By David A. Mersky
Every prospective hire for your organization, at every level, will be interviewed before an offer is extended. The number and type(s) of interviews will vary depending on the position in question, but however they occur, interviews are the essential step in the hiring process.
As the individual making the final decision — whether your role is Board chair, CEO, hiring officer, supervising manager, or something else — it is vital that you remain active in the process. You may not be involved in the initial, screening interviews (this is often done by Human Resources or an outside Executive Search Firm), but as the candidate field is narrowed to two or three possibilities, the final conversations require your careful attention and active participation.
This is critical. Dropping the ball at this late stage (i.e., hiring someone who can’t do the job for love or money) is a waste of time and resources.
Preparation is Key
One thing is certain: Any candidate who survives to the final round of interviews is going to be exquisitely well prepared. You must be too.
Almost without exception, these finalists know the standard questions to expect; they have been coached by career counselors to respond with quality, prepared answers. They will also come armed with questions of their own — about your organization, the position, the compensation, and more.
But this is not a one-time performance in which you are gauging their ability to interview well. You want to know how they will perform on the job. What skills, experience, and knowledge will they bring to bear to meet your organization’s unique challenges and opportunities? How well will they represent your company externally, if that will be part of their role?
So, you need to get beyond the pat answers. This requires preparatory research that extends beyond the resume:
- Google them. Have they written articles? Appeared on podcasts? Spoken at industry conferences? What is their social media presence, and does it feel like a fit for your organization?
- Find them on LinkedIn. What do they post about and how often? What groups do they belong to? What organizations do they follow? Have they received testimonials from others and, if so, what is said about them?
- Check their references. Of course, you won’t hear anything negative, but listen closely to what and how these people speak about the candidate. Are they reserved or enthusiastic? Do they seem surprised that this person is being considered for this kind of job? By speaking to references now, before you have even met the candidate, you will circumvent the tendency to use reference-checking to validate a positive impression you have already made.
Conducting the Interview
Most people who conduct interviews have little experience doing so, but you need to maintain control. To help stay on track, think of the interview as a play with three acts:
Act One: Set the Stage
You want to get an authentic sense of who they are as a person, not just as a job candidate — you are an advocate, not an adversary. The better and more quickly you can help them open up, the more you will learn.
So put them at ease by conveying that this is a conversation between equals. Greet them warmly and by name. Sit next to them in a comparable chair (not behind your imposing desk). Tell them, “I am so happy we are having this chance to meet. I have learned so much about you from those who have already spoken with you, and I look forward to getting to know you myself.”
Seek common ground. What interests have you discerned from their resume, your research, and what others have told you? For example, if you both enjoy cooking, find out what they like to cook and how they became interested. Connect on a human level.
Act Two: Search for the Fit
Be direct and forthright in describing the opportunity. People tend to hear only what they want to hear, so be careful not to gild the lily; offer a realistic view of the position. Then invite the candidate to make their pitch.
Listen carefully. Do they appear to really understand the role? Are they genuinely enthusiastic or simply following a script? Do they seem open to learning? Overall, you want to look for future leaders who are striving to succeed and grow, not those who see the next position as a final stop.
See if you can flip them off their script. Pose scenarios that force them to respond in ways they may have never considered. Engage them in topics that are particular to your organization, since whatever coaching they receive tends to be more general in nature:
“You will have less autonomy in this job than you’ve had before. How do you feel about that?”
“You will be reporting to someone who holds the same position you have had at a different organization. How will you manage that?”
“You have many of the skills we are looking for but in a different field. How will you get up to speed?”
Further, take advantage of the research you have done by asking very specific questions about their past experience: “I see that you were responsible for Teen Programming at the Boys and Girls Club. Did you encounter bullying among the kids? The staff? How did you manage those situations?”
Above all, ask questions that are designed to help you understand how they will perform in this position.
Act Three: Get to Closure
The candidate will be prepared with questions for you; make sure to provide an opportunity to ask them. This is also the time to let the candidate know your timeline for concluding the process and extending an offer, as well as any other pertinent logistics.
Finally, pay attention to how aware the candidate is of the time that has been allotted for the interview and how capable they are of ending the meeting appreciatively and graciously. This speaks to the chemistry they will bring to both the workplace and when interacting with your external stakeholders.
Step Back and Think
With the interview process completed, wait a day or two. Take a breath and view your conversations through the lens of a little time. This will help you avoid the halo effect that accompanies a bubbly personality, engaging sense of humor, and overall likeability.
Talk to others who have met the candidates, review your notes, and resist simply reaching for the shiniest object.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to trust your gut. If you have prepared well and conducted a thoughtful, structured conversation about who they are, your gut can be quite perceptive.