Every business is the sum of all of its employees. That's why leadership is so important...but that also means hiring great employees is arguably even more important. After all, even the best coaches can't turn average players into superstars.

And that means you need to be great--not good, great--at conducting job interviews.

Of course you might be thinking the burden lies on the potential employee, not on you...but if you think that way, you're foolish. In order to find the best employees you can, you need to be the best interviewer you can possibly be.

Here's how you should approach every job interview:

1. Don't post the job unless you truly know what you need.

A great employee doesn't just fill an open slot on your org chart. A great employee solves at least one critical business need.

So while credentials, qualifications, and experience are important, never lose sight of the fact that you're not hiring a position. You're hiring a result. You don't need a sales director, you need someone who will sell. You don't need a VP of operations, you need someone who can deliver great products or services on time.

Identify your real business need; determine what successfully meeting that need looks like (since that defines the skills and attributes you're looking for); think about cultural fit; and tailor the interview (and everything else in your hiring process) to finding the perfect person to solve your critical need. Otherwise you're just wasting your time.

When you know what you truly need, you'll never have to settle for interviewing job candidates who have a few qualities that are nice to have...but lack that one quality they absolutely must possess.

2. Make it your job to help candidates be at their best.

Every candidate should know exactly what to expect: when, where, who will be conducting the interview(s)...they should know everything. Great interviewers ensure candidates don't have to deal with surprises, tricks, or uncertainty.

For example, take the surprise group interview. A group interview is intimidating for a candidate, especially when it's unexpected. If the position requires working predominately within a team, then sure, group interviews can provide a feel for a candidate's suitability. But in that case, tell candidates ahead of time, so they can prepare.

Otherwise, hold individual sessions.

And no matter what, let the candidate know who will be conducting the interview(s).

Also, never forget that a new employee's first day isn't their first official day on the job, it's the day you first engage him in the hiring process. That's when his experience with your company really starts, so make the experience an awesome one.

3. Know every candidate better than they know your company.

Every interview guide tells candidates it's important to research the company. So isn't it just as important for the interviewer to research the candidate?

Of course it is, especially since it's impossible to ask intelligent questions and foster a compelling conversation (which is what every interview should be) unless you really know the candidate.

Start by truly studying the résumé: Focus not just on jobs and qualifications but also on what the résumé indicates about the candidate's interests and goals.

For example, look at her first job: What did she accomplish? What projects did she work on? When did she change roles? When did she get promoted? What do changes in responsibilities and duties indicate about her performance?

Then move to the next job: Why did she leave her previous job? What does that say about her career path? What does that say about her interests? Your goal is to read between the lines to get a sense of the candidate's successes and failures.

Then do a quick survey of social media. What are her interests? What does she like to do outside of work? What does that say about how she will fit in with your company's culture? And with whom does she network? What does that say about her broader goals and professional interests?

Know as much as possible ahead of time; that way you can tailor each interview to the actual person instead of simply reading questions from a guide.

And that way you can...

4. Turn the interview into a conversation, not a Q&A session.

The best interviews are a great conversation. But you can't have a great conversation with someone you hardly know.

The more you know about the candidate ahead of time, the more you can ask questions that give the candidate room for introspection and self-analysis.

5. See it as your responsibility to help a shy candidate feel comfortable.

Some people just don't interview well. They're hesitant or anxious or nervous and don't make a great first impression.

But an awkward interview doesn't mean a candidate can't excel at the job. While some positions do require the ability to establish immediate rapport, like sales, in many others a lack of conversational skills in no way signals a lack of expertise.

It's easy to help a nervous candidate relax, especially if you've done your homework. Compliment a few of his accomplishments. Ask a question about her hobbies or outside interests. Ask him a few softball questions you know he can hit out of the park. Take a few minutes to help her gain confidence and settle in.

Most interviewers feel it's the candidate's responsibility to be "on." Instead, see it as your responsibility to get the best from every candidate, even those who at first might seem out of their depth.

6. Be eager to go off script.

Every interviewer should follow a plan and ask a reasonably specific set of questions, but the best questions are almost always follow-up questions. It's the follow-up question that takes you past the canned response and into the details, both positive and negative.

