5 Tips For “Reining In” Talkative Candidates

One of the most frequent pain points I hear from hiring managers and interviewers involves dealing with candidates who, frankly, talk too much. It may sound trivial, but this is a widespread problem that can significantly impact your ability to assess candidates effectively.

Imagine yourself sitting across the table from an otherwise compelling candidate who is full of energy and enthusiasm. Their prior job experiences are spot-on, and they received glowing recommendations from a trusted colleague who worked with them in a prior role. You are eager to learn more about them, and you are prepared with a thoughtful, well-scoped interview guide. You ask your first question to get the ball rolling, and they start talking. And talking. And talking. You want to follow up on an interesting point, but they are already on to their next side-story. 15 minutes have passed, and you are not even on to your second question. Where did it all go wrong? What do we do now?

It is, of course, tempting to simply write off a candidate who can’t offer succinct responses, particularly if the role requires strong verbal communication skills and interpersonal acuity. This may very well be the right decision, especially if the behavior is pronounced and if you have made an earnest effort to rein them in. But sometimes it’s not that simple—I have seen many situations where an overly talkative candidate went on to perform brilliantly in the new role, and the issue was merely one of nerves. I have also observed many interviewers who were actually enabling this behavior through a lack of rapport and interpersonal engagement. The candidate was essentially filling a void in the room because the interviewer lacked the assertiveness needed to keep things on track.

There are 5 techniques I use to help keep the conversation focused, and nip over-talking issues in the bud.

1. Set Expectations

When kicking off the interview, let the candidate know up-front that there is a lot that you are excited to cover with them, and that you are aware that time is limited. You can even ask their permission to nudge or interrupt them every now and then to ensure you leave plenty of time for their questions at the end. That way, the candidate understands the need to be succinct before you’ve needed to call them out (i.e., before they have done anything wrong), and you are doing it for their own benefit. This approach is especially useful if your recruiters or other members of the interviewing team have informed you that this person might be a challenge.

2. Interrupt frequently...but enthusiastically!

In the course of a typical CEO assessment, I may interrupt a candidate 10, 20 or more times. And I don’t mean apologetic, “if-you-don’t-mind-me-jumping-in” kind of interruptions—I mean bold, unabashed, talking-over-them kinds of interruptions. What is fascinating is that most candidates are not even aware that it is happening, because my interruptions come from a place of deep curiosity and enthusiasm. My face and my words essentially communicate, “I am so interested in your story that I can’t help myself!” This approach requires building very strong rapport with the candidate, which can only stem from legitimate interest in who they are as a human being. It can’t be faked! But when that rapport is strong, interruptions are relatively effortless.

3. Use the “W” face

In an in-person or video-based interview, I have found that the single most effective way to get a candidate to let you jump in is to simply purse your lips in a “W” shape, as if you are about to ask a “What” question. Humans are programmed to interpret this unique mouth-shape as an indication that the other person is about to ask a question. Try it out! Next time you are talking to a friend, simply purse your lips—and, for extra credit, tilt your head slightly while raising your hand a few inches. In the English-speaking world, this pattern of movements is a near-universal sign that the other person wants to ask a question, and it does not require anything more than a visual cue.

4. Use the “Sss” sound

If it’s a phone interview, the W face (and associated head/hand movements) obviously won’t get you very far. What you need is a subtle sound that accomplishes the same goal of indicating your desire to interject. Over the course of hundreds of phone interviews, I have found that the “Sss” sound is by far the most effective, because this higher-frequency sound tends to be clearer and more audible over most phone connections. I use the “Sss” sound as a precursor for the word “So,” as in, “Sss...so what did you...” Again, try this out the next time you are on the phone with a talkative person. The other party should be able to hear this sound clearly, even when talking, and most will take it as a cue to let you interject.  

