5 Interview Practices to Hire Superstars

Most managers say that they know how important it is to have the right people on their staff, but many of them don’t act accordingly when it comes to how they interview and hire people.

And let’s be clear: The impact of hiring the right people is huge. We’re not talking about small gains in productivity and effectiveness. We’re talking about massive, startling gains! Research from a range of fields shows that high performers can outpace lower performers by factors of five times or more. In other words, one high performer can have the same impact as five average performers.

So hiring the right person makes a huge difference – and hiring the wrong person can hold you back tremendously. And that means that how you interview and hire people is key to what kind of team you’re going to have.

How, then, can you find and hire superstars? Here are five hiring practices that will help you identify the people who will contribute the most to your work.

1. Get clear on what you really need

Too often when they’re hiring, managers forget to distinguish between what the “must-have” qualities and skills are for the role and what are simply “nice-to-have” but not essential. For instance, managers will often over-value experience using a particular type of software, even if it could be quickly picked up by the right person, or they’ll reject a candidate for being overly shy when being an extrovert has nothing to do with the ability to perform the job well.

When you’re figuring out what you really need in a role, it’s especially important to pay attention to what qualities tend to be inherent (you either have it or you don’t) versus what can be taught or developed. Underlying talents like strong writing, work ethic, meticulousness, or an ability to build strong interpersonal relationships are difficult to teach, so if they’re important to the job, they should go on your “must have” list. But on the other hand, more specific skills or knowledge – like mastery of a particular software or knowledge of your industry– can often be picked up along the way, particularly when more inherent traits like critical thinking are in place.

2. Focus on the actual, not the hypothetical

Are your interview questions just grazing the surface, or are you taking the time to really probe how well a candidate will do in the job? Many interviewers stick with superficial questions and don’t get beneath the surface to find out how a candidate really operates. It’s the difference between “What were your responsibilities in that job?” and “Tell me about a time when you got results someone else might not have been able to.”

To ask good questions, the principle you want to keep in mind is this:  The best way to predict how candidates will act in the future is to find out how they have actually acted in the past, or to observe how they act in the present. So you want to avoid questions that focus on hypothetical situations, like asking how a candidate thinks she would handle a particular situation.

For instance, if you’re hiring an assistant and want to figure out whether a candidate will be able to juggle multiple tasks efficiently, don’t ask questions like “How do you think you would stay on top of everything?” or worse yet, “Do you think you could handle the volume?” Those types of questions won’t get you useful information; the first tests for critical thinking more than actual efficiency, and the second tests whether the candidate has enough common sense to say, “Yes, of course.”

Instead, better questions would be things like: “How much volume did you have to handle in your last job? How did you stay on top of it all? Tell me about a time when the volume was at its peak. What did you do?”

3. See candidates in action

If you’ve hired people before, you know the terrible feeling of realizing after just a few weeks with a new hire that she’s not going to cut it. But while hiring will never be an exact science, there is a way to minimize hiring mistakes: having candidates simulate activities similar to what they’d be doing on the job before you hire them.

A colleague of mine compares this to being a football coach holding tryouts:  You wouldn’t ask a player whether he could make a tackle, you’d ask to see him do it!

So for instance, if you need a communications director who can write quickly under pressure, you could give your top candidates a set of talking points and give them 30 minutes to draft a press release. Or if you want a CFO who can explain financial matters in simple terms, you could send candidates your financial statements ahead of time and ask them to explain them back to you in plain language during the interview.

4. Put candidates at ease

If you have an intimidating, high-pressure interview style, you might be doing yourself a disservice.  Ideally, you should do everything that you can to put candidates at ease throughout the hiring process, because if they’re relaxed, you’ll get a better sense of who they really are. After all, you want to find out what candidates are like day-to-day, not what they’re like in an anxiety-producing interview. So unless the position requires the ability to perform in a hostile or pressure-filled situation, be warm and friendly and try to help candidates who seem nervous or tense to relax.

5. … But don’t allow your desire to be nice to get in the way of doing a good interview

While you do want to put candidates at ease, make sure not to allow a desire to be nice to prevent you from digging as much as you need to in order to get a really clear sense of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be shy about asking follow-up questions or for clarification about a candidate’s role in a team achievement. And if something doesn’t make sense to you, keep probing until it does.

Pushing as much as it takes to get the details is key to making an accurate assessment … and besides, good candidates will appreciate challenging questions.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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