The Key To Focused, Engaging Interviews (+ Template)
By Mariya Hristova ·
In my previous article, I wrote about giving regular feedback to hiring managers and teams about their interview process.
Practicing what I preach, at my company Aula Education I’m working on training everyone involved with interviewing to focus their interviews whilst simultaneously making them more engaging for candidates.
Ultimately, we want to get the best out of candidates, while still being able to thoroughly investigate the necessary skills or behaviours, and create a positive candidate experience regardless of the outcome.
It’s been an interesting process and I’ve found that, in many cases, we can do more with less time and not make candidates feel like they’re being grilled by the Spanish Inquisition.
Setting out an Aim
The first step is to set out an aim for your interviews. Is this an interview that will test out skills? Behaviours? Both?
In order to understand this, first write down everything you need to know from someone to be able to confidently hire them into the position.
You are looking for a senior salesperson to help launch your product into a new market. They have potential connections with the key clients you are looking for—focus on that!
Areyou also looking for this person to eventually become a team leader? Have a few questions on that as well.
Do you think your product benefits from one type of selling more than another? Makesure you understand their style.
And so on until you have all the needed things from the person to be able to hire them.
Next, prioritize which questions you need the answers to the most so you can spend the most time there and start creating the question templates (you can use mine at the bottom of this article to help with this).
Taking the time for this exercise will set out a framework of what you are looking for in each interview that you can later be very transparent about with candidates.
Alongside this, start considering who needs to evaluate each part. I would recommend that you avoid having everyone under the sun involved (the CEO meeting every candidate is actually not the brag some companies make it out to be—more on that later).
However, on the other hand, relying on the hiring manager alone can be quite problematic down the line for both candidate and company. It’s about the balance between the pitfalls of just one person’s opinion vs. decision by committee (and therefore a very long hiring process).
Implementation manager is a role that has both a client relationship and technical aspects. Ask an experienced account manager to assess the former and someone from Product or Engineering the latter. That way each can focus and get the most out of a candidate in their area.
Towards more meaningful interview questions…
Odds are you’ve been through a few interviews by now, either as the interviewer or interviewee. In all likelihood, you can recall a time where you felt like you were answering a question that seemed irrelevant, or you were getting an answer from a candidate that felt like a theatre play.
The key to a great interview question is engaging the candidate in a conversation.
To achieve this, ask open questions (Who, When, How, Why, Where) or ask for examples. This will result in longer answers that will get a lot more value from.
“Do you have experience with software testing?” (bad) vs “What is your experience with software testing?” (good)
Use these questions to understand the person’s experience and decision-making. I have learned so many things from interviewing people!
The next most important thing: peeling the onion aka follow-up questions.
These mark the experts in their field and help the people with potential to stand out. Usually, if someone is trying to make up a story to pass off as if they have experience, they fall through on the 2nd or 3rd follow-up.
Pay attention to the person’s answer to your first big, overarching question and make notes of areas you’d like to question if it’s not appropriate to interject. That will make your follow-ups more appropriate to the answer, but here are some examples of more universal questions:
Why did they make the decision that they did?
What were other alternatives and why were they not viable?
How did things pan out?
What could be improved?
How did other people in the team take the decision?
How did they communicate with other people?
Lastly, be curious and inquisitive—not the inquisition!
Being aggressive in your questioning is a sign of a weak or insecure interviewer and it rarely gets the best out of candidates if you put on a “tough” stance. Unless that’s your company culture—at which point, please be as aggressive as needed so candidates know what they’re getting themselves into as early as possible!
…and away from bad habits
There are certain kinds of questions that people like to ask but, historically, have almost never worked.
Examples include “How many windows are there in Canary Wharf?”, or my personal favorite, “How many piano tuners are there in the Netherlands?” (a question I was genuinely asked in an interview that will forever remain with me).
