The Interview and the job – a 4 part series

First appeared in ‘Career Times’ (Hong Kong.)

In a short series of articles I’ll take you through some of the techniques and skills required to interview, be interviewed and handle that first day in a new post once you’ve passed the interview.

The first part looks at a technique used to give some structure to the interview and some………….

1. THE BEHAVIOURAL INTERVIEWING APPROACH

Behavioural interviewing is based on the belief that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The best way to gauge if a person is going to perform well in a new job is to look at the way they have performed in their current and previous posts. I agree. How could you not? Especially when you look at the alternatives;

Alternative approach – stress

“The stress interview sorts the wheat from the chaff. Put people in a stressful interview and you’ll see what they’re like in a stressful job”. Oh yes. That’ll work then. Why not pull a gun on them and be done with.

A friend of mine was once asked how he would deal with someone who had raped his sister. This was for a job at the bank. The idea, I believe was to try and establish how he would react under stress.

He replied; “Well hypothetically I would put this fact out of my mind. I would treat each occasion as objectively as possible not allowing my feelings to impair my judgement. I would make no assumptions. I would attempt to love and respect this person as an individual. I would try to understand where they were coming from. I would treat each situation on its own merits…” You get the point. You ask hypothetical questions you get hypothetical answers. You put people under stress at an interview they react like they would if they were put under stress at an interview. It doesn’t translate to life outside the interview room.

Focus on the job. Ask questions about the work people are likely to be doing. Don’t ask hypothetical questions or you’ll get hypothetical answers

So what can you do? Well if you have to conduct an interview then do it properly. Tell candidates what’s going to happen. Tell them what areas you’ll be discussing. Tell them how long they’ve got. Don’t surprise people. If there’s a position as a System’s Analyst – ask them questions about that. You wouldn’t interview a nanny for your children and ask them questions on thermo-nuclear dynamics would you? Would you? Yet people get asked some odd things? I was asked how I would resolve the miner’s strike when I first applied for a computer programmer’s job. Other stories abound about “killer questions” – “Do fish feel pain?” was a classic some time ago. “If a mother and a baby were drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose” I was asked a very long time ago. With a little more life experience my answer now would seem to be along the following lines;

“Neither”

“Neither – then they’d both die?”

“Good”

“That’s stupid!”

“Well you started it”

No trick questions. Focus on the skills necessary to carry out the post. Be honest with people and show them respect- the interview is about them, not you

Look at the skills required for the job, look at the candidates – match them up. Choose the candidate who’s the best fit. The older I get the easier (some parts of) life gets. I know this is easier said than done. I agree, but it’s a lot easier than playing some convoluted game that only interview panel members know the rules to.

Match the skills for the job with the skills the interviewee has

It all starts a long time before the interview. Way before the advert goes out. As soon as there’s a thought about a job being available it begins. Define the job. Spell out the skills needed. Advertise these. Send out application forms that are helpful to this process, please. Ask candidates to supply examples they have gathered of them displaying the skills. Don’t ask for a set of six skills and send a form out that relates to other skills – “It’s our standard form” Personnel will say. Argue. Disagree. Refuse. Send out forms related to the job -it will save you so much grief in the long run.

Evaluate the forms matching the evidence (past behaviours) against the job (current criteria). At the interview you should merely have to fill in the gaps, or build on the examples, or (with any luck) choose between well-qualified candidates.

Approach the task strategically from day one. Focus on the skills required for the job and gear everything towards that

It’s as simple as that. It seems so easy it almost feels like cheating I know. Once you’ve established this system though the real skill comes in the interviewing – translating what they say to match with the job. More on that next time……..

*****.

In the last article I looked at the basic structure for the behavioural interviewing approach. If you recall the main premise of this was that the best predictor of future performance was past behaviour. I.e. if you’ve demonstrated proven management skills in the past the chances are you will be able to perform at that level in the next job. It sounds easy however life has a way of making things complicated. Which is why you need….