Listen to the initial answer, pause, and ask how. Or why. Or when. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve. Or what was learned from a failure. Or what made a job hard or a project difficult. Or what made a task fun. Or what the candidate would do differently, and why.

When something sparks your interest, talk about it. Ask questions. You'll be surprised where the conversation might go and what you might learn. Not only will you get past the canned responses, you'll also learn details--good and bad--the candidate otherwise might not have shared.

The real superstars show up in the details. See it as your job to get those details. (Plus, you might find a candidate who may not be right for this opening...but perfect for a different opening.)

7. Listen 10 times more than you talk.

Some interviewers talk--a lot. They talk about the company, they talk about the job, they talk about themselves...for some, the interview seems to be more about them than the candidate.

Of course when you do that, most candidates won't interrupt or try to restore balance to the interview. They want you to like them. And unfortunately, that means your hiring decision is largely based on whether the candidate was a good listener.

You don't learn anything about the candidate when you're doing all the talking. The best interviewers make the conversation at least 90 percent candidate and at most 10 percent interviewer.

(Unless, of course, the candidate is asking you questions--as she should, since candidates are also deciding whether your company is the right fit for them--and especially if she's asking one of the great questions every candidate should ask.)

8. And make silence your friend.

Great interviewers "listen slowly."

In Change-Friendly Leadership, management coach Rodger Dean Duncan describes how he learned about listening slowly from PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer:

Duncan: He urged me to ask a good question, listen attentively to the answer, and then count silently to five before asking another question. At first that suggestion seemed silly. I argued that five seconds would seem like an eternity to wait after someone responds to a question. Then it occurred to me: Of course it would seem like an eternity, because our natural tendency is to fill a void with sound, usually that of our own voice.

Lehrer: If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you'll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he's already said or he'll go in a different direction. Either way, he's expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.

Duncan: Giving other people sufficient psychological breathing room seemed to work wonders. When I bridled my natural impatience to get on with it, they seemed more willing to disclose, explore, and even be a bit vulnerable. When I treated the interview more as a conversation with a purpose than as a sterile interrogation, the tone of the exchange softened. It was now just two people talking....

Listening slowly is another way to turn an interview into a conversation. Try listening next time. Not after every question, of course. Just pick a few questions that give the candidate room for self-analysis or introspection, and after the initial answer, pause.

The candidate will fill the space: with an additional example, a more detailed explanation, or a completely different perspective on the question.

Once you give people a silent hole to fill, they'll fill it--often in unexpected and surprising ways. A shy candidate may fill the silence by sharing positive information she wouldn't have otherwise shared. A candidate who came prepared with "perfect" answers to typical interview questions may fill the silence with not-so-positive information he never intended to disclose.

9. Don't check off mental "boxes." Seek excellence.

After you conduct enough interviews, it's natural to start ticking off mental boxes during the interview. "Let's see," you might think. "Experience: good. Qualifications: good. Skills: good. Attitude: good. Work ethic: good. Cultural fit: good...."

Everything is "good," which unfortunately means that you, without realizing it, start to think a candidate who has no real negatives is actually an awesome candidate.

Skilled interviewers are extremely selective about the people they hire. They don't want to hire the candidate whose qualifications and interview fail to raise issues or concerns; they want to hire the candidate who will excel in meeting their real business need.

Never get lazy. Never settle for average. Never settle for "good enough," because good enough never actually is.

10. Always describe the next steps in detail.

Few things are worse than being a candidate who has no idea what, when, or if something happens next.

Don't make the candidate ask about next steps. Explain the rest of the process. Explain what you will do and when you plan to do it.

And then actually do it.

11. Always provide closure to every candidate.

Failing to follow up is rude and unprofessional. Think about it: Candidates paid your business a massive compliment by wanting to work with you. After all, they're willing to spend more time with you than their family.

Plus, when you don't provide closure, candidates won't complain to you...but they will complain about you.

Describe next steps, follow through on those steps, contact candidates when the process for some reason gets delayed, and eventually provide closure to every candidate. Period, no exceptions.

Not only is that good business, it's simply the right thing to do.

Published on: Aug 24, 2016
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