Finding the right candidate is difficult at best

I’ve been on both sides of the interview table throughout my career. Having been hired and passed upon as well as hiring (and firing) great employees, I’ve had plenty of time to practice the skills in hiring and interviewing. In short, it’s extremely difficult to get to know someone from just a few hours (at most) of dialog. In most cases, I think the interviewers are doing it wrong and they’re missing out on great people. In this article, I’ll share some of my own experiences and best practices from interviewing and being interviewed.

I honestly believe 85% of the work belongs on the interviewer side. If you’re looking for the best candidate based on how well they can interview, you’re missing out. If you want to find the best employees, you need to do the work!

Think about the times you’ve started dating someone new. Most of us have experienced that person who was on their best behavior for a period of time, but that charade can only go on for so long. As an interviewer, you want to get past the charade and learn about the potential of the person sitting across from you. What can they bring day 1 and what will they bring during their time working in your organization? This is going to take practice on your part.

I once went to a 2nd round interview where I was flown into a city to meet with my potential new boss and colleagues. One of the interviewers stated her (flawed) assumption. “Because your experience is focused on knowledge management, you, therefore, don’t have experience with processes and process management, right?!” Huh? What? Now if you’ve ever worked within a support organization, you know there are processes involved between the knowledge management side and the agent side of the business. And, with a worldwide organization the size that I was responsible for at the time, there were many processes requiring development, training, and managing (working with my team and within my team). In my situation, the entire organizational processes were stored and managed on the platform that I was responsible for, so I actually probably had more experience than most because I had been working very closely with the team that had ownership over all the agent processes.

Now this interviewer was the Process Manager for the support organization of her company, so perhaps she had more direct experience than me, but it didn’t mean that I lacked the experience. Unfortunately, I don’t think I was successful in changing her biased view during that interview. I think she thought she knew the answer to my experience well before we spoke, so I was in a hole even before I had started.

The lesson here? As an interviewer, you need to work hard to avoid as many assumptions and biases as possible. Don’t assume you know the candidates experience without giving them a chance to respond and discuss. Maybe she could have asked me a question instead, where I could articulate an experience where I had success in developing and introducing a new process across our worldwide organization. Also, be careful of the weight you’re putting on experience. In this specific case, the primary role wasn’t process management -- they weren’t looking at me to replace her.

Another time, in discussing with my boss and staff, we recognized we really needed someone who had high attention to detail -- someone who was much better at it than we were. So we ended up hiring a great guy to perform this role -- someone who I’m happy to say 15+ years later is one of my best friends. The point in this story is that if we would have been looking for someone that was just like the rest of us, which is so common, we would have never hired this guy. Was he perfect in everything he did? Of course not, but he was perfect when it came to capturing and managing details -- a role we really needed.

What’s the takeaway from this story? Be willing to sacrifice some skills to get the skills you need most. As long as the employee is hardworking and not disruptive, why wouldn’t you fill a critical need, even if they weren’t perfect in other areas? None of us are outstanding or even above average in everything we do. There are also other lessons to be learned from this. Perhaps most important lessons for candidates is that just because you don’t check the box on every item listed on a job description doesn’t mean you’re not the most qualified candidate.

Back on the interviewee side of things, I had an experience that really put a bad light on the hiring manager. First, some background. I had previously interviewed for a different role at this company. From what I gather, I was a close 2nd but didn’t get the role. When the recruiter shared with me the disappointing news, she also shared that there was another open position that she thought I might be even more qualified for -- and wanted to know if I was interested. Yes, I was interested.

The recruiter contacted the hiring manager and a video conference was arranged. The 1st thing I noticed was the interviewer (the hiring manager) was wearing a t-shirt. (While dress code isn’t everything, a collared shirt of any sort would have been more appropriate.) But more jolting was that he was in his kitchen and clearly there were others in the room that he was talking to with his eyes and gestures. After a brief introduction, he immediately offered for my consideration an entry-level role, well below my qualifications. I politely declined and shared a bit about what I thought I was applying for. He pointed out that my experience seemed to match his current role, but since his company requires a test (a PowerPoint presentation which I had recently done for the other position), I might as well complete the test before we talk further. What? I only wish I would have pushed him for that being poor form, but of course, I agreed that that would be fine and we ended the call.

Here’s a lesson for the interviewer. If you’re either (a) not interested in the candidate or (b) unable to provide your full, undivided attention, don’t waste the candidates time. In fact, don’t waste your own time. I had invested time in preparing and I had made sure I had a quiet place where I wouldn’t be interrupted or distracted. Why couldn’t you do the same for me?

Let me share a lesson based on my experience as the hiring manager. In this case, I wanted to have my staff more involved with the process -- giving them more experience in the hiring process. We had been using some form of test for years and I really liked it for assisting in finding potential talent from internal candidates in particular. For this go-around, there was 1 particular internal candidate where the team felt the resume and the test was good but not great. The general feeling was, we had already had 1 strong potential internal candidate, so there was no reason to look closer at this other person.