5. If all else fails, cut them off, and blame the clock

This is not a technique to use wantonly, because it requires a minor (though temporary) breach of interpersonal rapport. If you have critical questions you need to cover, and time is running dangerously short, try raising your open hand or giving a very polite “time out” signal. This is a more direct way to stop another person from talking, and it may initially catch them off guard. Therefore, it is critical to follow this up with an apology. Try something like the following: “I am so sorry to cut you off. I just looked at the clock and realized we only have [X] minutes left! My apologies. I really want to make sure I get to a few more questions I had for you, and also make sure you have time to ask your questions as well. Here’s a suggestion—let me run through these next questions, and perhaps we can start with the HEADLINE, and if it makes sense to dive deeper, we can do that. Does that work for you?” At this point, the candidate has received a clear but non-threatening signal from you, and they are likely to take the hint.

Once you build comfort with these techniques, you will greatly increase the amount of information you can cover in an interview, and reduce over-talking issues by 80% or more. There may still be challenges from time to time, of course. But if you have used these approaches diligently, you can confidently conclude that the problem lies with the candidate, and not with your inability to manage the dialogue effectively.

When And How To Take Risks On A Candidate

No candidate selection process can deliver a 100% success rate—even world class assessors make mistakes from time to time. As long as we are dealing with human beings, we will never achieve a goal of error-free hiring. Mistakes are painful, of course, but we must be prepared for this inevitability. The critical point is knowing when to take greater risk, and equipping your organization to address hiring mistakes efficiently and appropriately.

Some organizations I work with have felt the pain of mis-hires more acutely than others, and it’s usually very clear to me when I am dealing with one that is feeling a lot of that pain. The entire hiring process carries an air of risk aversion. The sourcing approach focuses on “tried and true” talent pools at the expense of innovation and diversity. Qualification lists grow longer and interview lineups expand to 8, 10 or more interviews per candidate. Questions are oriented towards minimizing downside risk rather than uncovering the seeds of greatness. And often, the companies that are most risk-averse are the ones that simply can’t or won’t address the mistakes they have made.

While it is critical to take steps to minimize the risks of mis-hires, it is foolish to allow this mandate to dominate your process—particularly if you are growing rapidly. You may achieve your goal of “no bad hires” but fail to achieve the full potential of your business because you are either (1) perpetually understaffed or (2) overly focused on “safe” hires rather than transformational ones.

There are three principles that can help your organization strike the right balance. The first involves getting clarity on where you can safely embrace more risk, and where you should not. As a general rule, mis-hires are more painful as you move up the management chain. Taking a flyer on a senior executive is likely to be a much riskier proposition than a front-line employee, given the potential for employee attrition and cultural conflicts. Also, it may make more sense to avoid knee-jerk rejections in a “thinner” or more competitive labor pool than in a deep one. False negatives—rejecting an individual who may very well have succeeded—can be enormously costly in some situations (e.g. experienced data scientists) and lower cost in others (e.g. marketing associates coming out of college). Finally, it may make more sense to take risks in areas where individual performance is easier to measure quickly (e.g. sales roles with clear quotas), or where individuals can build skills and improve performance over time.

  • Recommendation #1: when building your spec/Target for a new role, assign the role two quantitative ratings: (1) cost of a mis-hire and (2) cost of a false negative (rejecting a candidate who may have been successful). If (1) is relatively high and (2) is relatively low, maintain an exceptionally high bar. If it’s the reverse, consider embracing greater risk.

The second principle involves your selection and decision-making process. When you establish the results and competencies required in the role, get clear on which items represent strict thresholds and which represent more of a “sliding scale.” For example, if you have a strong culture around radical transparency and honesty, you may be unwilling to take even a slight risk on a candidate who expresses defensiveness about his/her shortcomings, while viewing another skill area (perhaps proven ability to multi-task) with more open-mindedness.

  • Recommendation #2: decide which results and competencies are absolutely essential, and establish clear threshold/minimum ratings of candidates in those areas. Do not compromise! For less essential results or competencies, consider candidates who may fall slightly below the mark on one, but who show clear signs of greatness in others.

The third principle involves how you onboard new hires. Some organizations are better-equipped to deal with mis-hires than others, without question. Why? Because they are able to “fire fast”—to part ways with marginal candidates in a transparent and supportive manner. The single most effective way to build this discipline is to clearly communicate expectations from the start, and to track the new hire’s performance vigorously thereafter. Doing so will prepare new hires—and you—to make performance management discussions far more painless. New hires will know what you expect and will know when they are missing the mark.

