A 4–step Interview System We’ve Used to Reduce Time Spent Interviewing and Time to Hire Dramatically

It’s a hot summer day and you’re watching your favorite baseball team, hotdog and beer in hand. Tie score, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, your nemesis’ clean-up batter standing at the plate. Your team’s manager calls time and approaches the pitching mound.

You know what this means: time for the big guns, your team’s “closer” to come in and pitch.

But not today. You stare in disbelief as the manager tosses the ball into left field, yelling something to the left fielder about coming in the game to pitch instead. Mr. Left Fielder looks around, befuddled, apparently not sure what to say either, then starts lobbing lame, slow balls (literally) at home plate. WTH? Are you kidding me?

Yes, fortunately. It’s a ridiculous story that would never happen on any baseball field. But it happens, at least figuratively, in interview rooms at some of the world’s most successful companies. Candidates meet interviewers who are ill-assigned and poorly-positioned to conduct an interview with a candidate whose attendance belies the difficulties overcome to bring them onsite in the first place.

Interview processes drag on and positions go unfilled far too long. Interviewers everywhere, equipped with little more than good intentions, try desperately to cover the entire field of play, overlapping their colleagues’ similar efforts in testing criteria, while leaving dramatic gaps in other interview agendas.

Your candidate leaves the interview. Do you have the information you need to make a decision? Does your interviewers’ feedback conflict? Did your interviewers help you by providing feedback they were trained to assess? Do you know the candidates’ state of mind or if they want the job … or just an offer? Was the interview conversational and friendly, but leaves you wondering if you learned anything important?

A candidate’s experience in an interview is too often overlooked and leaves many unanswered questions. A poor interview game plan can even mean that “Do you want the job?” is an unanswerable question!

The good news: it’s possible to build an effective interview team of differently skilled people, position them on the field of play, and coach them to victory.

What follows is my four-step strategy to help you arrive at a well-informed hiring decision.

During the last eight years of my 18-year career, this system has helped land high-value candidates at vastly different companies in both the high-tech and retail industries, from the Pacific Northwest to the eastern seaboard.

Some benefits of this system: 1) Showcases your team’s talent 2) Reduces time to hire and time in interviews, 3) Scales smoothly and swiftly, 4) Applies to all crafts/disciplines, and 5) Isolates interviewing weaknesses.

The Purpose of an Interview

Interviews are not (nor should they be) merely conversations. A good interview will feel like a conversation, but should always yield more than that. The purpose of an interview is to provide data that informs the hiring decision.

If an interview is not merely a great conversation, why do good interviews feel like that? The answer lies in the content of the interviews themselves. And that answer is the key to unlocking this system.

Content Addressed in Great Interviews

The content of most interviews is generally assigned to two buckets: skills and intangibles. But consider something for a moment. Are “intangibles” truly that? Or are the “soft skills” you’ve detected in interviews things you have felt strongly about come decision time? For most of us, the answer to that last question is “yes.” Take it a step farther and you can probably assign a few words: team-player, diligent, and articulate to name a few.

What I have found is this: the best interview experiences measure both skills and competencies.

Over my career, I’ve concluded that intangibles are competencies against which employees, and therefore candidates, can be measured. Is this candidate persistent? Can they influence others? Do they work in a job that requires constant learning or superhuman organizational abilities?

This is not a new concept, and myriad organizations from Gallup to Korn Ferry have developed systems to test these competencies in an objective, measurable way. At QuoteCenter, we assess candidates using The Home Depot’s KFLA-based competencies, and we trained our interviewers using Interview Edge’s Effective Interviewing system.

Back to the baseball analogy. Part of the story’s inherent absurdity is that a left fielder possesses a different skillset than that of a pitcher. If I were to test a left fielder and a pitcher in an “interview,” I’d likely test them very differently because they will perform different roles on the team. It just makes sense to test their skillset differently. And because the stresses each player faces are different, I’d look for evidence of unique competencies that determine how that player will respond to various types of stress.

Interviews become fun when candidates are asked about both their skills and competencies in a balanced agenda. A candidate’s interview experience feels great when the conversation includes both what the candidate has done (skills), and why or how they did their jobs (competencies). An interview becomes a conversation of sorts when both hiring manager and candidate dig deeply into stories about both the what and the how/why.

When deep, conversational interviews occur, hiring managers (and candidates) can measure fit strength between the skills and competencies needed and possessed. Here is where the framework starts to take shape.

