Raise your hand if you’ve gone through something like this before:
A colleague asks you to interview a candidate for a role in your department. You study the candidate’s résumé and spot a few line items you want to discuss with them. You push a few other meetings around to make room for the interview – not always easy but hey, you know interviews are important. When the time comes, you meet put the candidate through her paces and answer her questions about the company – sometimes putting the best face you can on issues in the organization while still being honest. Once the interview is over, you need to switch gears and get back to your work and all those other meetings and conversations you had to move around. You write up your feedback on the candidate and have a hallway conversation with the manager who asked you, “What did you think of so-and-so?” Days or weeks go by, and you hear whether the candidate got an offer or not and it takes you a few minutes to remember who that person was.
I know plenty of people who would say this describes the majority of their interview experiences once they found themselves on the hiring side of the conversation. If that’s how the scene usually plays out for you, you’re missing out on one of the biggest benefits available to you early in your career.
Learning the Hard Way
I was twenty-three years old the first time I interviewed a candidate for my company, and I didn’t exactly ease into it. I was working at an analytics software startup at the time, and even though we interviewed a lot of smart people this particular candidate’s résumé stood out. After emigrating to the United States as a young man to leave his tumultuous home country, the candidate earned a PhD. in physics at a top U.S. program (full scholarship, natch) before working for a top tier management consultancy and later as a quantitative strategist at a hedge fund. His list of publications in scientific journals ran over a page. Not only had I never interviewed someone before, but nearly all of the résumés I’d seen to that point were of my contemporaries, which made them all fairly similar to my own thin one. It was probably the first time I’d seen a dozen years’ worth of high achievement spelled out that way, and I was sufficiently impressed.
I don’t remember what I asked him during the interview, but it’s safe to say he plowed through my questions with ease and generally blew me away. Later, I had this conversation with the CEO, who was also my boss at the time:
Me: “So, uh, that candidate was awesome.”
My boss: “So we should hire him?”
Me: “I mean…I don’t see how you could go wrong hiring him. He’s super smart.”
My boss: “Really? How do you think he’ll make the company more successful?”
Me: “I’m not sure…but I think he could handle whatever we asked of him.”
My boss: “I think you need to call him back and actually interview him this time.”
I felt like an idiot. I wasn’t prepared to answer the single most important and obvious question: should we hire him or not? I thought I’d done a good job interviewing the guy, but in fact I had answered maybe 25% of the questions I should have. Setting up a second call to ask him the questions I clearly should have covered right away was a bit humbling. If there’s a silver lining to the story, it’s that I eventually ended up working with him for five years and he turned out to be a great colleague. Call it beginner’s luck.
I’ve conducted hundreds and hundreds of interviews in the years since. When I first started managing people and my direct reports began interviewing candidates, I did my best to similarly instill in them the importance of interviewing and how to do it right. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I was never again unprepared to answer the question of whether or not to hire someone. When the answer was “I don’t know,” I at least knew what I was unsure of and what I wanted to do about it.
I realized something else about the process of interviewing over the years that is no doubt obvious to some but I’ll bet is news to others: the interview process itself can make companies stronger even without hiring a single person. When a group has to decide whether to admit a new candidate for membership or not, it forces the group to ask important questions of itself: What makes us who we are today, and are we happy with that? What qualities must a new person have to not slow us down and possibly make us even better? What do we want to look like as a group in the future? Determining whether to hire someone requires understanding what it really takes to be great in that role. The best groups share a vision for how they want to build a successful culture and organization from the people up. That vision serves as the true north for everyone on the team as new people join. Done right, it is an irreplaceable part of not just building a culture but also of inculcating a philosophy for how to grow with people. Great teams and organizations get better through this process every time they go through it even if they don’t make a hire.
Of course, this is the ideal scenario. Not all companies reach this level of understanding, but the ones that don’t miss out on the benefits of recruiting and hiring done right. By the same token, it’s easy for busy individuals to overlook the benefits of the process to themselves and their organizations. Their loss is your gain, because when it comes to contributing to the success of the business, the hiring process is one of the best avenues for doing it at an early age. And as things go, it’s actually one of the easier ways to improve the organization on your own. It requires thoughtfulness and practice, but mainly it requires ensuring that the self-examination process takes place and that team members bring their A-game to every discussion. It’s a great opportunity for leadership that I think young professionals often miss.
Focusing on a few key activities before and after an interview takes place can make a big difference not only for your career but also for the organization as a whole.
Before the Interview: Clarify Expectations
The biggest mistake I made interviewing the physicist took place before we spoke. Whenever someone asks you to participate in an interview, don’t go in there without the information you’ll need to make an informed judgment as to whether the person is a fit:
- Job Description – Don’t settle for a boilerplate list of responsibilities. Ask the hiring manager to explain in their own words what they expect the person to be able to do and what qualities are most important to them. Find out what they’re willing to compromise on and what they aren’t. With whom does the hiring manager expect the candidate to work most closely if hired? You need as clear a picture as you can as to what it will look like when the ideal candidate is in place and contributing.
- Ramp-up expectations: What skills does the person whom you hire for the role need to have on Day One, and what can they learn over time on the job? Understanding how much time you expect someone to need before they start being really effective will help you judge how much to weigh raw ability and smarts versus subject matter expertise when making a recommendation. The best way I’ve found to do this is to pick a recent project with which everyone on the team is familiar, and establish a baseline for the size of the contribution to that project you would expect the candidate to be able to contribute.
If this sounds basic, that’s because it is. But it’s amazing to me how often teams go through an interview cycle without making sure that everyone is on the same page with regard to these two areas. Note that this can happen even when HR has a defined process for how candidates are routed through the hiring pipeline. HR involvement is fine and necessary, but the team for which the candidate is interviewing has to be take ownership. The HR department can orchestrate the process of hiring people, but in my opinion only the hiring team can make sure the company still grows even if no one is hired. Be the person who steps up and demands your team establish this upfront clarity if you don’t see this happening.
After the Interview: Demand a Candidate Debrief
I truly believe I’ve learned more about business from participating in candidate debriefs with my past managers than probably any other activity in my career. Numerous times, I recommended hiring or passing on a candidate with what I thought was sound logic only to be schooled by a more experienced executive who identified things I’d missed and completely changed my point of view. The minor sting of being shown up like that pales in comparison to what you learn from hearing the stewards of your organization as well as your peers explain why they do or don’t want someone to be a part of the organization. The discussion forces everyone to clarify their expectations for the future and their acknowledgement of the present state. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to find out about the hidden problems in your organization, because new hires are often evaluated in the context of whether they can help solve one of them.
In my experience, the toughest thing about a candidate debrief can be making sure it happens. Do whatever you have to in order to set this up and benefit from it. I won’t get too prescriptive about the “how” in this post, save for three rules which I believe must always be followed:
- Don’t settle for sending feedback over email or for collecting feedback from people individually. This conversation must happen synchronously, verbally, and with as many of the interviewers present in the same room as possible as soon after the interview as possible. The purpose is to maximize dialogue so that everyone benefits from each other’s perspectives and experience in addition to making a good hiring decision.
- No exceptions to rule number 1. No matter how senior or junior the position is.
- No one gets to pass on answering the “should we hire this person” question. Everyone must explain their answer, for or against. If the answer is “I don’t know,” then the person must explain why they can’t make a determination and what they would need in order to do so.
It’s tempting with scheduling difficulties to find quicker and easier ways for people to provide their feedback on a candidate. Don’t let it happen. Be the one who demands the candidate debrief if it’s not happening. You, your team, and your organization can’t afford not to do this.
Is this happening in your team or in your company today?