  • Recommendation #3: prior to the new hire’s start date, include a thorough debrief in which you share the specific results they are accountable for and the qualities you need them to exhibit. Check in with them at an appropriate time—perhaps at the 2 month point—to gauge progress. If they are falling behind the mark, provide coaching and support. If their performance continues to lag expectations thereafter, discuss the gap openly, and support them in finding a new role in your company or elsewhere.

It is essential to maintain a high bar in your hiring process, of course. But creating a process that is exclusively focused on “zero risk” can threaten both your hiring targets and your pursuit of intellectual and demographic diversity. Great companies are able to strike a healthy balance, understanding where they can and cannot embrace risk, and creating a process that addresses mis-hires in an efficient and fundamentally humane manner.

Divide And Conquer: Better Hiring Decisions Through TRUST

Let’s say you are about to buy a large, multi-tenant investment property in a major city, and there are several competing bidders in the mix. You have only one hour to bring in your team of five inspectors to examine the building. Which approach would you take:

  • “Five Competing Opinions.” Each inspector rushes through the building top-to-bottom in one hour, bumping into each other, attempting to quickly inspect every element and coming to his or own independent conclusion on the overall quality of the property. The five inspectors each cast their vote and then debate endlessly about who got it right.

  • “Divide and Conquer.” Each inspector devotes a full hour to a specific aspect of the property's design and construction (e.g. plumbing, electricity, foundation, roofing, etc.), in accordance with the areas where they are deepest and most calibrated. The inspectors pool their individual deep-dive data as a group and make a decision on the collective body of evidence. Each inspector has an opportunity to review, and incorporate, all of the detailed feedback that each "expert" gathered individually.

Traditional hiring processes are like the “five competing opinions” approach. We ask each hiring team member to interview the candidate independently, and make a hire/no-hire decision or “vote” based on this single interaction with the candidate. This forces each interviewer to attempt to make a comprehensive go/no-go decision on a candidate in an hour or less. As a professional assessor for over 10 years, I can assure you this is nearly impossible! We end up with three problems as a result—(1) nobody was able to go deep into any given area, (2) the candidate was frustrated and unimpressed with the redundant questions, and (3) we come to our debates defending our own narrow opinion rather than trusting and utilizing the data that our colleagues gathered. This final risk is perhaps the most insidious, and can lead to major internal frictions. I call it the “personal data bias.” It’s essentially a manifestation of a psychological concept called the availability heuristic, which says that the information that is most available/retrievable is the most reliable. In other words, I tend to trust my read on a candidate more than yours, because I don’t have direct access to information you gathered.

The best-run hiring processes are all about “dividing and conquering,” sharing information, and coming to a decision as a group. We have only a short amount of time to get to know a complex human being, so why should we spend this precious time duplicating efforts, annoying the candidate and ignoring the data that our colleagues gathered? Instead, let’s each focus on specific facets of the role in question—for example, one of us goes deep on intellectual capacity through problem solving interviews, another goes deep on interpersonal skills, another focuses on market or industry knowledge, and another dives into character and motivational issues. This approach is a little scary at first, because it forces you rely upon data that you did not gather yourself. Ultimately, it involves trust—trust that you have done your own job, and trust that your teammates have done theirs. Fortunately, it can be quite easy to trust each of your fellow “inspectors” when he or she is gathering hard facts rather than gut impressions.

Stop duplicating your efforts. Ask your team members to go deep in the areas they are best equipped to assess. Train them to gather hard facts about the candidate's past performance. Encourage them to take good notes and present those specific data points to the group. Put all of the data on the table, and decide as a group based on the combined body of knowledge. You will know the candidate far more deeply than your competitors, and your candidate will be impressed by your tight coordination and the strong, connected, team-oriented vibe that your process exemplifies.

The Power Of Rapport

The market for top talent is always impossibly tight—top performers are in high demand in both strong economies and in the midst of recessions. Like it or not, your company is competing with the best brands in the world—companies that have the means and the desire to out-spend, out-perk and out-sell you to bring that next star performer in house.

