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Interview skills are probably the hardest and most underestimated part of the recruitment process. It is the biggest area we have to train our clients, and something everyone thinks they can do…until they are faced with doing it.

This is the transcript of a recent interview I did on Interviewing for an Exec Search Publication:

Topic one (How to choose between two perfect candidates)

1. Have you ever been in the situation where it was difficult to choose between two interview candidates for a vacancy? If yes, what did you do to overcome it? If no, what do you think you would do in such a situation, or why do you think this hasn’t happened – what made one candidate so clearly the “winner”?
We seldom have to choose just one, our job is to get to a shortlist of typically 4 or 5. When we have had to pick one from two, it is highly unlikely that there is not a clear ‘winner’, you have to just take every factor into consideration; skills/experience/background/fit with peers/etc. If all of that were to end as a dead heat, Salary/Value for Money, and which candidate would benefit from the role the most would come into greater consideration.  As I say, it is highly unlikely that it would ever get to such a dead-heat.

2. How important are CVs in deciding the ultimate candidate?
In finding the ultimate candidate – Minimal. The CV is the candidate’s sales document, it gives the basic data that will lead to that initial contact whether phone or an invitation to interview. That said, it is still the most important tool in the early stages of the process – it is usually the only contact/information we would have on the individual to ascertain if they were worth speaking to or taking to ‘2nd base’. Too many people, however, put too much reliance on the CV. One of the failings of in-house recruitment functions is to rely solely on CVs with minimal knowledge of the environments described.

3. Have you asked candidates to attend more than one interview? How did they react to that?
Yes – at the senior management and executive level, multi stage processes are the norm.  Candidates would be more put off if there was only one stage. It is critical to fully plan the various stages and know what you are seeking to gain from each stage. Failure to do so will lead to stagnation and prime candidates falling out of processes. One of our prime functions is to design the interview process with/for our clients – it is not as obvious as it seems. “What do we ask at 2nd interview?” is one of the most common questions we are posed.

4. Do you use a skills-based assessment (i.e. some kind of related task) to help you make your final decision, or is it based purely on either the CV, relevant experience or interview?
Very unusually at the level we operate at. Preparing a business plan, proposal document or specific presentation is often part of the process, but not directly assessing skills.  We would always promote the use of real-world assessment and/or social interaction as part of any process. Get the individuals to demonstrate their leadership ability by leading.

5. If you had to choose between two excellent candidates, do you think in the end you made the right choice?
Absolutely, we are paid to make the right choice!  We often have significantly more than 2 excellent candidates to choose from, but with such a broad base of assessment, and fully comprehensive understanding of exactly what is sought by my client, there is always something which ranks them in order of relevance/interest.  Proof in the process, only one person I have placed into a perm role has failed to last 12 months – and that was business slowdown leading to redundancy. We find the right people!

Topic two (Pros and cons of interview types)

1. What kind of interview types have you used in the past? Would you use them all again in the future?
I’ve used a variety. I find Formal Competency Based interviews too clinical, I also dislike early stage interviews being with more than one person, but accept for many it is a must due to unfamiliarity with interviewing. For me, a good, relaxed but formal 75-90 minutes fairly intensive interrogation of background, discussion on specific role and a good deal of time given to personal chemistry and personal investigation/understanding works best.

2. What is your opinion of the following:
a: one to one interviews – always preferable, but does assume both parties have the confidence to build rapport and give a supreme performance – not always the case
b: panel interviews – dislike except at latter stages, and best done with a more discursive interview style and/or presentation. Risks of in-fighting and panel focussing on their own performance in front of colleagues rather than the candidate
c: competency tasks – valid at junior levels, but largely irrelevant at the executive grade. A sound presentation with the need to construct project plan/business plan/project P&L is far more effective and valid.