2. BEHAVIOURAL INTERVIEWING SKILLS

Preparation

The first part, unsurprisingly, is all about preparation. It’s such a management cliché that preparation is everything. It’s not – you have to have skills as well, as I’ll deal with later – but preparation certainly makes the job a great deal easier.

The relationship between board members is vital.

One aspect of the preparation that doesn’t get enough attention is the relationship between board members. In many Organisations it’s felt that you can put any three experienced people on an interview panel and it will automatically work. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that; people are a bit like me and you – we’re odd – we have likes, dislikes, and different ways of working, different styles. Board members do not, necessarily have to like each other, although this does help. What is important however is that they all have the same focus – selecting the best candidate for the job. They mustn’t be in the game of scoring points, showing off, proving how clever they are or any of that egoistically nonsense. We’ve all seen that and it doesn’t help anyone. The first interview I was ever involved in was conducted with a senior manager who had to a ninety second preamble to each question explaining, well basically, how experienced an clever he was. He annoyed me, the chair and every candidate – yet as he had ‘always’ interviewed trainee managers no-one had the skill / intelligence / courage to tell him.

Agree a system

An important role of the board team is to agree on a system of questioning. They need to divide the competence areas they are looking at and take responsibility for assessing their particular area. This part is usually straightforward. There is another – less straightforward aspect which is concerned with how board members work with each other.

Agree how you’ll work together

The board members should agree a set of values. These values are rarely spoken but seem to evolve as the interviewing process evolves. The values should be aligned to the focus – selecting the best candidate for the job. In real terms this means a great deal of trust and respect between board members. It means that there is an implicit agreement that one interviewer can use the majority of the time allocated to deal with one particular area because they feel it’s vital. It means that one interviewer can (skilfully) interrupt another interviewer if they feel the question hasn’t been dealt with clearly, or there is still some ambiguity. This requires a mature approach and real honest discussion between board members. As you know this doesn’t always happen. I’ve sat on boards where people have sulked for hours because they believed another member had “stolen” all their questions.

The interview

As I say if you’ve carried out all the preparation the interview is a lot easier – but still incredibly difficult.

There is a great many theories around about first impressions. They vary in the amount of time people make a decision (somewhere between 10 seconds and 3 minutes, seems to be accepted) but this is important. Studies concerned with interview suggest that interviewers frequently decide very early on if a candidate is suitable or not and spend the rest of the interview confirming their initial impression. This is a danger to be aware of. Another potential danger is for the interviewer to choose the candidate who’s most like them. Being aware of this helps reduce the risk of this, as does having different personalities on the board.

The key aspects to behavioural interviewing however are asking the right questions and listening to the replies.

Throughout the interview the interviewers has to get as much evidence as they can about the candidate’s previous experience. Let’s look at a vital aspect- listening. You have to concentrate so intently – you’ll feel absolutely worn out at the end of each day.

The reason you’re so tired is the listening. This listening really takes it out of you. It is hard to listen – especially in an interview. Lots of things can get in the way; disagreeing for example – an interview isn’t really an occasion to have a debate with the candidate about your preferred method of approaching some controversial issue – You’re there to evaluate their approach, how they communicate, how they meet the criteria, etc.. So unless they say something so radically off the wall then try not to let it get in the way.

Thinking will also stop you listening. I don’t mean the sensible thinking about what’s being said and assessing the candidate – I’m more concerned with the thinking as you look out of the window and wonder” I wonder what time I’ll be home tonight”, or, especially for newer interviewers, thinking about the next question. Anticipating where they’re going with the answer will get in the way too.

What helps the listening process immensely is being able to totally focus on the interviewee and give them your full attention. Paraphrasing and summarising will help with this. It allows you to control the interview and once it becomes automatic for you it allows you time to think about that next question.

Paraphrasing is just about repeating the essence of what the interviewer has said in your own words. As you do this it highlights any gaps. You can then ask to fill in those gaps.

