How to Interview Top Performers

Mar 13, 2008

Top people cannot be interviewed the same way as everyone else. Although most recruiters and hiring managers know this, few know how to do it. It’s not about selling the job, charming the person, and over-talking. It’s about using the interview to get the candidate to sell you.

Let’s take one step back before moving two forward. It’s quite easy to figure out whether someone is totally a bad fit for your job. It’s almost as easy to determine whether someone’s a superstar. Just look at their resume, academics, and track record. Top performers win a lot of gold medals. So all you have to do to accurately assess them is to validate that they actually won them without taking steroids.

What’s not so easy is to assess everyone in between. Also not so easy is to keep the ones you want to hire excited about your job throughout the interview without boring them or having to give away the farm at the end.

To pull this off, let’s take one step forward by categorizing all interviewing mistakes into five common types:

  1. The Unmotivated Hire. This is hiring someone who sounded good in the interview and who is reasonably competent, but not motivated to consistently do the work needed to be done. These are the people who need to be over-managed just to achieve average results.
  2. The Partial Hire. This mistakes refers to a person who does parts of the job really well, but not all of them. For example, a hard-working developer who misses deadlines.
  3. The Non-Hire. This covers all of those hiring mistakes associated with a top person being excluded because someone made a bad assessment. This typically happens when interviewers base their decisions on first impressions or some superficial, narrow, or flawed reason.
  4. The Lost Opportunity Hire. These are the worst mistakes of them all. This refers to a great person who you probably would have hired, but who decided to voluntarily opt-out before an offer was made or declined your offer for some preventable reason.
  5. The Wrongful Hire or Wrongful Non-Hire. Asking inappropriate or illegal questions causes lawsuits, especially from weak people who you didn’t hire. You’ll also get these from weak people you hire and then quickly fire. A structured objective interview where everyone asks the same questions and evaluates everyone the same way will eliminate this problem.

To prevent these problems, let’s take another step forward by recognizing that a good interview needs to accomplish more than just accurately assessing competency to do the work. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a top performer who has other opportunities and can opt out at any point. This is also the top person who will get a counter-offer and who will receive an offer with a bigger comp package elsewhere.

As part of the interview, consistently provide the person with evidence that your opportunity represents a fundamental career move, not just a salary jump. You can’t wait until the end of the interview to do this.

As we reengineer the assessment process, consider these points as the basic requirements of an effective interview:

  1. To eliminate the lost opportunity non-hire, do two-thirds of your recruiting before you decide to make the candidate an offer. The candidate must leave each interview wowed by the job, and you must do this without the interviewer overselling and over-talking.
  2. To prevent inflated offers, more competitive offers from other companies, and counter-offers, you need to ensure that the candidate evaluates the job based on the opportunity, not the compensation.
  3. To prevent partial and unmotivated hires you need to accurately assess long-term competency and motivation across all job needs, not just a few core traits like technical and team skills.
  4. To eliminate wrongful non-hires and non-hires you need to overcome biases and increase objectivity. To do this, you can’t be snowed by presentation, you cannot prematurely exclude good candidates who are temporarily nervous, and you must eliminate foolish, illegal, pet, and trick questions that have not been validated.
  5. Another big objective is to get buy-in from everyone on the interviewing team (sourcers, recruiters, hiring managers, etc.) about your overall process; make sure everyone uses the same process.

Pulling this off starts by understanding my one-question interview. This is the question I developed back in the 80s to prevent my clients from excluding good people for bad reasons (like the above) and recruit them at the same time.

Over the years, it turned out this same questioning process also eliminated all of the other problems. In the last 20 years, I’ve introduced this question to more than 40,000 managers, and those who use it get exactly the results described. But try it out yourself; you’ve got nothing to lose, and you actually might make more placements. (As an added benefit it’s been legally, OFCCP, EEO, and OD/PhD vetted.)

The basic one-question interview process starts by asking the candidate to describe a major accomplishment in great depth. You typically need to spend 12 to 15 minutes on this accomplishment, peeling the onion, digging deep, looking for facts and details validating the accomplishment. As part of this you can’t accept generalities. To get more insight I also ask standard behavioral questions as part of this fact-finding, like give me some examples of where you had to influence others, deal with conflict, take the initiative or handle a tough challenge.

Collectively, these types of questions tie behaviors, skills, competency and motivation to a specific major task. But don’t stop with just one significant accomplishment question. By asking the candidate to describe other major accomplishments, a trend line of performance and consistency over an extended period of time soon reveals itself.

As part of the assessment process you can then compare these accomplishments to the real performance needs of the job. I refer to these real job needs as a performance profile. We use a formal 10-factor grid to assess and compare candidates using the evidence from these accomplishment-based questions.

With a slight modification, this basic accomplishment-based interview process can be used to recruit the candidate. One way is to add a compelling preface to the question to excite the candidate. For example, for a mid-level firmware developer on a Bluetooth project for a chip maker, start by describing the importance of your company’s Bluetooth effort and the impact the person in the role on the project’s success. With this one- to two-minute overview, then ask the person to describe his most significant comparable project. If the project is attractive the candidate will be very willing to describe the project in-depth and start to sell you on his worthiness. This is called a pull-toward preface used to excite the candidate.

You can also obtain a similar effect by pushing the person away or by slightly challenging the person’s experience. For example, after the person describes a major accomplishment, you might suggest that the new project is somewhat broader in scope than what the person has previously handled. Then go on to say that while you’re impressed with the accomplishment, you have concerns that the candidate might not be able to handle some critical aspects of the job, like team building and project planning.

Then ask the person to describe their most significant team and planning accomplishment so you can better understand their abilities in this area. The best people will push back and attempt to convince you they are qualified for this type of role.

A major aspect of interviewing top performers is to use the interview to look for voids and gaps in the candidate’s background that your job fulfills. As long as theses gaps are not too wide, this is how you convert a job into a career and how you stop making the offer largely about money.

By using the push-and-pull techniques, you get the candidate to sell you, rather than you having to sell the candidate. There’s a significant after-effect with this. Candidates are more confident when telling their family, advisors, and co-workers why they’re accepting your offer rather than any others, since they’ve had to sell themselves first.

While there are additional techniques you can use during the interview to close the candidate, the idea here is that a properly conducted interview must do much more than just assess competency. If the interview is too sterile or too superficial you’ll lose the best people for preventable reasons.

The push-and-pull in combination with the most significant accomplishment interviewing processes overcomes these problems. Not only will you be able to recruit more top people, you’ll also stop excluding good people for bad reasons, you’ll prevent non-hires, and you’ll stop hiring people who just talk a good game.

When viewed from this broader perspective, it’s apparent that most interviewers, recruiters, and hiring managers alike have little understanding of how to really interview, recruit, and hire top performers. Surprisingly, addressing these interviewing problems might actually eliminate the bulk of your sourcing challenges in the bargain.

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