THE Interview Question That Tells You (Almost) Everything
Let me take you back to 2012. It was year three for us in the managed security services team at Mandiant. We were in the middle of our monthly team all-hands. There were nearly 50 people in the room. We’d already covered most of the innovation and operational topics. Next up: financial check-in.
We were in a bit of a dry spell from a financial standpoint. We were closing business, but new customers were not coming on at quite the clip we’d anticipated. We were about 12% behind our revenue targets. It was late in the year and in a subscription business it’s hard to catch up on revenue, so, “things looked grim for our heroes.”
I wrapped up delivering the bad news. I offered some thoughts about root causes, steps I’d be taking to improve our outlook, and clarifying that this shortfall was not creating any threat to jobs on the team. Then, “Any questions?”
Mike Scutt was sitting right next to the screen on the left. As one of our analysts, his job was to ferret out evil on our customers’ networks, determine how bad it was, and offer clear recommendations on next steps based on the characteristics of the threat. And he was damned good at it. He raised his hand. I braced for impact as I worried he was about to blame sales in the form of a question.
“What can I do to help?”
My heart grew three sizes that day. Shame on me for expecting less. I told that story to every executive at the company as an example of the kind of person we wanted to keep hiring. Someone who truly took ownership of any problem that came his way.
Hiring Beyond “The Job,” Hiring for Culture
You’ve heard hiring is the most important decision a leader makes. But whatshould we be hiring for? Sure, I wanted to make sure folks we hired could dothe job… but more than that, I wanted to make sure they loved what they did every day, felt like it mattered, had the opportunity to excel, and ideally felt as much ownership for the business as I did.
All of this means, when it came down to hiring — regardless of the role I was hiring for, I was evaluating candidates against the following four criteria:aptitude & skills, motivation, passion, and a set of core values tied into the culture I wanted the organization to take on over time. Specifically:
- Personal Accountability. We try to see what we did wrong first, or what we can do to fix it, before trying to assign blame elsewhere.
- Personal Growth. We have an insatiable desire to learn.
- High Candor. If something’s amiss, we expect people to call it out.
- Leaders Delegate & Listen. We believe people closest to the problem come up with the best solutions.
Struggling with what core values you want to focus on, or what culture you want to build? If you’re the kind of person that likes examples, consider the infamous Netflix Corporate Culture deck, or the HubSpot Culture Code. Then, to temper your enthusiasm, read Dan Lyon’s excerpt from “Disrupted” titled My Year In Startup Hell. Take what you think will work for you and your organization and leave the rest behind.
Interviewing With Culture in Mind
Our hiring process was pretty conventional, on the surface. We wrote a job description — but took extra time to make sure it came across like a human wrote it. And we focused more on what candidates would get out of the position then what our demands were as a company. We’d then follow up with a phone screen and, if things went well, an in-person interview.
The in-person interview was fairly typical, featuring behavioral questions. The phone screen was anything but typical. And it was during this phone screen that we asked THE question that, in my cases, answered all others.
The phone screens we conducted lasted anywhere from 15 minutes (if it was quickly obvious there wasn’t going to be a fit) to an hour. Every phone screen followed seven steps.
Step 1: Verify the Basics (~1 minute)
“Hi, this is [Interviewer] from [Organization]. I believe [Scheduler] set up a phone screen for us for the next forty-five minutes to an hour for a [Job Role] position. Do I have that right — and is this still a good time?”
Wires get crossed. Save yourself time by making sure these tiny details are all correct up front. Usually your candidate will validate all of the above and be ready for the call. Once in a while though there will have been an administrative error or something just recently has impacted the candidate’s schedule and they’ll appreciate a way out.
Step 2: Set the Agenda (~2 minutes)
“Great, glad to hear it. As an agenda I’d like to start with some introductions. I’ll walk you through my background so you know who you’re talking to and then I’ll ask you to reciprocate. In fact, I’d appreciate if you could walk me through your history in some detail — What were the major events or turning points that have shaped your career? Likewise, for each transition from one job role to another or from one company to another… what was it about the place you were leaving that motivated the move? What attracted you to the new role or company? That may lead to a few follow up questions I have, and I’ll want to make sure I leave some time for you to ask me questions as well. Finally, as a wrap up I’ll set your expectations about next steps and timelines. How does that sound?”
This step speaks for itself, and to date I have never heard any response substantively different than “That sounds great.”