What do you think are the best and worst elements of each type of interview?
a: one to one interviews
Best: allows rapport building, people more open one-to-one, ability to follow single agenda. Worst: Nerves can mean one-sided interview, lack of experience failing to get best out of interviewee
b: panel interviewsBest: Collaborative opinion formed, many ears listening to single answers, multiple personalities assessing fit. Worst: Can introduce politics, be off-putting for interviewee and risks panel members overly focussing on their individual performance in front of colleagues
c: competency tasks  – Best: Specific test and assessment of key skills, allows for benchmarking with current team. Worst: Often subjective, dependant on a single, short performance in an alien, artificial environment. Risks losing prime candidate because “Computer says no”

Do you use anything else to gauge the appropriateness of a candidate?
I use and advise social interaction at the very final stages – a client of mine,  a hugely respected business leader and one of the most forward thinking individuals in employee development and engagement will take prospective execs for a 36 hour hike up a mountain to fully get to know them and assess how they perform and manage over a longer time period, and crucially see how they perform under (different) pressures, out of their comfort zone. Often this can be performed with several (future) team members to assess team interaction.

3. Do you find the same type of interview scenario always makes sense to you, or do you tailor it depending on the role/person? Why/why not?
Always tailor. Every role and every person is different, tailoring a process/interview is vital. Certain elements have to be consistent within a set process, responses to set questions etc, but whilst it is essential to be fixed on the end goal, it is vital to be flexible in the approach. The task of the interview is to get the best out of the interviewee, and to give them the best understanding of the role in question. Every person needs a different approach to maximise that objective.

Topic three (giving interview feedback)

1. Do you give interview candidates feedback if they are unsuccessful in their application? Why/why not?
Giving every applicant specific feedback can be a near impossible task, and would itself take over a full week, although everyone gets at least an email – however It is vital to give feedback to interview attendees, even if just via email. I tend to give blunt feedback, and often do so in my summation at the end of the interview itself. Very few people leave an interview with me unsure of where they stand in a specific process, not everyone appreciates blunt honesty though!

2. Do you think it’s important to give feedback? Why/why not?
I do, aside from just service, individuals need to know where their skills and especially interview performance was left wanting. Interview style, presentation and kinaesthetic & verbal communication are all a vital component. Most people I interview are subsequently likely to be met by one of my clients, ensuring their performance is as good as it can be and their ability to demonstrate their relevance is a key part of my role.

3. (If applicable) How do you give feedback to candidates? In person? Via telephone? Via letter? Via email? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the method you use, when compared with others?
It will vary. With most people I have progressed through to client interview, they will get a phone call, and often a meeting to debrief – it also gives me the ability to understand them better for future benefit. Other interviewees will get a phone call, often preceded with an email to ensure swift feedback. I seldom use hard copy letters for interview feedback, unreliability of ‘snail mail’ is an issue with vital communication such as interview feedback. Email will always be a quicker form of enabling mass feedback, phone and/or meeting will be more personal – the downside is that interviewees will often not accept the feedback and fight their corner, at times aggressively.

4. How much detail do you go into in your feedback?
As much as I can. I give make every effort to provide honest, blunt feedback. I do not tell everyone they came a close second – people will only learn from mistakes and if they bombed, I will tell them as much – I will just ensure that if that is the case, they are given the information, tools and time to rectify and sell the positives of what they are able to do.

5. Has a candidate ever taken feedback you’ve given badly? If yes, what happened? What did you do?
Yes. I often get heated comments coming back, often as a defence mechanism against the interviewer, often leading to verbal aggression if the individual feels they have been discriminated about. I will often get aggressive phone calls & emails when I have not put someone forward, accusing me of a hidden agenda – forgetting that I have a duty  to provide the very best people to my client and have a significant commercial interest in submitting every ‘best person’ thus would not wilfully discount a genuinely contender.

The worst example was a candidate discounted at 1st interview who chose a public Q&A session I was on the panel for (unconnected with recruitment) to challenge my unwillingness to promote his case to be taken forward to 2nd interview. Having refused to discuss the matter privately, I had to advise him that he had been discredited through his inability to provide key metrics that he would have known had his CV been accurate and that his career advancement and ultimate stature within two of his businesses been exaggerated – as I interviewed the individuals that *did* hold those appointments he claimed to hold as part of the process.

If you have any questions on interviewing, please feel free to email me, or leave a comment below!