Being a Good Interviewer is More About Recruiting than Selection

I learned to become a better interviewer than my clients for only one reason: to prevent good candidates from being excluded for bad reasons. Too many of my clients were assessing candidates improperly, either overvaluing first impressions or using some narrow range of skills to determine competency.

Learning to become a great interviewer allowed me to close more deals more often for the right reasons. However, something else happened along the way. I discovered that a properly conducted interview has tremendous value, far more significant than just assessing competency.

Over the past five years, I’ve written about 50 articles (out of over 200) that relate to improving interviewing skills. Here are two you should read to understand the basics of a good interview. The first is about assessing past performance and the second is about determining future potential.

The first step to an accurate assessment is to clearly understand real job needs. The second step is to dig deep into a candidate’s past accomplishments to determine fit and motivation.

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While this is vitally important, it’s only a small part of the total hiring process. Even if the person is a good fit, you still need to recruit the person, convince him or her that your job is better than all others, negotiate a compensation package, and deal with a potential counter-offer. You can accomplish all of this smoothly and efficiently if you know how to conduct a Performance-based Interview.

As you develop your assessment skills, consider the following ideas on how to get more value from the interview:

  1. Understand motivation for looking. Early in the interview, ask your candidate what he is looking for in a new position. The answers are always traditional: better compensation, bigger challenge, more opportunity, etc. However, if you ask why such things are important, the candidate is forced to justify and explain her criteria for looking. This gets at the person’s fundamental motivation. Classify the responses into two categories: a going-away strategy or a going-towards strategy. A going-away strategy is revealed when the focus is more on why the current position is inadequate. In this case, you’ll need to offer a bigger job, move fast, and probably pay a bit more than desired, since the candidate won’t be that discriminating. If the focus is on the lofty must-haves for a new job, the person is revealing a going-towards strategy. Under this situation, you’ll need to focus more on the long-term growth opportunities and get the hiring manager personally involved. Comp will be less important if you offer a clear career path that matches the candidate’s needs.
  2. Recruit from the beginning. Strong candidates aren’t going to be impressed by an aggressive sales job filled with superficialities. Good people must learn for themselves why your job offers real stretch and continuing growth. Here’s one way to pull this off during the interview. First, dig into the candidate’s biggest accomplishments. Then compare what needs to be done on the job (prepare a performance profile) to what the candidate has accomplished. Then look for gaps and opportunities for growth. Based on this, tell the candidate that he appears to be light in a few areas. Then have the candidate describe how he’s handled projects in the past that were beyond the person’s current experience level. When a candidate sells you in this manner, he better understands why your job is potentially bigger and more worthwhile to go after.
  3. Gain applicant control. The ability to influence candidates at every step in the selection process is critical to prevent opt-outs and get more acceptances. Don’t start selling too soon. Instead, ask detailed questions throughout the interview. Be respectful but inquisitive. The harder it is to get a job, the more value it has. You have more influence and control over a candidate by conducting an in-depth interview across all job needs. Be a bit cynical, and probe deeply. A professional interviewer who knows the job and can identify opportunities and gaps will be viewed by the candidate as a counselor and advisor. Even if you know the candidate is strong right away, you’ll have more influence if you still conduct a thorough interview.
  4. Gain client control. You won’t have much influence with your clients if you just send in a bunch of candidates you have superficially screened. A detailed interview provides you with the information you need to gain credibility with your clients when representing a candidate. Frequently, hiring managers and those on the interviewing team will defer to the insight of the strongest interviewer on the team. If you want to have the most influence with this group, you need to be the most detailed interviewer.
  5. Defend your candidate. Too many candidates are lost because someone on the interviewing team conducted a bad interview. Often one “no” vote can offset two or three “yes” votes. The only way this situation can be overcome is with specific facts and details. An in-depth interview can provide you with the evidence needed to counter a superficial interview. I placed a cost manager early in my career because I described the actual system the candidate implemented and the impact it had on the company, including actual labor savings, scrap reduction, and productivity improvements. Before my detailed defense, my client felt the candidate was “not a fit.”
  6. Close more deals. Many deals fall apart unnecessarily. An in-depth interview coupled with strong job knowledge allows the recruiter to handle typical concerns from candidates and clients alike. Preventing either side from saying no (while keeping the process moving forward) is extremely helpful. When faced with this prospect, use some of the information learned during the interview to suggest that the person’s judgment might be based on insufficient or faulty data. Offer to gain the information needed at the next meeting.
  7. Negotiate the offer. Make incremental offers throughout the process. Have the candidate agree to one aspect of the final offer as a condition to move forward. For example, mention to the candidate that you would like the hiring manager to describe the future growth opportunities in the next meeting. As part of this, say that while the upside is large, the current comp for the job might only represent a modest increase. If you’ve conducted an in-depth interview, you’ll have enough confidence, knowledge, and influence to present your case that this is a worthy tradeoff. By agreeing to go to the meeting, the candidate has also agreed to the comp range.
  8. Compare other opportunities. Put a competitive matrix together comparing your open position to the others the candidate is considering. Some of the factors to compare are the job stretch, job growth, comp package, job visibility, impact, and benefits. As long as you’ve conducted an in-depth interview, you’ll have enough information to demonstrate your job is superior (if it is). But you must use facts and details, not hyperbole, to make a convincing case. Of course, caution your candidate not to make critical career decisions based on the hyperbole and generalities offered by others. More than likely, your job will be the only one the candidate is considering that has substance behind it.
  9. Prevent counter-offers. Good candidates who have a going-towards strategy will get a counter-offer. Since they’re looking for something significantly better, they’ll renege if you have not made a convincing case. An in-depth interview will provide you with all of the information you need to demonstrate that your position offers 10% to 15% job stretch (a bigger job) and 5% to 10% job growth (long-term potential) in comparison to the candidate’s current situation. This should be enough to minimize a counter-offer threat.
  10. Get the candidate to own the job. Top people do not make long-term career decisions alone. They seek out the advice and support of their family, friends, advisors, co-workers, and even their boss when they turn in their resignation. If you’ve conducted an in-depth interview as suggested here, and followed through on ensuring the candidate truly understands the real job at the detail vs. conceptual level, the candidate should be able to use logic, facts, and your competitive matrix to convince everyone why the decision to accept your offer was the right one. If the candidate doesn’t understand the real job, you’re setting yourself up for a problem.

To me, being a good recruiter is much more than sourcing. First, you must understand real job needs. Second, you must use the interview process to recruit and close your candidate every step of the way. If you wait until the end to recruit, it will be too late.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).