Step 1 (H): Hone in on Skills and Competencies … Separately

In any job, hard skills are needed to perform daily tasks, and competencies are what fuels your team members in both good and bad times. “What” (skills) and “how” (competencies) a candidate does their work are completely different topics.

At QuoteCenter we begin with a list of the deliverables needed from the role. We then describe the tasks or tools (skills) needed to create the deliverables and how or why that person might create those deliverables in a certain way (competencies).

Honing in on exact skills and competencies to test in interviews is a challenge. Below are a few helpful questions you can ask to identify interview criteria.

Skills

What tasks do I need this person to complete daily, weekly, etc.? What tools will I make available to them to perform these tasks? What will they “put their hands-on” during the course of their work?

Competencies

Why are some of my team members more successful than others? When times are rough, how do my team members push through? What qualities do my team members hold in common?

Once you have a list of four to five skills and four to five competencies, you have enough to get started. Don’t be concerned about completing the “right” list at the outset. The “petri dish of interviewing” frequently calibrates job searches automatically. Many interview teams will drop a competency or skill and replace it with others when interviews reveal new understandings of the need.

Step 2 (I): Identify a Winning Game Plan

Now that you have your list of skills and competencies, how can you assess candidates accurately in just a few hours?

Choose between three strategies for questioning candidates: 1) open-ended, 2) experiential, and 3) hypothetical.

Open-ended questions may be a familiar way to construct questions. Journalists call it the five w’s and the h rule. If you’re bored enough to catch a White House briefing, you’ll frequently hear the President’s spokesperson escape closed-ended questions with a simple “yes” or “no.” Don’t get caught in the same trap! Begin each question as follows:

“Why … ?”

“Who … ?”

“What … ?”

“When … ?”

“Where … ?”

“How … ?”

Experiential questions are effective at capturing how a candidate has responded to past situations and help avoid “soapbox” answers. Beginning a line of experiential questioning with “Tell me about a time when …” is particularly useful in interviews where jobs and deliverables are highly conceptual.

While there is some truth that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” hypothetical questions can provide great insight into candidates’ habits. “Tell me about a time if …” questions gives a candidate license to describe their ideal world, allowing you to decide if your ideal world matches theirs. A word of caution with this strategy: context is key. Candidates can not understand a context they aren’t a part of, so be prepared to give background and supporting details.

Step 3 (R): Round Up an Interview Team

Not all interviews are created equal. Even the most basic, entry-level positions promise different interview experiences for you, your team, and your candidates.

Some interviews primarily focus on assessing a candidate’s skillset. Other hours-long interviews will get only two to three questions deep, as hiring manager and candidate discuss the competencies that yielded success in a major project or failure at a past crossroads.

Like most professionals, your time is in short supply. Even if you spent every available work hour interviewing, it is not possible to uncover every detail about your candidate.

Remember that the purpose of an interview is to provide data that informs the hiring decision. Some interviews will tell you what you need to know about skills (high skills, low competency). Other interviews will tell you what you need to know about competency fit (high competency, low skills). Almost none will deeply assess both skills and competencies.

Carve your skills and competency questions into distinct, manageable assignments for your team. Avoid pulling a crazy idea out of left field and leave the pitching to the experts. As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Carve your skills and competency questions into manageable assignments for your team.

Dividing the work of interviews across a team, with distinct roles, also provides a positive experience for the candidate. At The Home Depot, candidate experience is a major focus. Planning interviews that promise a deep and broad interview experience is a great way to position for a strong close.

Step 4 (E): Execute Your Roles

You have a team for a reason. Share the workload.

“But this hiring decision is my responsibility.”

True, but if you work as a team, interview as a team. As hiring manager, it’s not your job to do every interview job, but to make sure each interview job gets done.

Like any true sport, you’ve now put boundaries around the field of play, allowing you to assign positions and make sure all the bases are covered. “So,” you might ask, “what’s the purpose of each role?”

H  — Hiring Manager

Job: “Is this the right person?”

Position: High Skills, High Competency

We’ve already established that the purpose of an interview is to provide data that informs the hiring decision and that the hiring manager’s job isn’t to do each job, but to make sure each job gets done.

The hiring manager holds the hiring decision and  makes this decision based on a high yield of input in both skills and competencies. This is proven out when the hiring manager asks for input from interviewers assigned to each area, allowing the hiring manager to answer the most important question: “Is this the right person?”

