Résumés matter. Recommendations matter. References matter.
But still: The final decision on whether a candidate will be hired usually comes down to the interview. But that's a problem when an interview is based on a series of fairly common questions. (Questions, like these, that are easy for job candidates to come prepared to answer.)
Do that, and no matter how hard you try, to the candidate the process feels more like an interrogation ... and where interrogations are concerned, there are no winners.
That's why the best job interviews are conversations, not interviews. But how can you spark that conversation?
Start by asking one good question, one that gets to the core of every business:
"What is the one skill you possess that will most impact our bottom line?"
Why do I love that question? Two reasons. One, you immediately find out if the candidate knows anything about your company. (It's hard to say how you will impact the bottom line when you don't understand what truly drives value for a company.)
More important, you begin to get to the heart of the value the employee will provide -- and whether his or her strengths truly meet your needs.
So ask that question, and then do what comes naturally: Have a conversation. Listen to the candidate's answer.
Think about what he or she says, not about the next question on your list. (There is no next question on your list.) Just think about what you hear. Then ask a question you would ask if you had run into the candidate in an airport lounge.
I know. You're thinking, "That might be a good approach if the opening is in sales or operations, or a functional area with direct bottom-line responsibility. But what about support functions?"
No problem. Say you're interviewing a candidate for an HR job.
Here's how it could go:
"What one skill do you possess that will most impact our bottom line?" you ask.
"I'm really good at ensuring compliance with EEOC regulations," the candidate might say.
That's not a terrible answer, because lawsuits certainly do impact the bottom line. But where HR roles are concerned, ensuring compliance with legal (and ethical) guidelines should be a given.
Saying you'll comply with regulations is like saying, "I'll come to work every day."
And maybe that's OK; maybe avoiding legal issues is all you care about. But I doubt it, because every support function should have a bottom-line impact. Every support function can directly affect costs and productivity and even sales. Every employee in a support function should impact the bottom line.
That's why a better candidate might say, "I'm really good at working with department heads to determine the unique skills and talents they need so I can find not just qualified candidates but exceptional candidates."
Hmm. You like the sound of that. And you like the fact she thinks about her job not just as a series of boxes to check but one that has a broad impact on your business. But then again, it could just be a platitude. What does her answer look like in practice?
So you say, "That's great. Give me an example." It's a natural follow-up question.
"A department manager gave me a list of qualifications for an engineering manager position," she might say. "He said the right candidate needed an MIT or Stanford engineering degree and at least 10 years' experience in managing projects. I asked what he needed the person to actually do, and eventually he said the person needed to develop and release successful products. What he really needed is a person who has actually brought a number of products to market; where that person went to school or whether the person had been working in the field for 10 years was irrelevant."
You like the sound of that, too. But there's a natural follow-up question you can ask: "Still, isn't it easier to give people what they ask for? Then it's their problem if the person selected doesn't work out, not yours."
Maybe she has the right answer. Maybe she'll say it's everyone's problem if you don't find the perfect candidate. Maybe she'll say she's good at working with people so they understand she's only trying to give them what they really need, and isn't pushing back just to push back.
And maybe you'll say, "But what happens when a department manager feels you're trying to give him what you want instead of what he needs. Has that ever happened to you?" (Yet another natural question.)
And the conversation continues.
Try it. First, think about what you truly need: hard skills, soft skills, leadership skills. Don't think about the perfect candidate's qualifications, but what the perfect person in the job will actually do. Because after all, you don't hire titles; as Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot, says, "You need a doer of stuff that needs to get done."
Then, think of one question that can form the basis for a thoughtful conversation. You can use mine. Or you can use one of yours.
If you need a salesperson, your one question might be, "If you can only choose one skill you have, which would be most responsible for helping you land major customers for us?"
If you need an operations manager, your one question might be, "What is the toughest production challenge you've faced?" (I can create branches from this tree for hours.)
If you need a programmer, your one question might be Lou Adler's favorite question: "What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?"
Ask one question that will serve as the trunk of a huge tree, allowing you to branch off in a number of directions. (If you need a little help, Adler's follow-up questions provide all the guidance you should need.) Then put away your interview guide and have a conversation.
You'll learn a lot more than you would by asking a preplanned set of questions, because the most revealing answers always come from follow-up questions. So just listen. Then ask why. Or when. Or how a situation turned out. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve, or what was learned from a failure.
Because the interview will feel more natural, you'll also enjoy it more. And so will the best candidates, because they will be able to relax, get into a conversational flow, and give you their best.
And isn't that what you really want from an interview?