Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Best Interviews Are Free-Flowing

About six months back, I had to do my first interview for my new company. One of the things that I was surprised about was the rigidity in which I was supposed to do this. The candidates would only be meeting with me for an hour of one-on-one time before I passed them off through the three other interviews they had set up for them. Not only that, Human Resources instructed me to come up with certain questions that I had to use for every candidate.

That didn't quite sit well with me. All my best interviews that I've either been the interviewer or the interviewee have been free-flowing conversations that allow the candidate to show their true self. I've spent hours interviewing at times. The Astron interview certainly comes to mind here. Jennifer and I spoke for what seemed like hours. It allowed both her to learn more about me and me to learn more about her and the company. One interview for my current job, I walked in and the interviewer, having read my resume and realizing I was a sports fan, had an article on his screen about Alex Rodriguez from the Wall Street Journal, pointed at it and asked me what I thought about the situation. Later he told me the point was just to see how I communicated and presented myself. But he allowed me to get into a comfortable zone by starting the interview off like that. We still got to the important/mandatory/obligatory questions, but we started out on the right foot.

My feeling is that when you have rigidity in interviews, you make people answer questions they've already prepared for. Surprise them. One of my co-workers had to interview potential managers to be his boss. He would ask all of the potential managers during the interview: "what if I wanted to come in late every day?" One interview I was in I was asked to tell a joke. Another, I had to shout something at the top of my lungs in a crowded room of interviewers. The point is not to embarrass people but to see their creativity, their ability to think on the spot, and also to avoid getting answers they've practiced in front of the mirror many times and don't reveal their true self.

I'm not saying don't ask: "what is your greatest weakness?" but be willing to follow up on that. If someone goes "I'm a perfectionist, to a fault" make them elaborate and give examples. If the interviewer asks where you want to see yourself in five years, give an answer and then turn it around and ask them where the want to be in five years or if they ended up where they thought they'd be five years before. Engage. Be willing to push from both sides of the interview. Ask the other person "if you weren't working here but could be doing anything else in the world, what would you want to do/where would you be?"

I know, I know...to seem fair and that you're not discriminating between candidates, you can't deviate too much from interview to interview. But the last thing you want to do is judge each candidate based on a set of canned questions. Make them open up. Even just a little. You will have to work with this person if you hire them; it would be a good idea to see a little of who they really are.

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And with that, I'm out of here for two weeks. I'm heading to the Land Down Under. I will try to get some blog posts in from down there, but can't promise anything. In the meantime, Jennifer and the rest of the Astron crew should be taking over for me here. So, trust me, you're in good hands :)

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