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Shattering the interview illusion

Five ways to reveal the true heart of a candidate during the first meeting. This is the second article in Korn Ferry’s ‘Little black book series’ for HR Director.

Like a couple on a blind date hopefully looking for signs that “this could be the one,” first meetings between recruiters and candidates tend toward the superficial. Even when recruiters take a clinical approach, following “behavioural” or other structured interview styles savvy executives come prepared with well-rehearsed responses that show themselves in the best possible light. You might hope such performances wouldn’t fool anyone, and yet even seasoned interviewers can suffer from a certain level of self-deception when screening top candidates face-to-face.

They are taken in by the pretty frame, without really examining the picture in the middle. When that happens, the interview becomes predictable instead of predictive, which leads to hiring mistakes. To select the very best people for a company, an interview needs to quickly get beyond the “elevator pitch” of someone’s career highlights and find out who they really are. To go deeper, Korn Ferry consultants report using blended interview techniques that help them develop an accurate image of a person and their unique skills, experiences, core values and interests, and observable behaviours. These conversations also foster trust with the aim of building a mutually rewarding relationship over time in which opportunities, leads, and market intelligence is shared.


1. Break the ice

Start the conversation by sharing something about yourself. This sets a more relaxed tone. Pay close attention to their level of curiosity and how quickly they understand and respond to your story. This gives an immediate indication as to whether they are “brilliant” or “average.”


2. Interview like a biographer

The desire to do something unique and perform at a higher level of service will emerge as a thread throughout a person’s life. A biographical interview style unveils themes that tie together their choices and achievements, indicators of who they really are and what will motivate them in the future. Sample questions might include: What is something your parents said repeatedly about you while you were growing up? What did you do outside school as a kid? Who do you still remember for having an impact on you?


3. Depart from the CV

Once you have gotten to know them a bit on a personal level, shift the conversation to their qualities and capabilities to see if they match what you are currently looking for. Rather than having them talk you through their CV, come to the meeting having read their resume completely and selected a few specific areas that you want to explore in greater detail.

Pick particular accomplishments and ask why they were uniquely qualified to succeed. Encourage them to reflect on their successes and failures in terms of their relationships to others, for example:

Q. Think of three or four peak experiences in the past twenty years when you were super successful, empowered, and full of energy. Who was your boss? Your peers? Your subordinates? Tell me about them. How were they different, and why did they stand out to you?

Q. Now, remember the ultimate down times when you invested a lot of energy and felt like you were in a bad movie and nothing worked out. Who were your boss and peers then? If I had to interview them, would I find strengths in them? Who are you still in touch with? Why?


4. The ‘dream team’ exercise

Presenting the following “dream team” scenario gets the interviewee talking about other people in a way that accurately reflects their own strengths and weaknesses at the same time. This exercise also will further build your knowledge of the talent market. You likely know half of their “Dream Team” already, and this will help you to connect the dots when you finalize your short list.

Scenario: An investor offers you as much money as you need to start a new company. The amount of funding is unlimited, but they expect a 15% return on their investment. Who would be the first people from your career that you would take with you, and why? These people have to be able to make a statement about you, what do you think they would say?


5. Look beyond today’s opening

At the end of the interview, tell the candidate what you have noted as their strengths. Senior executives appreciate feedback and few recruiters take the time to share it with them. Ask what it would take for them to move from their current job. The lasting value of these intensive conversations is the ability to project where they will fit best and entice them to explore other opportunities in the future. Persuading shortlisted candidates to join an organization requires not only insight into the individual, but also business intelligence and knowledge of compensation trends. In the next segment of our Little Black Book series, we discuss how to conduct sophisticated and successful negotiations with more ease.


6. Setting the stage for a great interview

Interviews are just one part of a multi-step process of evaluating talent. But you can get the most out of them with these simple tips: Set aside up to two hours. The more senior the person, the more they have to say that you’ll want to hear. Meet in a convenient spot with adequate privacy and few distractions. Test any video conferencing technology well in advance. Focus your full attention on the person. Put away your cell phone. Do not take notes on their CV. Use blank sheets of paper. Take verbatim notes, without interpretation.

Know that the first answer will be rehearsed. Keep asking probing to get to what is authentic and true. Learn this person’s context. What was going on when they succeeded or struggled in their career? Pay attention to their behaviour as well: how do they interact with the people at reception, for example?

Stay closely connected to the market to understand how those you meet measure up against the competition. Listen to answers not only with regard to immediate openings, but also future opportunities. Leave with questions to follow up on during reference checks. 

Know what will not work in your organization’s culture, or with a certain hiring manager, or for a given role, however. If it is obvious that this isn’t a good fit, say so and talk instead about where they want to go. Remember that attributes are not “good” or “bad” per se. Rather, they either match or do not match a given situation.


7. Checklist for reference checks

Referencing is an invaluable way to develop a more precise/complete picture of a candidate’s aptitude and likely fit. Some tips: Contact the people on the candidate’s list, people who were mentioned during the interview, and one or two others recommended by your sources.  Ask the candidate directly why they did not give you certain names (e.g., their most recent boss). Get beyond “strengths and weaknesses,” to find out how well a person performed in a certain context, and what attributes contributed to that success or failure. This is the real insight. Find out how the reference suggests motivating and getting the best out of the candidate. References aren’t perfect mirrors. Examine their input in the context of when they working with the candidate.

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