Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make You a Better Interviewer

Ever notice that some people are better at getting a job than actually doing it?

These are the candidates who excel at interviewing, presentation and polish.

With their exceptional sales and communication skills, they present slick resumes and seem to say all the right things.

But when you hire them, they don’t produce. Not even a little. And sometimes you need to fire them.

How do you protect yourself against this?

Dig deep into a candidate’s answers

Your primary job as an interviewer is to collect enough facts to determine a candidate’s job competency. This is your responsibility—it is not the candidate’s responsibility to provide it to you.

Why is this the case?

You know the requirements of the job. And you must collect the facts about a candidate’s past job performance so you and your team can assess competency for the current position.

If you leave it up to the candidate, you will collect only the information he or she wants you to collect. In other words, you will be measuring the candidate’s interviewing and presentation skills, not the candidate’s job performance.

To succeed you need to become like an investigative reporter or detective—separating fact from fiction.

Get the whole story

One of the best ways to really get to the bottom of something is called root cause analysis.

There are many techniques for root cause analysis. One of the best known was developed by Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota and is called the 5 Whys.

The tool has been adopted widely beyond Toyota, including within Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. It has also been recently popularized among startups by Eric Ries as part of the Lean Startup movement.

Here is an example:

The Problem: The car won’t start.
  1. Why? The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? The alternator isn’t working and so the battery hasn’t been charging. (second why)
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? The alternator belt was beyond the recommended service life and had not been replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? The car was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, root cause)
Possible Solution: Start maintaining the car according to the recommended service schedule.

OK, so this might work great for identifying problems with cars and problems in manufacturing processes.

What does this have to do with interviewing?

Use the 5 Hows

To determine a candidate’s job competency, you need a systematic process to move from generalities to specifics. Adapted from the 5 Whys, we call this process the 5 Hows.

Every time you and the candidate discuss an accomplishment, you need to start a process of peeling the onion to get the full details.

Here is an example:

Candidate Accomplishment: I grew our product to 5 million users
  1. How? Built a viral product with must have value proposition (first how)
  2. How? Created multiple viral channels for distribution while iterating on core value proposition (second how)
  3. How? Systematically measured invitations sent multiplied by acceptance rate. Tested changes in value proposition, messaging and creative until viral coefficient exceeded 1.
  4. How? Built our own dashboard from a combination of homegrown analytics tools integrated with off-the-shelf analytics products. Combined our own metrics with weekly in-office user tests as well as
  5. How? I worked closely with the company’s co-founder who built the viral analytics system and our lead designer who ran the user testing.
Interviewer Take-Away: Perhaps the co-founder and/or the lead designer was the key to this accomplishment. I need to learn more.

In this example, the interviewer is able to uncover important new information, like the role of the co-founder and the lead designer in getting the product to 5 million users.

If you were expecting the candidate to own the process of getting a product to 5 million users, you might decide to investigate more before concluding that this candidate is up to the task.

Additional questions you might ask at each step in the 5 Hows could include:

  • What: “What were the actual results at this stage?”
  • When: “When did this happen and how long did it take?”
  • Why: “Why did you approach it this way?” and/or “Why were you chosen?”

With this process it is easy to see exactly who did what.

Don’t think you always have to ask “How” exactly 5 times. That’s not the point. Sometimes you need more digging to get the full story. Sometimes you need less. The point is to make sure you always get the full story. Whether that’s 3 Hows or 8 Hows.

A candidate that can talk in detail about the process to achieve a specific result can probably repeat it. The candidate who cannot, probably can’t.

Why take the risk?

Don’t accept generalities as answers from candidates.

Systematically dig out specifics and you’ll be a much better interviewer.

Have other ideas for better interviewing? I’d love to hear them!

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