Prepping Candidates and Taming Hiring Managers

Aug 30, 2010

Most candidates — even high-level executives — need to be prepped before the interview. The reason for this is obvious: they all think they’re great interviewees. Most aren’t. Making matters worse, the hiring managers they’ll be meeting think they’re endowed with some special instinct that allows them to accurately assess candidate competency. Most aren’t.

Since I don’t like to present great candidates who get inadvertently excluded for dumb reasons, I need to prep both my hiring manager clients and my candidates to increase the likelihood the candidates are appropriately and accurately evaluated. This way I don’t have to do searches over again and rely on luck to make placements.

To be taken seriously on this point I had to write a book: Hire With Your Head. Basically it describes a process on how to get hiring managers and candidates on the same page. From the hiring manager’s perspective, it’s describing the work as a series of performance objectives required for on-the-job success. (I refer to these as performance profiles.) From the candidate’s perspective, it’s having them describe a comparable accomplishment for each performance objective. For example, let’s assume the job required the new product marketing manager to develop and launch 25 new iPad apps over the course of the next year. During the interview you’d ask the candidate to describe in detail some comparable product-marketing-related accomplishment. I suggest spending 10-15 minutes getting lots of details for each accomplishment. (Here’s my one-question interview article I wrote for ERE in 2001 on how to do this.) These performance objectives can be split among the hiring team; then, during the collective debrief, the team can rank the candidate on how well the accomplishments compare.

At least that’s the theory. In the field other things happen to mess up this plan.

Those on the interviewing team actually do a very good job as long as a performance profile has been developed, everyone on the hiring team agrees to it, and there is a formal debriefing to evaluate the candidate. The part that’s a bit out of control is the candidate, and the more senior the candidate the more difficult the control. The problem is that candidates have their own way of presenting things, and there are 4,262 books on Amazon on how to interview, most of them on “How to Ace the Behavioral Interview.” To get around this cornucopia of advice, I suggest another way: learn how to effectively answer the accomplishment-based question with insight and confidence. And if the interviewer doesn’t ask this question, make sure he or she does.

The reason the prep is needed is that candidates are not used to talking about a single accomplishment for 15-20 minutes. Instead, if you’re lucky, they’ve been trained to give a STAR answer to a behavioral question like, “give me an example of when you have to demonstrate drive or self-motivation.” Candidates then give a two-minute description of the situation (S), the task (T), the action (A) taken, and the result (R) achieved. Which isn’t bad, but it’s not deep enough to make an accurate assessment. Worse, most candidates have canned answers for all common behaviors and competencies.

While the question format I suggest interviewers use is similar, it requires a more substantive answer. Using the above product marketing example, the question form would be “tell me about your most significant comparable accomplishment related to launching 24 iPad apps over the next 12 months.” This is not easy to answer unless the candidate has thought about it ahead of time. This is even more challenging, since as part of the fact-finding I suggest interviewers ask STAR-like questions for all of the standard behaviors and competencies. This way the interviewer can obtain a more complete understanding of how the person’s behaviors, competencies, and skills relate to specific performance objectives.

To get candidates ready for this type of performance-based interview, I tell them to write down their biggest accomplishments for each job they’ve held. They can then mention these when going through their work history. I then have them prepare a two-paragraph write-up of their most significant team and individual accomplishment. As part of this I make sure they include dates, the people involved, results achieved, the role played, the challenges faced, and the impact made. If I want to really prep them I’ll have them prepare this type of write-up for each accomplishment listed on the performance profile. This is also a great way for me to determine if they’re worth presenting to my client, since I often have difficulty ferreting out all this info in my initial interview. This way I can determine if they’re qualified during the process of getting them to think about what they’ve accomplished at a much deeper level.

If the hiring manager has prepared a performance profile, this type of prep is very effective. However, many hiring managers don’t prepare performance profiles, and even those who have often get caught up in the moment and go off-script. This is where part two of the prep is so important — getting the candidate to have the hiring manager ask performance-based questions. In this case, I instruct candidates to be ready to ask this type of question early in the interview. It goes something like this:

The recruiter didn’t give me a great deal of insight into the performance requirements of the job, and this wasn’t clear from the posted job description, either. Would you mind giving me a quick overview of the open position and some of the performance expectations? This way I can give you examples of related accomplishments and projects I’ve handled.

This will get the manager’s attention, and a few critical performance objectives will be described. Candidates can then ask for some clarification, and smoothly provide overviews of their most comparable accomplishments.

The key to all of this is get the hiring manager to clarify the performance expectations upfront and in parallel have the candidate smoothly provide real examples and details about related accomplishments. Unfortunately most hiring managers “don’t have the time” to understand what the job really entails, and most candidates tend to talk in generalities, hoping their personality and enthusiasm carries the day. While taming hiring managers and prepping candidates takes some effort, the process suggested ensures the best person is hired for exactly the right job. (We’ve prepared a video for recruiters to send to candidates to get them ready for this type of interview. This preview has some good tipsEmail me if you want to see the whole thing.

re-posted with permission from

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