I  — Influencer

Job: “Is this person the right fit?”

Position: Low Skills, High Competency

Many inexperienced hiring teams spend the least amount of time assessing, and yet place the highest value in data gathered from this. However, your hiring team members will automatically gravitate toward candidates who have more strongly developed “soft skills” versus skillsets. I’ve seen countless candidates offered jobs based on high competency fit even when a more skilled candidate was available.

I’ve seen countless candidates offered jobs based on high competency fit even when a more skilled candidate was available.

Sadly, most companies are poorly prepared to interview well in the “I” quadrant. Conversely, the strongest candidates will look to the intangibles to judge fit with the job. In my experience, the highest-value candidates are closed almost effortlessly by Influencers, equipped to deftly identify strong competency matches and tell the candidate why they should look no farther for their next job.

The strongest candidates will look to the intangibles to judge fit with the job.

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Furthermore, most of the late-stage interview time spent with your highest-value candidates is in the Influencer quadrant. The “Influencer” is your closer.

R  —Representative

Job: “Is this the right story?”

Position: Low Skills, Low Competency

Some names you may or may not know: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza … what do they have in common? Most, if not all, of these will appear in any article detailing major league baseball’s “Best Catchers of All Time.” On your field of (interview) play, the catcher plays at the backstop, a place where game-winning steals are turned away and sprawling baseball players save, or make, legacies.

“Low Skills, Low Competency” can be awfully deceptive. Don’t be fooled! The Representative who you just happen to introduce a candidate to on the pre-interview tour may catch a comment about commute length or programming language preference. As the “backstop” on the field, the Representative may be the one to prompt one last conversation about that drive to work, which encourages a last heart-to-heart with the candidate that avoids an unpleasant surprise.

At QuoteCenter, one of our associates frequently bakes a cake for her team. When candidates ask during the screen what it’s like to work here, our recruiters tell her story, and many other stories like it. Wanna guess if that candidate gets a look at the cake on their tour (if there’s any left)?

E  — Expert

Job: “Is the right skillset present?”

Position: (Sc) High Skill, Low Competency

Skill set is frequently the clearest area to test. And yet, it can be incredibly expensive. It isn’t unusual for companies to spend 75 percent of their interview time in this quadrant. However, balance is key in interviewing the whole person. Allow your Expert the freedom to focus just on the skillset and they won’t need to spend time in other areas.

Interestingly, implementing an interview system with multiple roles, rather than just one, actually improved our teams’ Expert interviewing. Once we realized we could interview more effectively by dividing up the work, we were able to create a more detailed “common skills framework” which outlined 12 buckets of technical skills to assess. Candidates self-evaluate their skill levels during the recruiter screen, which sets the Expert’s interview agenda for them. We then pick an appropriate skills assessment for interview day.

QuoteCenter spent an average of 26 person hours on each onsite interview. Today that number is down to nine person hours. Time to fill was well over 90 days. As of this writing, time to fill is down to 43 days.

After the Interview

Once your interview is complete, ask your team to summarize their input. If possible, use a system to collect data over time so you can analyze your progress and collect learnings.

Many people who have used this system find that chunking up the work also makes it possible for them to process their thinking and decide if more interviewing is needed. At QuoteCenter, we make most hiring decisions after one onsite interview. If you’re not at that stage yet, use your team’s feedback to ask “Should the conversation continue?” and then decide what that conversation looks like. Is it a conversation about final offer terms, or a follow up in one corner of your field of play?

We have found that this system self-trains our interviewers. A hiring manager or recruiter simply needs to tell an interviewer the name of their role, and that person instantly knows what is needed from them. “I need an Influencer, can you help?” tells the interviewer where to step onto the field of play. And giving each interviewer a job builds confidence that they will provide what is needed by the team.

The system also scales well. For example, a recruiter and hiring manager can build multiple teams of eight people across the four roles, put them on a rotating schedule (one two-week sprint shift every six weeks) and have a bench of available interviewers if one person is sick or has a fire to fight.

H-I-R-E also works across disciplines. Whether you are hiring for a software engineer, product manager, physiciank or security officer, that position includes both a skill set to apply and competencies as a foundation.

Interviewing is both art and science. There is much I am still learning about how to adequately capture information about candidates and jobs in the enigma of an “interview.” If you have any questions, or try the system and find an improvement, do let me know in the comments below or on Facebook. Thanks, and happy interviewing!