask “Have you ever had to deliver news to your team that you knew was not going to go over well? What did you do? What was the result? If the answer is no to the first question, ask them to provide a similar real-life example or move on to the next question.
  4. Take Notes. This may seem obvious, but many people don’t take the time to take notes thinking they will remember everything. I am a seasoned interviewer and am told my recall is like that of an elephant, but I still take notes. I’m not suggesting you create a verbatim transcript, but jot down a few key words on responses to remind you of the answers. If you have a review sheet, complete it while the interview is fresh–as in right after if possible. When taking notes, use a clean sheet of paper and don’t write directly on the resume (I did this for years early in my career until a kind HR colleague told me it was bad form and now it seems obvious). If you are interviewing someone at lunch, this can be awkward, so it’s best to save those interviews for the final rounds—once it’s confirmed the candidate is qualified. Never have a first interview over lunch.
  5. Thank the candidate for their time and be sure to know the next steps in the process. This is a step often over looked, particularly in larger organizations. If you are the last person on the list of interviews, be sure you know the interview timeline and next steps. If you don’t know, your HR rep or internal recruiter can tell you. Keep timelines tight and don’t use meaningless phrases like “you’ll hear from us in a few weeks”. These types of noncommittal responses can make the candidate feel unimportant and unsure of when to follow up. And, be sure that if you set a deadline, meet it. Don’t just take a week longer to get back to the candidate without explanation. This might seem like a small thing, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from candidates that they rethink the position and the company when the final interviewer tells them to follow up with the recruiter or HR rep for details on timing—or they don’t meet set deadlines.

Interviewing is a learned skill but many of us are never taught how to do it well. Often by the time we get to a certain level, we are afraid to ask for help.  Follow this guide and you are sure to have a successful interview with every candidate every time.

About the Author

In her dynamic professional experience, Jessica Smart has led and managed hundreds of searches from inception to closure at all levels across many different industries. A graduate of Western Michigan University, this Midwesterner came to Maine by way of Boston and has spent the past 10+ years in the Portland area. She has developed extensive professional connections throughout the state, region, and country working for a prestigious law firm in Boston, a boutique executive search firm, and then as development director for Goodwill Industries of Northern New England before founding The Smart Group Executive Search. In her role as principal, she brings agility, flexibility, and an uncompromising investment in her clients. Jessica is a MANP-endorsed provider of executive search services.

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