Fortunately, there is a force so powerful that it can thwart even the most savvy competitive tactics: great candidate rapport. By building a strong interpersonal connection with your candidates in each and every interaction, you can get around their defenses and unveil their deeper, emotional selves. Think about the interview process that brought you into your most recent employer. Did you feel a strong bond with one or more of the people you met during your recruiting process? Chances are you did—and if you declined another company’s offer, chances are you did not form as strong of a bond with them.

We pretend we are fully rational agents who make decisions based on a sophisticated calculus of pros and cons. We like to believe we can put our emotional selves on the sidelines when it comes to our most important professional decisions. The reality is actually the opposite—the more important the decision, the more likely we are to be swayed by our deeper feelings. It is an absolute business necessity to ensure you and your colleagues build a solid interpersonal connection with each candidate you interview—if you are able to do this consistently, you will have created a fundamental edge in the war for talent.

There are two other reasons to focus on building strong candidate rapport. Without question, it is the best way to make people feel open in sharing information with you. When another human being shows authentic interest in you and your personal story, you are more comfortable being yourself and sharing your greatest strengths and limitations with them. Rapport is intoxicating to human beings—we crave it, and will go to great lengths to maintain it. Treat every story from your candidate with legitimate enthusiasm and curiosity, and they will reward you with even richer information.

In addition, rapport is essential in building a “referral machine” at your company. Your employees are far more likely to refer people from their networks if they trust that those individuals will have a great experience, regardless of the outcome. If you believe that “stress tactics” or an interrogative demeanor is a good way to test the mettle of your candidates, consider the cost—what you gain in data points you more than lose in terms of your team members’ willingness to refer the next hot prospect.

So how do you build rapport? The answer is simple. Great rapport comes from having a legitimate passion to get to know each and every candidate as human beings. It comes from deep curiosity about what motivates them, where they have been and what they want out of their careers and their lives. When someone treats you like you are the most interesting person they’ve ever met, you cannot help but feel a connection to them. The only way to do this is to actually believe it. Come into every interview excited and eager to learn about this amazing human being.

Bad rapport is exactly the opposite—it is absolutely toxic to your hiring process. Not only does it turn your candidates off, it also limits your ability to get to know them deeply during your interviews, and dissuades your employees from referring people from their networks. Bad rapport comes in many forms:

  • Scowling or furrowing your brow (this was my biggest obstacle to overcome as a professional assessor). Keep your face open and smiling!
  • Yawning or exhibiting signs of boredom
  • Checking your phone (a frequent complaint in Glassdoor interview reviews)
  • Exhibiting low energy around an exuberant candidate
  • Conversely, bowling an introvert over with too much energy
  • Reacting negatively to anything they share with you, or making them feel judged
  • Failing to make eye contact (e.g. staring at your notes or laptop)
  • Talking too much (or talking about yourself)
  • Interrogating or using “stress” techniques

We strongly recommend that all companies seeking top talent engage in a rigorous program of interview observations—essentially “pair ups” where one individual manages the dialogue with the candidate and the other takes notes while observing the quality of rapport. The observers should feel comfortable giving a full and honest debrief to the interviewer to help them learn.

Another great way to get a “temperature check” on candidate rapport is to talk to the people you have recently hired. Ask them about their entire hiring experience, and encourage them to be honest about every interaction they had with your organization. It can be helpful to have a single point of contact from your recruiting team for these discussions who can reinforce confidentiality. It is also very useful to have a debrief conversation with candidates who declined your offer or otherwise stepped out of your process—set up a 15 minute call with them in a spirit of learning and improvement. They may be reluctant to bash your process (they likely feel bad for abandoning you, after all), but if you approach them in a spirit of true learning and growth, you are likely to be surprised by the insights you gather.

Selling Top Candidates – The Perils Of Projection

If you aspire to hire the “best of the best,” you have undoubtedly felt the pain of having your offer rejected. If you haven’t felt that pain yet, you’re probably not aiming high enough!

Top candidates are typically passive ones—they aren’t looking for a new job because they are happily employed in a job where they are adding enormous value and having fun in the process. Targeting a passive candidate involves a far greater risk of rejection, because you are up against an employer who will fight to the death to avoid losing their star employee.

