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How I Stumbled Upon the World’s Greatest Interview

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Imagine a job interview that achieves the following:

  1. Accurately predicts on-the-job performance, motivation, cultural fit and potential.
  2. Minimizes every type of interviewer bias, like race, gender, appearance and age.
  3. Could be used for internal moves, referrals and new hires for any type of job from entry-level to chairman.
  4. Accurately assesses diverse and non-traditional candidates and anyone who has a different mix of skills and experience than listed on the job description.
  5. Is easy to learn and use with minimal training.

Well I found it, or should I say, I stumbled upon it while looking.

How I discovered the best interview process

Some time ago, I was asked by a CEO to interview a person he was considering to hire as a consultant for a four-month process reengineering project. The person came highly referred, but I was instantly put off by his appearance, age and accent. Regardless, since we weren’t going to be best friends or even work together, none of this mattered.

To get started I asked the person to give me a quick overview of his background and how he got to be an “expert” in the project area he was being considered to handle. It took 20 minutes to go through his work history and understand some of his major accomplishments and why he got assigned to them. It was quickly apparent he was a quick learner, hard worker and had the right background for handling projects comparable in scope, scale and complexity to the CEO’s needs.

To fully understand the process he used to manage projects, I asked him to give me an example of the biggest process improvement project he’d ever worked on. After his overview, I asked the following clarifying questions:

  1. How did you get assigned the project?
  2. What were the biggest challenges and what were the deliverables and measures of success?
  3. How did you figure out the problem and develop the plan? Who was involved in this?
  4. Describe the actual project plan and the major objectives. Was the plan met and how did you manage the plan?
  5. Describe all of the people on the team, the role they played and how you selected, trained and developed them.
  6. What was the biggest decision you made and how did you make it? Was it the right decision?
  7. What was the biggest problem you faced and how did you resolve it?
  8. What kind of recognition did you receive for completing this project?

This took about 20 minutes to fully understand the project and his role, but by the time we were done it was abundantly clear he was extremely competent. However, I still wasn’t sure of his problem-solving ability so I just described my client’s project in broad terms and asked how he’d figure out the best solution and implemented it.

For this part, I was more interested in the approach he would use to develop a solution, not the solution itself. We covered this over the next 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion including some complex “what if” questions. He clearly understood the issues, including knowing what he didn’t know and how he’d close these gaps.

Now here was a big surprise. By the end of the hour interview I was dumbfounded that I barely noticed his accent, his appearance was far better than I first thought, and I realized his age had nothing to do with his ability.

It’s now 35 years later and I’m still using this basic approach. Here’s some guidelines to follow if you want to try it yourself and be equally dumbfounded.

Tips for running this type of interview 

  1. Wait until the end of the interview to determine if you like the person enough to be a full-time employee and if he/she fits within your culture.
  2. Validate the person’s ability to handle the projects you need handled by asking the person to describe two or three projects most related to real job needs.
  3. Define the projects to be handled before you start interviewing candidates.
  4. In a give-and-take manner, ask the person how he/she would handle a realistic and important job-related problem.
  5. Have other interviewers ask similar questions but have them narrow their focus on different projects and problems.
  6. Formally share what each interviewer has found out to assess and compare candidates. (This talent scorecard is a great way to guide the conversation and make the assessment.)

I find it odd that we interview people we know differently than people we don’t know. With acquaintances the focus is on the person’s past performance and potential, but with strangers we focus more on skills, personality and presentation. Using this performance-based interviewing approach I stumbled upon years ago, you’ll discover you can more accurately interview strangers and acquaintances exactly the same way.

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