Good Interviewing Starts With Knowing the Answers, Not With Asking Questions

It hit me like a snowstorm this week: The problem with interview training is that too much time is spent on learning to ask questions, rather than knowing the answers. Interestingly, if you already know the correct answers, asking the questions requires no training whatsoever. So in this article I’m going to give you the answers to determine if a candidate possesses the universal core traits of success. But before I tackle this important issue, let’s make this article interactive. To begin with, you’re probably aware that ERE is holding its ER Expo 2005 Spring conference in San Diego on March 29-31. I’ll be leading a recruiter top-ten best practices workshop on the 29th. I hope to personally meet you there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of articles on many of these best practices. The articles will give you a chance to get a jumpstart on applying the ideas in your work if you’re attending the workshop. Even if you won’t be there, the articles will provide food for thought. Before reading this article, you should also take my online Recruiter 10-Factor Evaluation. Knowing where you stand against the national averages on all of the ten factors will allow you to identify areas for self-improvement. If you’re a recruiting manager, have each person on your team take the five-minute evaluation. Then conduct a 360 review for each factor for each recruiter at your next staff meeting. To implement a team development program for 2005, work on one of the factors each month. This type of simple, self-paced training program will allow you to improve overall team performance by at least 25% over the year. Assessing candidate competency is one of the ten core traits of top recruiters. The focus of this assessment should be on the three universal core traits of success. Specifically:

  1. Competency to do the work required. The ranking needs to reflect both ability and quality differences, from none or low to exceptional.
  2. Motivation to do the work. The ranking needs to reflect how motivated the person is doing similar work, from demotivated to total commitment.
  3. Team skills in comparable situations. The ranking needs to reflect cooperation and influencing skills with similar teams ranging from uncooperative to inspirational.

Other traits, behaviors, competencies, and personality factors are subsets of these three dominant factors or are less important. So if you can determine whether a candidate possesses all three of these traits in sufficient capacity, you can rest assured that they possess every other required factor as well. In fact, if you know what the answers should be when measuring competency, motivation, and team skills, the questions will become automatic. To start, you should become familiar with my one-question interview. The article describes how to gain insight into a candidate’s capabilities by digging deeply into his or her major accomplishments. The fact-finding approach recommended in the article provides the interviewer a glimpse at the process the candidate used to achieve success. Doing this for a few different team and individual accomplishments reveals a trend line of performance over an extended period of time. These accomplishments can then be compared to the performance requirements of the job to assess fit. Here’s a link to some free tools you can download to try out these techniques ó including our popular 10-factor candidate assessment template. What makes the fact-finding process work, though, is knowing what good performance looks like before you ask the questions. If you downloaded the 10-factor candidate evaluation form, you’ll notice that I suggest ranking candidates on a one to five scale for each of the three core traits. Motivation to do the required work is by far the most important of the three core traits, so let’s highlight this. Here’s the one-to-five scale descriptions for “motivation to do the work.” As you read the descriptions, you’ll see that they provide clues to look for when asking fact-finding questions. Knowing the answers this way allows you target your follow-up questions.

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  • Level 1: Unqualified (bottom 10%) ó Lazy, passive, doesn’t want to do the work. No interest in position. Other tips, terms, and clues: Incompetent, unmotivated, uncooperative, distraction, demotivating, reactive, avoids issues, makes excuses.
  • Level 2: Below Expectations (bottom half) ó Will do the work if urged or pushed. Not a good fit for this type of work. Avoids issues. Reactive. Isn’t improving. Other tips, terms, and clues: Misses deadlines, not totally committed, needs extra training, just gets by.
  • Level 3: Meets Expectations (top third) ó Self-motivated to do this type of work with normal training and supervision. Proactively handles key issues. Puts extra effort in to ensure completion. Other tips, terms, and clues: Fully cooperates with others, a real contributor, on top of all issues, quickly handles problems as they occur.
  • Level 4: Exceeds Expectations (top 15%) ó Takes the initiative to do more work, does it faster, or does it better. Looks for problems to solve. Goes out of his or her way to improve skills in job-related areas without urging. Looks forward to this type of work. Other tips, terms, and clues: Initiates helping others, trains, sought after, influences others, anticipates issues and problems.
  • Level 5: Far Exceeds Expectations (top 5%) ó Totally committed to do whatever it takes to get the work done on time, on budget, with high standards of quality and performance. Wants to excel. Constantly strives to do better and has a formal self-improvement plan in place. Other tips, terms and clues: Sets the company standard for excellent performance, proactively coaches others, asked to lead, motivates others to excel, forward-looking.

Before you can assess motivation to do the work required, you must know the drivers for job success. This could be making cold calls to tough customers, designing complex ASIC circuits quickly, conducting some type of difficult financial analysis, providing special training for the team, launching a new product in a limited time frame, or similarly challenging performance objectives. Every job has at least four or five objectives like this which a person must do to be considered successful. Determining what they are is the is the first thing a recruiter must do before looking for candidates. This is the performance profiling process. With this information, you’re then in a position to conduct an “answers first, questions last” interview. Start by asking candidates to describe their most significant team and individual accomplishments. As candidates are describing these accomplishments, probe more deeply to determine if the work is comparable to what needs to be done. Use the one to five ranking descriptions to guide your fact-finding questions and obtain more relevant information. For example, to prove if someone is a Level 4 performer on motivation, you’ll need to obtain a number of examples over different time periods of where the person took the initiative to improve something directly related to job needs. A design engineer might have worked late for two months straight to try to develop a new method to reduce power consumption; a marketing analyst might have started a blog to research new ways to reach industrial buyers of power pumps. These are examples of Level 4 (exceeds expectations) motivation. In a similar fashion, to prove or disprove a Level 2 (competent, but unmotivated) ranking, ask candidates to describe how frequently they met their objectives in each past job. Start by asking what the objectives were, and how well they performed against these measures. Look for a pattern of missing deadlines or excuse making. Ask how they personally improved themselves in areas critical for job success (the success drivers). Ask for examples of where they’ve trained others, or where they’ve taken the initiative to improve processes related to the job success drivers. This type of probing will reveal how motivated the person is to do the work required. Lack of motivation here is the number one hiring mistake of all time. These are people who are competent but not motivated to do the work. Spend a lot of time in this area, making sure you’re not hiring the wrong person. Knowing how to rank the answers before you start asking questions is the key to improving interviewing accuracy. One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits is to begin with the end in mind. You can use this same principle to make better selection decisions. Start by knowing what a person must do to be successful in the job. Then find candidates who are motivated to do the type of work involved. Don’t accept grandiose statements, superficial claims, or short-term desires. Specific, detailed examples of past performance are the only acceptable form of proof. Look for a pattern of consistency over extended periods of time. When you know what you’re looking for, you won’t need to worry about what questions to ask. [Note: Take our Recruiter 10-Factor Evaluation if you’d like to see where you stand compared to some of the top recruiters in the country. Once you’ve determined what you need to do to become better, check out our new online Recruiter Boot Camp. This is where you’ll get a chance to learn these skills and how to put them quickly into action.]

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).


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