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The (Imperfect) Perfect Job Interview

I’ve known for a while now that my process for selecting new employees is a little unorthodox, and I let candidates know this right away. I usually start speaking before the door is even closed, so many people in the office have heard me say the same line again and again: “This isn’t an interview.”

But it’s not just a line; it’s genuine. I don’t believe that the standard interview question and answer session works. The reason is that as soon as you ask a question, you’re putting the candidate in a box. You condition people by the very nature of the question. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon. For example, if you ask “how much will you contribute to your 401(k),” the answer will be different than if you ask “how little will you contribute to your 401(k).” In the context of an interview, this phenomenon is even more pronounced: anytime you ask a question, you can bet that it’s leading. Good interviewers are best suited for television or radio, where simply by their questions they shape the story that’s being told. Good interviewers are not suited to choosing good employees.

Many people know they should try to avoid asking leading questions, but even they have to deal with candidates who come in over-prepared. Many job candidates (stellar interviewers, in particular) have a knack for figuring out what you want to hear, whether it’s authentic or not. And great interview performance does not correlate to great job performance (just as the best political campaigners are rarely the best leaders).

Love it or hate it, here’s what I do instead. After explaining that “this is not an interview,” I start the conversation by telling my story. I explain why I’m here at this company right now, what led up to the present moment, and what I have planned for the future. I talk about the team, the culture, our values. I take about ten minutes with my diatribe, and then I say “that was my two minutes or less, now it’s your turn.” That’s it. No questions, no grilling, no reviewing resumes.

This technique almost never results in a great “answer.” Even the best-prepared candidates are forced to pause. In fact, I’ve gotten the worst responses from the most polished people, and some of the most thoughtful responses have come from otherwise-awkward tech geeks. Instead of formulating my next question, I can really listen to what the candidate is saying (since I have no next question). I get to hear what the candidate actually wants to tell me, not what I think I want to hear. And I get to hear what the candidate thinks is most important, as opposed to what I do.

What I’m interested in is a clear articulation of who candidates actually are. What gets them going, what makes them tick, what they’re passionate about, what their aspirations are. I want to know why the person in front of me is in the room, and I want to get a feel for personality and cultural fit. This is no opportunity for the candidate to remark with a blasé answer, such as “I would be great for this job because…” Since I feel that there is zero value in that kind of question and answer, I stay far away from that road.

To be fair, after the candidate gets going, the conversation becomes far more interactive and yes, at that point I ask questions. Many questions are asked on both sides and I almost always have the opportunity to gain insight on specific items, as happens with traditional interviews. The difference is that it is done in a conversational manner and it is interactive.

This approach forces the candidate to tell a story. Resumes don’t do this, nor do interviews. But if you tell your story and then ask someone for theirs, they are forced to focus on what is most important in a concise and convincing manner. Some succeed but most fail. And that is a good thing, if you are being selective in your hiring.

Interestingly, this approach is as much about gaining insight into the candidate as it is about forcing myself and my team to listen. People try to tell you who they are all the time; but most of the time we aren’t really listening. By leaving the conversation open, you not only provide an opportunity for people to really tell you who they, you also give yourself the opportunity to listen closely. Next time you’re searching for your next team member, it’s imperative that you stop interviewing and start really listening.


By Jeff StibelInfluencer

February 26, 2014

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