How To Prep a Candidate

Let’s face it, most hiring managers aren’t great interviewers. They tend to base their judgments about candidate competency on first impressions, intuition, and some level of skills and experience. The best recruiters know that many errors are made during an interview. They minimize them by coaching their candidates and hiring manager clients through the assessment process. If you want to improve your hiring percentage rates, the area to work on is the candidate/hiring manager interview. One sure way to improve your odds is to prep your candidates to deal with untrained interviewers. This will insure that they can 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. Here are some key points to address when prepping candidates:

  1. Make sure they 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 some accomplishment they’ve achieved using each strength. With the weaknesses, have them write up a specific situation where they’ve turned that weakness into a strength, or have overcome the weakness. As you’ll see in the “Universal Answer” below, these examples are critical.
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  3. Learn the “universal answer.” I’ve discovered that answers should be about two minutes long. Much more than three minutes and candidates are perceived as boring and insensitive. Less than a minute and they’re branded as dull and lacking interest. Suggest that candidates use the acronym SAFW to form their answers:
    • S: make an opening Statement
    • A: Amplify that statement
    • F: provide a Few examples
    • W: Wrap it up

    The examples part is the most important. This is the demonstrated proof behind the opening statement. Interviewers will use these examples to form their judgments about candidate competency. Most candidates talk in generalities. This is not as convincing as a specific example. For instance, a marketing manager might want to describe in detail how she launched a new product in answer to a question about advertising and promotions. The answer will be more meaningful if the candidate shows how one or two of her strengths, like creativity and perseverance, were required to achieve the results describe in the example.

  4. Write up the two most 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, 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 in 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.
  5. Ask the “universal question.” Discussions about major accomplishments should dominate the interview session. Since most interviewers don’t usually do this naturally, you can have your candidates get them started. Have your candidates ask this question if they feel the interview is going nowhere: “From what I understand from the recruiter and my research, this job involves (for example) launching new products and setting up a national advertising program. If this is correct, could you explain it more thoroughly? After that I’d like to give you some examples of projects I’ve worked on that are comparable.” Something like this will allow the candidate to then describe some important related projects she’s worked on.
  6. 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 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, I also send the write-ups the candidates prepared to my clients along with their resume and my formal assessment. A suggestion is made to those clients who aren’t great interviewers that they discuss these two write-ups during the first 20 minutes of the interview. The initial 20-30 minutes of an interview are the most treacherous?? with emotions running high, nervous candidates, and first impressions playing too big a role. 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 have two choices: 1) keep on looking for more candidates until one sticks, or 2) find a few great candidates and make sure the interviewing processes 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. And as a bonus, in the process you’ll become a better recruiter.

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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