There are multiple reasons why passive candidates reject your offer, but the greatest one involves inertia. The candidate says no because they have many options in their career, and there is always the “devil they know”—their current employer, who will offer higher compensation and promotion opportunities to keep them on board. If you want to get that candidate off the fence, you need to understand their deepest motivations, and fend off the voice in their heads that keeps them where they are. This is especially true of high performers who tend to harbor surprising insecurities regarding their career path—they are typically petrified of making a bad move.

The most common mistake I see in companies who seek to sell these “high value targets” is in projection—the psychological concept that leads us to imagine that others share our motivations and personalities. We end up selling a candidate on the huge equity upside opportunity (the thing that motivated us to take the offer) when all they really want is to know that they are going to learn and have fun (the thing that they really care about).

I have conducted hundreds of interviews with high-performing individuals who have made difficult decisions to move on to a new company. In these interviews, I ask them to rate, on a 1-10 scale, how important various factors were in their decision process—compensation, autonomy, culture fit, learning/growth, fun, geography, work/life balance, etc. What is most striking is the utter lack of a pattern—even in companies that have a very singular and unique candidate value proposition. Star performers change roles for an unimaginably wide variety of reasons. What matters most is to understand the unique pattern of motivators for this candidate vs. all others, and (most importantly) vs. ourselves.

Most high performers tend to be “on their game” in interviews. They are able to put themselves in your shoes and will tell you whatever they need to tell you in order to get the offer. Their goal is to create an option, and then take their own time to decide if they want it or not. When you ask them explicitly why they are interested in your company, you are likely to hear a story that jives with everything they have heard from you—from your website, from their conversations with you, from the people they know who have heard about your company. Then they will have the option to (privately) make a decision on whether to say yes or no.

The most powerful way to circumvent this process is to put less stock in their explicit responses to why they are interested in your company, and instead seek their implicit motivators—the factors that have actually driven their prior role or company changes. The best way to understand these implicit motivators is to have a thorough, high-trust/high-rapport conversation about their prior job transitions, including both promotions/role shifts and new companies. If they took on 3 of the last 4 role changes because of increased autonomy, this is a far more powerful indicator of their true motivations than their expressed interest in your world-changing mission. The mission may matter to you, but the hook is autonomy.

Many hiring experts recommend creating a detailed selling plan for each candidate, focused on a tailored view of the candidate’s mindset. Their thinking is spot on, but few companies I know are diligent enough to follow such a scripted plan. I recommend prioritizing what you will actually do vs. what sounds great on paper. Therefore I recommend slimming it down to 3 simple questions, gathered from every interaction you have had with them:

  • What uniquely matters to this candidate? What do we know about their prior job changes that points to the factors that matter most to them?
  • If we lose this candidate, what is the most likely reason? What will we hear when they tell us no?
  • What is the one thing we can do for this candidate that is most likely to move the needle in our favor?

Creating this simple selling plan takes little time—and therefore your organization is far more likely to follow through. If you want to avoid losing this superstar, put these questions in writing, and use them throughout your process.

There is one final piece to the puzzle: who is responsible for delivering the final selling message, and when? Keep in mind that when the offer is communicated, the bargaining power inevitably shifts. I strongly recommend that you appoint a chief seller to communicate the offer. Avoid the temptation of defaulting to the hiring manager or the recruiter, particularly if there is a person that has built stronger rapport with them. There is one critical question that can provide the most powerful “inertia buster” of all:

“Who is this person most afraid of disappointing by rejecting the offer?”

Career decisions rank below only romantic partnerships in terms of their emotionality. Humans are far more rational when it comes to any other kind of decision—who provides their internet, where to go on vacation, even what neighborhood to live in. Emotions matter! If you have found a superstar and you are convinced that your opportunity is a better fit for their career aspirations than their current employer, put that message in the hands of the person that will pull at their heart strings—the person that they are petrified of disappointing with a rejection. If that message speaks to their true motivations, and if it comes from a place of true alignment with their career vision, you will get a “yes” far more often than not.