Step 3: Tell Your Story and Lead in to Theirs (~8 minutes)
My story starts “As I mentioned earlier, my name is Yanek and I’m a foreign service brat. I was born in India and moved every 3 to 4 years growing up.” I continue by walking through my educational history, what I majored in & why. I describe why my first internship made it clear I’d not be using my Computer Science degree in any significant way over the long term. I talk about my brief stint at my first job, what caused me to run away and what I did in my subsequent roles: again focusing on major themes or events that prompted my transitions.
This sort of story will lead naturally into how you got to the role you’re in today and the circumstances that prompted you to hire for this position. With that background, it’s straightforward to close out with, “and that’s why we’re on the phone today! Ok, enough about me. Spend about fifteen minutes and tell me more about your background… and again, I’m very interested in anything you feel really had an impact on your career path and especially as you changed jobs: what motivated you to leave and what you found attractive about the new role.” (This is THE question — and, fair point, it’s not really a question.)
The cadence you take telling your story should inform the cadence your candidate uses in telling theirs. Try to avoid being rushed: it will be hard for the candidate to keep up, they’ll rush through their background assuming you’re just trying to get it over with, and you’ll each get a lot less value out of the conversation. Pay special attention to the candidates ability to manage his or her own time: candidates that can effectively summarize within an allotted time constraint are stronger communicators.
Step 4: Listen and Take Notes (~15 minutes)
At this point, after I’ve asked THE question, I typically hit mute because I’m starting to type furiously on the keyboard. As the candidate’s story unfolds,take notes. Interrupt only when the situation is dire: for instance, if the line cuts out for 10 seconds or more. In any other situation, make a note of what part of the story you missed and come back to it later. Also, take notes.
Be prepared to hit mute again at a drop of a hat though: if something the candidate says evokes a response (a laugh, a sound of affirmation, etc) the candidate should hear it. It’ll reinforce you’re listening. Miss your cue? It’s okay to apologize and explain you’d muted so the candidate didn’t have to listen to your clickety keyboard. You’ll prove you were paying attention shortly.
This is by far the most important part of the interview process and where you’ll get the vast majority of insight into your candidate. By having them walk through their career histories in this way, you’ll often get several, and maybe even all, of your prepared interview questions answered without having to even ask them. Cross those questions off your list now. Plus you’ll have time set aside afterwards to fill in any gaps.
Can you guess how I ‘remember’ my conversations with Ed and Paul above?Notes.
Step 5: Thank You, Reactions & Follow-Up Questions (~15 minutes)
“Thank you for sharing that background. It’s extremely helpful.” There’s a good chance the candidate will be tired of talking at this point, so, ad-lib. Was there anything about the candidate’s story you found particularly interesting? Do any situations he or she described remind you of your own past? Feel free to comment briefly… long enough for the candidate to catch their breath and take a sip of water.
Your first set of follow-up questions should close any gaps in the story. Is there a gap in the resume the candidate didn’t explain? Did you not entirely understand something the candidate felt was important? Make sure that for every job transition you understand what they didn’t like about the job they were leaving and what they found attractive about the role they were switching into. Did they assess correctly? Take the time to get clarity.
Be cautious with your time. Make sure you leave at least fifteen minutes of scheduled time for subsequent steps. If you’re running close it’s okay to ask for an extension, but don’t assume the interviewer’s time is at your disposal. It’s just disrespectful.
Step 6: Turning the Tables on the Interviewer (~15 minutes)
At this point, there’s been enough interrogation. Reinforce your appreciation for the candidate’s willingness to engage thus far and prompt for questions. Strong candidates will have several. Take note of the questions asked, they’ll help you assess what the candidate truly cares about.
Step 7: Wrap-Up and Expectation Setting (~2 minutes)
That’s it! You’re almost done. Thank the candidate again for their time and patience with your interview process and describe briefly your organization’s process from this point. For candidates that do well, there is typically a follow-up in person interview. Set the candidates expectations as to how long he or she will have to wait to hear whether or not there will be one. To the extent possible, strive to keep this turnaround to two business days or less.
And of course, follow through & follow up to make sure it happens. Setting & meeting expectations is critical to building trust.
When it comes to articles about hiring people, most guidance stops about here. “Follow this process to improve your hiring success rate.” The problem is, the mechanics of the process will only take you so far. A perfect recipe and cooking process won’t result in as delicious a meal if you start with poor quality ingredients. So, it’s important to know how to differentiate a good apple from a bad one — or better expressed, how to choose a honeycrisp apple instead of a granny smith apple because you prefer your apple pie a little less tart.
Looking at the results of your interview through the lens of the four criteria above will help you better assess your candidates and their ability to succeed at your organization. And that is the focus of Part II.
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