On vital aspect is to look at the other person as much as you sensibly, can. Look for the discrepancy between what they are saying and their body language. A lot has been written about body language but for me it boils down to the words matching the body. Sometimes you just know when these don’t match. The truly skilled interviewers learn to acknowledge this inconsistency and check it out. It may not be true – there may well be a great reason they’re folding their arms in a ‘defensive’ manner – they may just be cold. Don’t ignore these signals

*****

3. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE

Last time we looked at some of the skills needed when interviewing. This time we’ll put you on the other side of the table. These are some of the things you need to think about when you want to land that big job.

Getting experience of interviewing other people is a great asset here. The more you interview the easier it is to be interviewed. You know what people want and you can concentrate on trying to give them exactly what they need.

There are some practical measures you can take that should help;

Investigate

Firstly find out as much as you possibly can about the job. Find out about the Organisation you’re going to work for (if it is a move outside your current post). Find out about the people who will be interviewing you. If it’s an internal promotion this will be easier. Nevertheless find out as much as you can about them – what are their particular pet projects at the moment. There’s no guarantee this will crop up at the interview but it certainly won’t do you any harm to find out that one of the people interviewing you is working on a project concerning pensions. You may well start looking at pensions in a bit more detail.

Study the paperwork

Look carefully at all the paperwork. When you submit a CV or application form keep a copy of that. Keep a copy of the job description and any other paperwork related to it. You know that the people interviewing you only have this information about you. So, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself “If I were reading this what questions would I ask?” Where are the gaps? What are the strengths? What stands out on the form? If you’ve worked for a year in a betting office in England (as I did) you know they are going to ask about that so be prepared. Be sure that you know your application form or CV inside out and can explain anything you’ve written down. Work through it line by line if necessary and think of one example to back up each quality you describe. If you’ve said that you’re a sensitive manager but focused on getting results then show it. Think of an example where you’ve had to demonstrate your sensitivity. Prepare for someone asking that question. Also think of an example when you’ve had to focus on results. It’s what you would do if you were interviewing isn’t it? – look for evidence to back up the paperwork. Give the interviewers what they want. In most companies people are looking for good candidates they can trust to do a good job. Interview boards rarely look ‘off the wall’ radical thinking individuals – there are exceptions of course – they tend to come up with a group decision that is frequently very conservative. This “groupthink” can be very dangerous in that all members of a group will tend to look for a unanimous decision on candidates rather than taking a chance. As the person being interviewed you need to be aware of this and ‘safe and controlled’ seems to be the best approach.

You will know all the basic practical details – arrive on time, dress appropriately, etc. so let’s look at some ‘advanced’ scenarios.

A new theory for preparation

There is an interesting theory going around about preparing yourself mentally for interviews or examinations. The theory states that you should prepare for the interview at the same time of the day for several days in advance. The theory being that your body becomes accustomed to ‘turning on’ at that particular time. I’ve yet to see some evidence of the success or otherwise, but it’s certainly an interesting theory. Try it.

Surprises

However, even prepared yourself as well as you can, will still give you the odd surprise. Recent trends in progressive Organisations go beyond the standard skills, behavioural techniques I’ve described. Yes, you’ve still got to get past this aspect but (and I suspect it’s linked to the ‘groupthink’ scenarios organisations are increasingly looking for something new to challenge you at an interview.

This could be an ‘off-the-wall’ question along the lines of “What is your philosophy of life?” The idea is for you to demonstrate how well you think on your feet.

So what do you do? The first think you do is to take a deep breathe and don’t panic. You can even acknowledge that that has taken you by surprise, if it has. Take a few seconds to consider your answer then answer the question as honestly as you can.

Be yourself

Another technique is to take the candidate to lunch to see how they interact with others in a social setting. You can’t really prepare for the unexpected. All you can do is to expect the unexpected and to deal with each situation as honestly and authentically as you can. Candidates often try to give the interviewers the answers they think the interviewers want to hear. More often than not interviewers want to hear about the candidates’ beliefs and opinions. At the end of the day it’s surely better to fail an interview by being yourself that to fail it because you were trying to be someone else.

