Achieving Hiring Excellence - 5 Steps to Improving Your Interview Skills

Consider that a job candidate tells you that they worked on a big strategic project that helped save their previous company $X millions in savings. The candidate is interviewing for a business manager role that will be responsible for developing and leading initiatives that optimize the business. Impressive?

Well almost all the interviewers in the loop I was shadowing (hiring manager included) were enamored by this candidate’s accomplishment. As each interviewer shared their perspective on the candidate during the interview debrief, the general consensus was that this person needed an offer as a “can’t miss candidate”…

Then came the final interviewer’s dissenting assessment. The other interviewers were shocked as this final interviewer spoke about details that were missed by everyone else. This vital piece of information helped sway the hiring decision and potentially avoided a costly hiring mistake. What had this final interviewer uncovered? Why was this information missed by all the other interviewers? 

Interviewing is one the most important aspects in a hiring decision. However, more often than not, interviewers tend to over-rely on their initial impressions of a candidate without diving into the details needed to support their assessment. Snap-judgments like these lead to hiring mistakes and missing out on great talent. How then can we improve our interviewing skills so that we don’t miss the vital pieces of information needed to making great hiring decisions?  

Step 1: Preparation. The challenge in interviewing is battling snap-judgements from our predisposed cognitive biases. Research consistently shows that even 10 minutes of preparation ahead of an interview improves hiring decisions. When preparing, interviewers should understand what needs to be evaluated, select relevant interview questions, and formulate an interview plan. A simple framework for formulating an interview plan is to structure interview questions using the STAR approach (visit our question bank for interview question ideas):

Situation: What was the situation? Who was involved? What options were available? 
Task: What needed to accomplished? By whom? Why was the task important? 
Action: What did the candidate do specifically? How did they accomplish their task? 
Result: What was the impact or result?

Ideally this process is simplified for the interviewer with an interview guide

Step 2: Probe. There’s an adage that we can only understand the root cause of a problem by asking “why” 6 times. Similarly, interviewers should practice probing into details when candidates are vague or overly broad with their responses. While preparing good follow-up questions helps assist in this exercise, interviewers should practice being active listeners and asking clarifying questions to probe into candidate responses. Probing through clarifying questions allows for a deeper picture of the candidate to materialize during an interview. 

Step 3: Maintain the candidate experience. Even with a structured approach, the best interviews will still flow like a conversation. However, being conversational shouldn’t be confused with giving an “easy” interview. A recent study showed that the best candidate experiences actually came from the most rigorous interviews. At the end of day, candidate’s need to feel that the hiring process is not arbitrary and that they are being assessed for their skills. This can only happen when they are given the opportunity to answer challenging, but role-related questions.  

Step 4: Observe and practice. Interviewers need a consistent frame of reference of what constitutes a great, average, or poor interview. The best way to accomplish this is by observing and practicing. Have newer interviewers shadow and observe experienced interviewers as they prepare and conduct interviews. Then practice reverse shadowing, where the newer interviewer prepares and conducts an interview while an experienced interviewer observes and provides feedback. 

Step 5: Write clear feedback. Interview feedback is critical to making great hiring decisions. Good written feedback will summarize a hiring decision, outline pros/cons of a candidate, and provide examples that support a hire/no hire decision observed during the interview. Poorly written feedback will be opinionated, reflect inferences, and lack detailed examples. We’ll cover written feedback in more depth in future posts, but as an introduction writing feedback is a great training tool to assess the quality of interviews. 

So what had the final interviewer uncovered that everyone else missed? While the candidate had worked on a big impressive project, no one else had probed into the candidate’s specific contributions. Almost all the other interviewers acknowledged not even reading the job description before the interview, let alone preparing questions. This resulted in casual chit-chat about the project, rather than an in-depth examination of the candidate’s specific contributions.

In contrast, the final interviewer, specifically planned to probe the candidate on their ability to lead a project. By asking clarifying questions the final interviewer discovered that most of the candidate’s contributions involved tactical analysis rather than leading the project end-to-end. While the candidate showed great analytical prowess, there were clear red-flags that the candidate was underdeveloped in gaining cross-organizational buy-in. With the role being business critical, gaining cross-organization buy-in was a non-negotiable skill-set the hiring manager considered absolutely critical to the candidate’s success from day one. 

About the Author:
Joe Shao is a co-founder at Perfect Loop who loves tackling big problems and eating good food.