Clients and other business people often ask me for interview questions that will reveal which candidates are most likely to succeed in a particular job. But there’s no standard set of questions, because it’s all about the fit. And only someone inside the organization can know what that needs to be.
For instance, will this be a highly routinized job where the work norms are already well established, or one where the employee has the license and standing to shape the nature of the job and the work? Depending on the nature and level of the assignment, there can be significant differences in interview structure and specifics.
So I start by describing the underlying fundamentals:
- Clarity and details about the desired outcomes for job performance
- What kinds of people are peers, subordinates, and executives in the organization
- Whether there are expectations that this person will continue with business as usual, or act specifically as an agent for change.
Function Isn’t Everything
At lower levels, there are clearer tradeoffs between the benefits of hiring people with prior experience vs. choosing candidates who may have less experience but take on the role with an open mind and learn to do their work “the way we do it here.”
But functional experience alone is not enough. As employees advance up the organizational hierarchy, the more responsibility they’ll have for results, and the more potential variability there will be in how the job can be done. So the nature of the individual is key because their behaviors and communication style will have real impact on the job, relationships with colleagues, and what the actual work turns out to be.
What You Really Want
Don’t you want to hire someone with the ability to navigate the organization, read the culture, interact comfortably with incumbents, and bring in something extra and fresh? Then you want someone with solid emotional intelligence, or you’ll lose much of the value of their expertise and smarts. Will the new hire care about what happens to, with, and for everyone they work with? Even individual contributors need to work well with others to be effective in their own roles.
Candidates should be open-minded and curious about how things have worked — and have not worked — at the organization to this point. It’s a serious risk when new hires operate out of a kind of patterned thinking, merely applying “the way I did it at my old company.” You need them to be able to combine the benefits of their new ways with the effectiveness of the existing way and assess what is best to do now, in this very particular situation, with the strengths of both new and old.
Even if everyone likes the candidate, checking references is absolutely crucial. How people operated in previous workplaces is an indicator of how they work generally: when things are easy, when they’re under pressure or in unmarked territory, and when they’re receiving feedback.
Skipping or shortchanging the reference check means you may not learn facts that could protect you from making a harmful hire. You might not find out that in a candidate’s prior position, he was entirely accommodating until he hit a first roadblock and then it became all about him. Or as soon as an applicant found herself in circumstances in which she had no personal experience, she didn’t know how to proceed. Or maybe a job-seeker’s team loved him, but no one else in the organization wanted to work with him at all.
And then sometimes you’ll hear the best thing possible: “We’re so very sorry to see her go, but we know what a good opportunity this will be for her, and she knows that if she ever wants to come back, we’re really interested in that possibility.”
Onward and upward,