Next time we’ll assume you’ve got the position and then the real test comes – meeting your new team, colleagues for the first time…..

*****

4. YOUR FIRST DAY IN YOUR NEW JOB

You’ve got through the interview after great preparation, watching out for those surprises and being honest. So now you’ve landed the job. Maybe it’s your first managerial job and you’ve finally got real-life problems (or people as we call them) to deal with. You’ve got staff. They’re older than you. They’re wiser than you. They know far more about the Organisation than you. They may even be resentful that someone as young as you have landed the job they wanted. But you want to do a good job, so you’ll learn.

Preparation

The learning comes well before the first day – before the interview even. You’ve prepared for the interview, learnt a lot about the Organisation now you’ve got the job. So, you learn even more. If you’re new to the Organisation it’s more difficult, in some ways. It’s more difficult to find out about individuals – who you’re working for, with and against but on the other hand you can approach it with an open mind. If you’re from outside or inside find out as much as you can. Find out as much as you can about the culture, the customers, the employees. Find out about your team – personalities, problems, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses. Ask fellow managers. I know the information will be second hand. Treat it as that. You’ll have your own opinions in a few weeks anyway. Use it for what it is – other peoples’ perceptions.

Identify the key people

Try to find out who the real key players are. I don’t mean the people who look as though they have the power from Organisation charts I mean the real key players. Many years ago I was training to be a teacher. The best advice I ever had was from the final lecture. The lecturer, a world-wise owl, asked us;

“Who do you think is the most important person in a school?”

“The headmaster or headmistress”, we sang in unison.

“Not usually”, he answered “The key people are often the caretakers. They have a lot of power and control. So do secretaries and deputy head teachers. Keep on the good side of these” were his final words of advice.”

In an office it’s frequently Personal Assistants. Keep on the right side of these and you find you’ll be able to get that quick meeting with the bosses that others can’t.

Be honest

Think carefully about what you want from the job. Spend some time thinking about you. What do you want from this experience? What’s your vision for the next six months, two years, ten years? Get it clear in your own mind. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests that the clearer it is to you the more likely it is to happen. If you don’t know where you’re going how on earth do you expect your team to know?

People will be looking to you to set the standard. If you spend three hours in work a day surfing the ‘net you’ll have serious credibility issues reprimanding someone for doing the same. During your first few months in the post you’ve got to display zero-tolerance. If someone breaks the rules you need to address it. You cannot let things go. Your staff will test you, and look to see how far they can push you. Not in any malicious way (hopefully) but because they’re human and so are you and they need to learn about you – your style, your values.

Symbolic gestures

This is also a great time for making symbolic gestures. These needn’t be huge, life changing decisions but people will be looking to you to do something – that’s why you were hired. As a newcomer it is perfect for you to spot things. You can, and must ask those naive questions such as “Why do you do that like that?” and listen to the answers. If the answers are “We’ve always done it this way” then this is a great chance for you to change it – if it could be done better. The early decisions you make will have an enormous effect on your reputation for a long time. Be aware of this and use the first few weeks, months carefully.

Get the balance right

However painful it may be you, you are the boss. You make that final decision. It’s especially difficult if you’ve been promoted from within the team and have to manage colleagues but… well that’s the job. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t socialise with your staff. There is a school of thought that feels it’s not the done think to socialise with your staff. I’ve known some of these people and as soon as they were promoted they stopped socialising with people they had socialised with for years. The reasons given were along the lines of;”I don’t want to get close in case I have to discipline them”. I sometimes wonder if these people make their children eat in a separate room at home for the same reason. Get the balance right.

It’s all about people

The quality of the work the team produces is directly related to the quality of the relationships within that team. As the leader you are responsible for this happening. How? By doing everything you need to. People are different – get to know what makes them tick. You do this by talking and listening – a lot of listening. Talk to your people everyday. Every morning talk to a good number, if not all of them. Listen when they tell you about their kids, their cats, their football team. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, well that’s unfortunate. This is a skill you need to learn. It’s as much a part of your job as managing the finances.

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