How to Prep a Candidate

Many recruiters consider their hiring manager clients a bit weak on interviewing skills, assessing competency, and recruiting top people. Of course, most managers consider their recruiters a bit weak on understanding real job needs and finding qualified candidates.

A good candidate prep can sometimes reduce this gap.

There is an old adage that managers have difficulty hiring people stronger than themselves. Worse, many miss the mark on hiring strong people who might not be great interviewers or those who bring a non-standard mix of qualifications to the table.

If you’ve ever lost a good candidate due to a poor assessment, spending time prepping your candidate might be the missing piece in making more placements. Doing a good job here can certainly reduce your sendouts per hire by 25% to 30%.

Setting up one or two fewer interviews for each hire will boost your productivity and save you at least one day a week by not having to do searches over again.

Making sure that the best candidate gets the job, not the best interviewee or the person with the exact qualifications, is the key to becoming a more effective and productive recruiter.

As many of you know, I believe that the primary role of a good recruiter is to switch the decision-making criteria for the candidate and hiring manager away from the dumb stuff to the important stuff.

For the manager, the important stuff is what the person is expected to accomplish while on the job. The dumb stuff is over-reliance on a detailed list of qualifications or a detailed technical grilling. For the candidate, the important stuff is what the person is expected to accomplish on the job, not the title or pay.

The real job content is the common denominator here. I call a job description that describes the real job a performance profile. For example, rather than say, “Must have a BS Accounting, a CPA, and 2+ years’ experience with Sarbanes-Oxley,” it’s better to say, “Lead the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley reporting efforts for our international group of companies.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to get this information upfront from the manager. If you are sending out candidates to be interviewed with only a vague understanding of real job needs, it’s important to prep the candidate to get this information early in the interview.

Even better, a good prep can overcome many concerns that managers frequently raise about candidates who don’t have the exact skill set, those who are a little nervous, those who are soft-spoken, or those who don’t make such a great first impression. A good prep can help you prevent these superficial issues from becoming deal breakers.

We all know that most hiring managers don’t conduct broad-based, evidence-based interviews. Many base their judgments about candidate competency on some combination of first impressions, technical knowledge, academics, and smarts. One sure way to improve your hiring batting average (sendouts/hire) is to prep your candidates to cope with whatever questions or circumstances arise. If you handle the candidate prep well enough, you can also prep your clients without them even knowing it.

The following are five key steps to take when prepping your candidates:

Step 1: Make sure your candidates know their own strengths and weaknesses. Have your candidates write down their four or five strengths and one or two weaknesses. Have them include a short, one-paragraph example of an accomplishment using each strength.

With the weaknesses, have them write a specific situation where they have turned that weakness into a strength or have overcome the weakness. As you’ll see in the “Universal Answer” below, these examples are critical.

Step 2: Learn the “Universal Answer.” Most answers during the interview should be about one-to-two minutes long. If the candidate talks for more than three minutes, the interviewer loses interest. The candidate is then ranked as boring, long-winded, or too self-centered. If the candidate talks less than a minute, the person is considered superficial, incompetent, or lacking interest.

Have your candidates practice their answers using the “Say a Few Words” acronym:

S: make an opening Statement

A: Amplify that statement

F: provide a Few examples

W: Wrap it up

This is actually what was taught in ninth-grade English class on how to write a paragraph, but it works well for interviewing, too. Providing the example is the most important part of the exercise. This is the demonstrated proof behind the opening statement.

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Interviewers will use these examples to form their judgments about candidate competency. Most candidates talk in generalities. Specific examples are much more convincing. For instance, a marketing manager could give a specific example to describe how she launched a new product rather than saying she’s strong in advertising and new-product promotions.

While this might be the opening to the classic “What are your strengths?” question, the answer will be more meaningful if the candidate gives a specific example and then describes how her strengths, like creativity and perseverance, were required to achieve the results.

Step 3: Have the candidate write up two significant accomplishments. To improve their verbal pitches, also ask your candidates to prepare more detailed write-ups for their two most significant accomplishments. Each of these should be two-to-three paragraphs in length, but no more than half a page each. One should be an individual accomplishment, and the other a team accomplishment. Make sure they include examples of their strengths in both write-ups.

Most candidates get a little nervous in the opening stages of an interview, which can result in temporary forgetfulness. The write-ups will allow for better recall of this important information at these times. They’ll also be the basis of the examples in the SAFW response. Have them send you these write-ups so you can check out their written communication skills.

Step 4: During the interview, get your candidates to ask the “Universal Question.” Discussions about major accomplishments should dominate the interview session. Since most interviewers don’t ask about this naturally, you can have your candidates get them started.

To do this, have your candidates ask this question early if they feel the interview is going nowhere, “I don’t have a complete understanding of your real job needs. Would you please give me an overview of what the job entails and describe some of the key challenges in the job? Then I can give you some examples of work that I’ve done that’s comparable.”

Something like this will allow the candidate to then describe a related project she’s worked on. Managers generally like candidates who are more forceful and those who ask good questions. Make sure your candidate has a list of other insightful questions to ask, such as “What does the person in this job need to do to be considered successful, what’s the biggest problem that needs to be addressed right away, what kind of resources are budgeted already, why is the position open, and how have you developed your team members?”

Step 5: Ask for the job. At the end of the interview, have your candidate tell the interviewer that she is interested in the job, and would like to know what the next steps are. If the next steps seem evasive or unclear, have her ask the interviewer if her accomplishments seem relevant to the performance requirements of the job. Understanding a potential gap here allows the candidate to fill it in with an example of a related accomplishment. Make sure your candidates do the best job possible of presenting their strengths. Sometimes they have to ask for the job to understand what points they need to get across.

To reinforce the importance of accomplishments in assessing competency, before the interview I send the write-ups the candidate prepared to my clients along with their resume and my formal assessment. Along with this, I suggest that my client spend the first part of the interview digging into the accomplishments.

More hiring mistakes are made in the first 20 to 30 minutes of an interview than at any other time. This is all due to the emotions and biases involved when first meeting someone. Focusing on the write-ups helps control the discussion on both sides of the desk, and minimizes any potential adverse emotional reactions. This is also how you can indirectly prep your clients to conduct a better interview.

Prepping Is Important

Well-prepped candidates are more confident and provide more thorough answers. If they know how to give complete answers, they worry less and are able to ask better questions. All of this improves the odds that they will be assessed fairly, especially if the focus of the interview is on detailed discussions about the candidate’s major accomplishments.

The best recruiters know how to coach and advise both their clients and candidates. The best candidates are rarely the best interviewees, and most managers are just adequate interviewers. Under these conditions, you can keep on looking for more candidates until one sticks or find a few great candidates and make sure the interviewing process doesn’t get in the way of the best hiring decision.

You won’t eliminate all of the problems with the prep I’m recommending, but enough to make a difference. You owe it to all those great candidates who need your help.

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).