These questions supposedly aim to check the person’s “problem-solving skills”. I had seen a piano perhaps twice in my life at that point, so had no idea how the tuning process works. However, I have plenty of friends with guitars and they just tune their own. So my response to that question was to ask back “Do you mean people who tune their own or professionals?”.
Apparently, the person really disliked my answer!
These kinds of questions make people put on a show and can also be very exclusive to people culturally. All they achieve is wasting precious interview time that can be used to ask better questions.
Give them a small scenario that they will face during their time in the role and ask them to walk you through how they will solve it. This is an example that is grounded in reality and will be more relatable to the candidate.
Example for a senior seller:
“How would you approach a new market, dominated by a couple of very established brands, with a new challenger brand very few are aware of?”.
This can spark a whole ideation session even!
“What is your starter Pokemon?” or “If you were an animal what animal would you be?“.
I wish I was making these up. The Pokemon question was from someone in an interview training session I ran recently who, quite bravely, came out and said that they ask everyone that question.
I asked why and he said, “I will know everything I need about them from that”. I am forever thankful that they admitted to this during the training so I could nip it in the bud. At this point, you may as well ask them their star signs!
I have played many video games but never Pokemon. Wonder what that says about me?
There is no better alternative to these. Move on and use your time to ask other more useful questions!
Sell me X
I will forever curse The Wolf of Wall Street for putting the “sell me this pen” question into people’s heads as some sort of a key to all sales
A recent alternative I came across during an interview was when I was asked to sell the company I was interviewing for. I am a recruiter and I’m expected to know more than what is on the website, which comes with actually working at the company. Otherwise, candidates can just read for themselves!
“Sell me your current product or your current company“. That way you can test their storytelling skills or their sales style with something they should be confident on.
“Tell me about yourself”. “Well I am from [insert country], I am a Pisces, I love swimming.”
Did I answer the question? – Yes. Will I get the job? Of course not.
Another example: “What problems can you solve for us” – What problems do you have?
“What are your weaknesses?” – This is a weak question!
Tell them about a problem you currently have and engage with them on this. Ask them a more guided question like “Tell me about your experience with X project”, picking something out of their CV.
An alternative to the weakness question is to ask about a time where they didn’t have success with something and what they learned as a result.
Why should we hire you?
Well this is what the interview is for, isn’t it?
Alternative View in case the above is too long (although I think the flavour is important above)
Bias to watch out for
While teaching bias training isn’t the purpose of this article, I did want to note down some of the biases that can pop up during interviews that we should all watch out for.
Halo Bias – they are from X company they must be good—are they? The same goes for universities.
Confirmation Bias – just because someone is from company X doesn’t mean they are great and their answers shouldn’t be peeled!
Authority Bias – the CEO or hiring manager has interviewed and approved this person and therefore they must be good. This is why I mentioned above that the CEO meeting every candidate is not the brag every start-up makes it out to be, especially when they have a veto. It basically boils down to one person making all the hiring decisions in the end.
Zero-Risk Bias – You will never eliminate ALL the risk from hiring someone. Don’t try to do so by having everyone meet with them and the candidate going through a thousand loops.
Do you have a standard starting list of questions to ask every candidate?
Is this list divided per interview and per interviewer?
Does each question have a specific purpose that connects back to the job description?
Do you have a few follow-up questions in mind?
One of the best ways to ensure a great candidate experience is to be prepared, so I’ve made a downloadable template for you to help break down your thinking for each interview and prepare yourself and your interviewing panel.
This form goes through questions one by one, especially questions the hiring manager is leaving to others in the interviewing panel to ask.
While this may seem long at first, soon you will do this instinctively and it is essential for everyone interviewing to be on the same page. Otherwise, you will be interviewing the same candidate for very different things and no one can be everything to everyone!
An interview doesn’t have to be a stand-off, you can get a lot more out of people by treating them like, well, people!
Make sure you extend the common courtesies throughout the interview that you might extend guests in your home and get curious about them as an individual.
Interviewing is your reward at the end of what can be a long and exhausting search, so enjoy it!