Orchestrating the Interview Process

In any job market, you can’t afford to turn off strong A-player candidates any more than you can afford to hire B- / C-level candidates. Your company’s interview process needs to be well defined, consistently applied and tightly controlled.

No matter what you may think of the advice offered by your least favorite Gartner analyst, that person is one tough hombre. Why? Every analyst hired by Gartner goes through an interview process more akin to the Inquisition than to modern interview techniques. All that are missing are the rack, the hot poker and chanting monks in hooded robes. You see, following what most of us think of as a “normal” process of one-on-one interviews with various research directors, the candidate must stand before an open tribunal of 30-40 Gartner analysts and present an opinion. During the course of the presentation, the candidate is brutally challenged, jeered and tested. Strong, incredibly intelligent men and women have been known to leave the podium in tears, humiliated, and at the very least shaken. The event is designed to test their mettle. If a candidate can stand up to the egos of this crowd, Gideon Gartner once reasoned, he or she certainly can stand up to a crowd of 1,200 highly opinionated, intelligent and innately skeptical CIO’s.

It’s a process that works for Gartner. Unless your managers need to stand up to similar group pressure, I do not recommend it for you. The interview process should be part qualification and part sales, conducted in tandem. After all, in this market, any good candidate has options. He or she originally may want to work for you, but a badly conducted interview can irreparably tarnish any company’s image, and a six-month recruitment effort that you felt was “in the bag” can be trashed by one individual’s unwitting blunder. In this job market, you can’t afford to turn off good candidates any more than you can afford to hire the wrong people. Your company’s interview process needs to be well defined, consistently applied and tightly controlled.

3 Stages in the Interview Life Cycle

Whether you are a CXO, EVP, director or a manager, if the candidate in question will report to you, you are the “hiring authority” and therefore the person who must orchestrate the interview process. The candidate may have made their way to your door by any number of means (personal referral, posting, recruiter, and so forth). For Stage 1, as the hiring authority you need to conduct the initial interview and make a decision as to whether Mr./Ms. Candidate is a likely fit. Depending on circumstances, you might choose to conduct this interview in a formal setting, or over lunch or even dinner.

Stage 2 entails what I call “consensus interviews,” namely, a series of formal interviews conducted by the superstars of your management team whom you have hand-picked to further qualify the candidate, validate or challenge your judgment, gain buy-in and help sell the opportunity. HR typically participates at this stage, validating the candidate’s employment claims and at the very least selling the candidate on the company, its culture and its benefits programs.

Once your interview team has determined that it wishes to hire this candidate, you may require a Stage 3, the “executive encounter.” This may be anything from a 5-minute handshake meeting to a two-hour dinner meeting, typically with the senior-most executive your candidate will support, ideally a charismatic exec who can sell, and for C-level hires possibly even a board member. The executive encounter is your trump card. Use it with discretion: the more people who interview your terrific candidate, the greater the odds that someone may say something that can sour the deal.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Interviewers

Before you allow any interviews to be conducted by your superstars, you need to establish their roles and responsibilities. Each individual will have a specific role as both an “evaluator” and as a “marketeer.” The interviewer’s own area of expertise should dictate which of the candidate’s tires they should kick. You or your recruiter should prep each interviewer about your candidate’s hot buttons so that he or she can discuss how your company can fulfill those needs. Speak with each interviewer about his or her role personally.

It is shocking to me how few companies provide interviewers with a current and accurate job description, together with clearly defined candidate criteria. If you fail to provide your interviewers with a common measuring stick, don’t complain when they try to apply different metrics. A scoring sheet and itemized criteria can help you avoid a number of mismatched impressions about someone you consider to be an ideal candidate by your criteria, but not theirs

Achieving Consensus

Interviewers need to provide you their feedback that day, if not before the candidate exits your doors. The sooner you can determine whether you should make an offer, the higher your chances to make the hire. The more efficient your team comes across in reaching a conclusion, the better an impression you’ll make. Remember, the interview process is not a one-way street. The process you demonstrate, the caliber of the interviewers, the questions they ask and the consistency of the messages they communicate about your company all contribute to how the candidate will consider his or her subliminal interview of you. Be as prompt and as honest with your feedback as possible. Even if a candidate does not get the job, he may be so impressed by the experience, he may refer other, more qualified candidates to you. It happens.

Some companies think that the best way to achieve consensus and efficiency is to do the “one big team” interview. “After all,” they reason, “if we’re all in the room together we’ll share the same experience, hear the same responses and have a greater basis for comparison.” My problem with this is that it comes across like the Inquisition we talked about earlier. It’s the opposite of “sales-y.” And it is no more time efficient for the interviewers than if they each spent the same amount of time with the candidate in the privacy of their own offices. Private interviews allow each interviewer to sell, and to qualify the candidate in his or her own assigned role, in his or her own interview style (another topic, in and of itself). You will dramatically increase your chances with one-on-one interviews.

How should you gather feedback from your interviewers? The optimum method is to meet as a group after the last interview, or at the end of the day. To shape a more dimensional profile, go ahead and use score sheets or written notes, but don’t use them as substitutes for verbally shared opinions. Force participants to base their opinions on uniform criteria. A Big 4 management consulting client runs “round robin” interviews of between 10-18 candidates in a single day, once a month. Whether you use the round robin method to process 2 candidates or 20, its process will help you make better hires. The debriefing of the interviewers typically lasts 5 minutes per candidate, consensus is achieved quickly, and participants are more likely to feel joint responsibility for helping winning candidates be successful if they come on board. Moreover, it allows a candidate’s sponsor to deliver prompt feedback, and ideally to make the offer.

When all is said and done, at the conclusion of this interview process, you and your management team will have as full an understanding as possible of whether this candidate is right for your organization. The next step will be to make an offer and get it accepted, and that is a whole other matter. Luckily, it will be one made far easier because of the care taken in the interview process.

Scott Cadwalader, Diligent Partners LLC

Diligent Partners LLC