Don't use standard interviewing techniques to evaluate top performers
Top people cannot be interviewed the same way as everyone else.
Although most recruiters and hiring managers know this, few know how
to do it. It's not about selling the job, charming the person, and
over-talking. It's about using the interview to get the candidate to
Let's take one step back before moving two forward. It's quite
easy to figure out whether someone is totally a bad fit for
your job. It's almost as easy to determine whether someone's a
superstar. Just look at their resume, academics, and track record.
Top performers win a lot of gold medals. So all you have to do to
accurately assess them is to validate that they actually won them
without taking steroids.
What's not so easy is to assess everyone in between. Also not so
easy is to keep the ones you want to hire excited about your job
throughout the interview without boring them or having to give away
the farm at the end.
To pull this off, let's take one step forward by categorizing all
interviewing mistakes into five common types:
The Unmotivated Hire. This is hiring someone
who sounded good in the interview and who is reasonably competent,
but not motivated to consistently do the work needed to be done.
These are the people who need to be over-managed just to achieve
The Partial Hire. This mistakes refers to a
person who does parts of the job really well, but not all of them.
For example, a hard-working developer who misses deadlines.
The Non-Hire. This covers all of those hiring
mistakes associated with a top person being excluded because
someone made a bad assessment. This typically happens when
interviewers base their decisions on first impressions or some
superficial, narrow, or flawed reason.
The Lost Opportunity Hire. These are the
worst mistakes of them all. This refers to a great person who you
probably would have hired, but who decided to voluntarily opt-out
before an offer was made or declined your offer for some
The Wrongful Hire or Wrongful Non-Hire.
Asking inappropriate or illegal questions causes lawsuits,
especially from weak people who you didn't hire. You'll also get
these from weak people you hire and then quickly fire. A
structured objective interview where everyone asks the same
questions and evaluates everyone the same way will eliminate this
To prevent these problems, let's take another step forward by
recognizing that a good interview needs to accomplish more than just
accurately assessing competency to do the work. This is especially
true when you're dealing with a top performer who has other
opportunities and can opt out at any point. This is also the top
person who will get a counter-offer and who will receive an offer
with a bigger comp package elsewhere.
As part of the interview, consistently provide the person with
evidence that your opportunity represents a fundamental career
move, not just a salary jump. You can't wait until the end
of the interview to do this.
As we reengineer the assessment process, consider these points as
the basic requirements of an effective interview:
To eliminate the lost opportunity non-hire, do two-thirds
of your recruiting before you decide to make the candidate an
offer. The candidate must leave each interview wowed by the
job, and you must do this without the interviewer overselling and
To prevent inflated offers, more competitive offers from other
companies, and counter-offers, you need to ensure that the
candidate evaluates the job based on the opportunity, not the
To prevent partial and unmotivated hires you need to
accurately assess long-term competency and motivation
across all job needs, not just a few core traits like technical
and team skills.
To eliminate wrongful non-hires and non-hires you need to
overcome biases and increase objectivity. To do this, you
can't be snowed by presentation, you cannot prematurely exclude
good candidates who are temporarily nervous, and you must
eliminate foolish, illegal, pet, and trick questions that have not
Another big objective is to get buy-in from everyone on
the interviewing team (sourcers, recruiters, hiring
managers, etc.) about your overall process; make sure
everyone uses the same process.
Pulling this off starts by understanding my one-question interview.
This is the question I developed back in the 80s to prevent my clients from
excluding good people for bad reasons (like the above) and recruit
them at the same time.
ver the years, it turned out this same questioning process also
eliminated all of the other problems. In the last 20 years, I've
introduced this question to more than 40,000 managers, and those who
use it get exactly the results described. But try it out yourself;
you've got nothing to lose, and you actually might make more
placements. (As an added benefit it's been legally, OFCCP, EEO, and
The basic one-question interview process starts by asking the
candidate to describe a major accomplishment in great depth. You
typically need to spend 12 to 15 minutes on this accomplishment,
peeling the onion, digging deep, looking for facts and details
validating the accomplishment. As part of this you can't accept
generalities. To get more insight I also ask standard behavioral
questions as part of this fact-finding, like give me some examples
of where you had to influence others, deal with conflict, take the
initiative or handle a tough challenge.
Collectively, these types of questions tie behaviors, skills,
competency and motivation to a specific major task. But don't stop
with just one significant accomplishment question. By asking the
candidate to describe other major accomplishments, a trend line of
performance and consistency over an extended period of time soon
As part of the assessment process you can then compare these
accomplishments to the real performance needs of the job. I refer to
these real job needs as a performance profile. We use a formal
10-factor grid to assess and compare candidates using the evidence
from these accomplishment-based questions.
With a slight modification, this basic accomplishment-based
interview process can be used to recruit the candidate. One way is
to add a compelling preface to the question to excite the candidate.
For example, for a mid-level firmware developer on a Bluetooth
project for a chip maker, start by describing the
importance of your company's Bluetooth effort and the impact the
person in the role on the project's success. With this one- to
two-minute overview, then ask the person to describe his most
significant comparable project. If the project is attractive the
candidate will be very willing to describe the project in-depth and
start to sell you on his worthiness. This is called a pull-toward
preface used to excite the candidate.
You can also obtain a similar effect by pushing the person away
or by slightly challenging the person's experience. For example,
after the person describes a major accomplishment, you might suggest
that the new project is somewhat broader in scope than what the
person has previously handled. Then go on to say that while you're
impressed with the accomplishment, you have concerns that the
candidate might not be able to handle some critical aspects of the
job, like team building and project planning.
Then ask the person to describe their most significant team and
planning accomplishment so you can better understand their abilities
in this area. The best people will push back and attempt to convince
you they are qualified for this type of role.
A major aspect of interviewing top performers is to use the
interview to look for voids and gaps in the candidate's background
that your job fulfills. As long as theses gaps are not too wide,
this is how you convert a job into a career and how you stop making
the offer largely about money.
By using the push-and-pull techniques, you get the candidate to
sell you, rather than you having to sell the candidate. There's a
significant after-effect with this. Candidates are more confident
when telling their family, advisors, and co-workers why they're
accepting your offer rather than any others, since they've had to
sell themselves first.
While there are additional techniques you can use during the
interview to close the candidate, the idea here is that a properly
conducted interview must do much more than just assess competency.
If the interview is too sterile or too superficial you'll lose the
best people for preventable reasons.
The push-and-pull in combination with the most significant
accomplishment interviewing processes overcomes these problems. Not
only will you be able to recruit more top people, you'll also stop
excluding good people for bad reasons, you'll prevent non-hires, and
you'll stop hiring people who just talk a good game.
When viewed from this broader perspective, it's apparent that
most interviewers, recruiters, and hiring managers alike have little
understanding of how to really interview, recruit, and hire top
performers. Surprisingly, addressing these interviewing problems
might actually eliminate the bulk of your sourcing challenges in the