Hiring is hard. And the more I do it, the more I know this to be true. You do everything you can. You ask all the questions. You get outside opinions. You check references. You give them an assignment. And still, candidates don’t always work out. It can be quite vexing honestly.
In a previous article, I shared interviewing tips I have found helpful to see the truth in candidates. A question style I believe helps reveal a little more about the person you’re considering. But even when you ask all the right questions, in exactly the right way, you can still miss important signals. You can miss those soft skills (or lack thereof) so vital to operating successfully in a company.
The question for this week: What signs can I look for to make certain an interview candidate is as good as they seem?
I participate in a lot of interviews. Many I do on my own, but frequently I do joint interviews with other managers. I’ve noticed many interviewers are not engaged enough during the interview itself. Yes, they’re asking questions and listening to the answers, but they’re often not watching or listening closely enough to notice some of the most important signals. It’s understandable. We’re busy people. I am a culprit too. We’ve often got multiple interviews on the same day. Interviews sandwiched between 6 other meetings. Sometimes we have no choice but to interview a candidate right in the middle of a critical project or a distracting crisis. It’s easy not to be completely present and active during an interview.
This week I’m going to share a few signs I actively search for in interviews. I make a point of looking for these signs even when I’m distracted and busy. By focusing on a few specific things vs. a universe of body language and subtle queues, I find it much easier to ascertain the evidence I need to make better hiring decisions.
Here are 3 signals I look for to know if my candidate is great or too good to be true:
1. Are they engaging or just presenting?
Sometimes candidates sound great even though they aren’t. Their words make sense, but there is little behind them. They seem well prepared but something just isn’t quite right. If you’re not actively listening, you can miss the subtle difference between a candidate who is engaging with you on a topic and a candidate who is presenting to you on a topic. The difference is critical.
The Internet makes it easy to prepare surface level messaging for just about any topic. An ambitious candidate can prepare canned answers to almost every question they’re likely to receive. You ask them something and they find an entry point into a prepared talk track or story. It’s a good strategy if you’re a candidate, but if you’re the hiring manager, you need much more. When you’re busy or distracted, it’s easy to confuse a canned answer with a thoughtful response.
My recommendation to interviewers is to pay more attention to how candidates answer questions. Listen for clues that will tell you if you’re getting a real response or prepared remarks. Ask follow up questions and engage in a conversation to test for depth of understanding. You’ll be surprised how often a great answer to the first level question is followed by a terrible answer to the second level question.
2. Did they actually answer the question?
If you’re not paying attention you can miss how often candidates don’t answer the actual question you’ve posed. You get distracted by what they’re saying and fail to notice they didn’t actually respond to what you asked. This is concerning for a couple of reasons. The first is when candidates don’t answer the question exactly how it was posed, its indicative that they may lack empathy and critical communication skills. In the interview, it may not seem like a huge deal but when you hire them and they still aren’t listening to you, it becomes a problem in a hurry. The second reason I get concerned when a candidate doesn’t answer the exact question I asked, is that it’s often an indicator they didn’t know the answer in the first place and have pivoted to a canned talk track in hopes I don’t notice. Sometimes I don’t.
My recommendation to hiring managers is to force candidates to answer the exact question you’ve posed. Don’t be afraid to restate the question or pull the candidate back to address exactly what you’ve asked.
3. Do they think and speak in a structured manner?
Some candidates sound great on the surface but are just rambling without structure or logic. Answers might be entertaining and contain some useful insights but meander aimlessly without a clear framework. As you start hiring more senior level candidates, this phenomenon occurs more frequently. Interesting, articulate answers that lack structure indicative of logical thinking and deep understanding. This is a red alert for me.
In my experience, the best candidates (for most jobs) are those who can think and communicate in a well-structured manner. This skill translates to how projects will be tackled, how communication with co-workers will be done, and how they’ll provide direction and leadership to a team. The problem is, it can be hard to tell the difference between a structured thinker and a rambling story teller if you’re not paying close attention.
My recommendation is to actively watch for signs of structure (and lack thereof). Look for bullets and lists and grouping. Pay attention for models and frameworks vs. anecdotes. Notice if they purposefully tie parts of their answers to parts of your original question. These are all signs you have a great candidate on your hands. When these things are missing, take caution.
As a manager, hiring great talent is everything. I don’t think I fully appreciated this truth early in my career even though it is repeated so often. The easier it becomes to prepare for interviews, the more you need to raise your interviewing game. I hope these tips will help you discern between the great and the too good to be true. Let me know about tips and tricks you’ve used in interviews. I’d love to hear them.