Well, I liked to always talk to every internal candidate. If for nothing else, selfishly it’s a chance to start a relationship with someone that may be of benefit down the road. I was so happy I had this interview! I quickly learned that this person was quite the leader despite not having a leadership role mentioned in her resume. She clearly ran her household, including the family budget. She also had led multiple fundraising events. Not only did she lead her fundraising events, but it required project management skills to pull-off those events. So while her resume never indicated it, she had experience in leadership and project management -- 2 skills I valued very much. At the end of the day, we hired her, and she went on to become one of our best-performing employees in her role.

There are again a few lessons to take away from this experience.

  • Look beyond the obvious. Look for transferable skills.
    (Most internal candidates claimed to not have any project management experience, yet when pushed, most had moved multiple times, most had planned vacations, and most had managed their college school workload -- all project management experience.)
  • This is another one of those bias examples - in this case, don’t let a test overly bias you - it’s just another tool in your tool chest.
    (There was a person that nailed one of our tests that later I had to fire.)
  • Ask probing questions. Help the candidate get their experiences out.

This next experience I’ll share led to me being hired. Through networking, I had met this guy who was now looking to fill a role within his organization. Like a good hiring manager, he was leveraging his network and shared the job description with me -- just in case, I knew anyone interested and qualified. This had occurred a few weeks prior and now we were on the phone coordinating a time to get together to talk shop. In terms of timing, he was explaining how he had one more candidate interview lined up for this role, and as soon as he was done, he would be free to meet up.

This got us down the path talking about this role he was trying to hire, which he wasn’t having much success finding the right person. I started quizzing him about the role, the skills, etc. I finally told him, “What you described is not what you have in your job description.” I also added, “If that’s the role you’re looking for, I’d be interested in the job.” Well, that conversation ultimately led me to a new job and a relationship with this person that I still cherish so many years later.

There are 2 lessons from this. Network, network, network! I took a chance at an event introducing myself to a group, who turned out to work in an office within walking distance, which led to meeting this guy who ultimately hired me. The other lesson? Have someone or even multiple people review your job descriptions before posting and see if it matches the role you're trying to hire.

I have to share this last one where I was looking to fill the role of a web developer. I was reviewing a resume where the candidate seemed to have the qualifications, but no college education. I decided to call up this candidate and ultimately bring in the candidate for an interview. I found out that he was self-taught and had worked himself into a full-time job at his current company, having started there at an entry-level position. The long and the short of it is, I hired this guy, and he went on to have great success in my organization as well as a great career since. To this day, he’s on my short-list of great hires.

The lesson? Don’t let one factor, in this case, a college education, bias your entire perception of a person. Not only was he a hard worker who was able to learn what he didn’t already know, but everyone loved him. He made our entire extended team so much better just by his personality and his work stood on its own.

What have I learned from all this? Oh, so many things, but here are some highlights worth reinforcing.

  • Know what skills and experiences you’re looking for. Work with your team prior to even posting, to make sure you’ve identified the most important skill(s) you want to hire. Remember, not all skills are created equal, so make sure you’re giving the most weight to your hiring decision based on those critical few skills.
  • Everyone on the interview team should be working very hard to help each candidate get past their nerves or shyness to truly learn about them. Find those skills where they excel and set them apart from the next person. Remember, no matter who you hire, they won't be perfect. For those areas where they’re not as good, do you have others on the team that can bridge the gap? Don’t miss out on a talented individual because they weren't the most polished interviewee.
  • Biases. We all have them. Do everything within your power to not let a bias keep you from finding great talent.
  • Network. Take a risk - I promise you if nothing else, you will meet some great people.

What other advice do I have?

  • Meet with your interview team before, during, and after the process. Help them grow their skills to be the best at interviewing. Explain to them your reasoning for interviewing each candidate, i.e. what stood out and what you want to learn more about.
  • I highly encourage you to practice interviewing. This is a great way for you and your interview team get comfortable prior to the real interviews. It will also help you develop better interview questions.
  • Screen the resumes yourself. I’ve worked with several great recruiters, but none of them know my business better than me. Leverage the recruiters to make sure you’re using good hiring practices, to perform initial screening for things like salary and location, and to coordinate with candidates, but use your skills to find the best potential people.
  • Look beyond the resume and test/assignment -- look at their LinkedIn profile and any published work they may have. While not all candidates have received the same number of recommendations, there are some candidates that have clearly made a positive impression on their colleagues and LinkedIn Recommendations tell you so. If nothing else, it’s a good resource for potential interview questions. Seriously, go read those recommendations.

One last thing -- If you’re responsible for communicating with candidates. Please show them courtesy and respect and follow up with them even if they didn't get the job.


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