How To Find (And Land) The Top 5-10%

I have yet to meet a technology company where sourcing—particularly top-performing engineering talent—is not a mission-critical pain point. The market for top 5-10% talent (a.k.a. the "best of the best") is one of the most intensely competitive markets in the world. Top performers can change the destiny of their companies, turning also-rans into household names. As a result, demand for these candidates outstrips supply by a wide margin, even in a down economy. Nevertheless, SOMEBODY employs these people—why shouldn’t it be you?

Capturing your “unfair share” of top 5-10% talent is entirely possible, but it requires an unconventional strategy. This is not a numbers game. Using ads and recruiters to stuff the top of the funnel won’t get you any closer to your goal—top performers rarely browse job postings or respond to inbound requests from unknown parties. Stuffing the funnel in this way actually pulls precious resources away from the efforts that differentially attract elite talent.

The most important first step is to think like your target. Take top engineers, for example—the individuals that, according to one oft-quoted study, deliver 10x the impact of their average counterparts. Having personally interviewed over 50 such individuals about their decisions, a few patterns are quite common. Here is a fair characterization of their mindset:

  • I am busy. I’m not really looking, but yes, I’m always thinking about my options.
  • I am on a roll in my career, but I’m actually quite anxious when it comes to taking on new roles—I can’t afford to make a bad career move.
  • I don’t want a job—I can get just about any job I apply for. What I really want is to be inspired. I want to be excited by my work, rewarded for my contributions and fulfilled by the impact I am having.
  • I care more about cultural fit than you do. There’s always the “devil I know” (my current employer). How can I be sure this will be a better fit?
  • I want someone to take the time to learn about what I have already done in my career—if you fail to ask me about my prior successes, I fear I will be undervalued.
  • Above all, I do NOT want to work with mediocre colleagues. I want to be surrounded by awesomeness!

When you truly put yourself in the shoes of these high-value targets, you can quickly see that a traditional recruiting process won’t do the trick. Here are some specific strategies and tactics to help you win their hearts and minds:

  • Focus on the “heroes” you already know. Talk to the people in your own networks who are exceptional performers themselves, regardless of whether they are looking. They may not be candidates themselves, but they are the ones who know those candidates by name.
  • Talk to them live, one-on-one. Ideally, connect with them when you are already with them (a dinner party, an alumni event, etc.) Reaching out to them for the sole purpose of recruiting can come across as transactional.
  • Be specific. Don’t ask for the best engineer they know, ask for the best Android developer they know—human beings are far better at recalling names when given specific prompts.
  • Pick the right outreach person for each lead, and aim high. Do NOT pitch these leads over to your recruiting team, as tempting as it may be. If you do, you will skew your responses away from the very best performers. My interviews revealed a clear pattern in who top candidates respond to: #1 People they have a personal connection with. #2 People they respect (e.g. your founder, CEO, or other impressive individual affiliated with your company). #3 People they feel some kind of affinity with—i.e., if all else fails, a high-value target is more likely to respond to someone they view as a peer even if they do not know the person. Recruiters, unfortunately, fall to the bottom of the list—particularly external ones.
  • Get them talking first. What are they excited to do in their careers? What do they love about their current job? What do they not love about it? This is essential! Top performers are turned off by a sales pitch. Getting them talking reveals their motivations, of course. But more importantly, it requires them, subconsciously, to justify to themselves why they are sharing this information. Why am I telling this person about my career aspirations? It must be because they are important and are worth talking to!
  • Play back what you have heard. Inspiring a top candidate means communicating a message that is personal and specific, not a canned pitch about your company’s potential. If they love the learning and growth in their current role, but are frustrated with the bureaucracy, focus on how this opportunity specifically addresses those needs.
  • Sell them on APPLYING. You have two sells to make, and the first is to get them to say “yes” to interviewing. Do not attempt to interview someone who is “just exploring their options” (see my 10/17/2015 blog: How Savvy Candidates Avoid Being Interviewed). If it requires multiple conversations, that’s fine—better to cut off a tire-kicker than burn a day in salesy interviews.
  • Once they are in your process, interview them—thoroughly. Great candidates love to be vetted. They are differentially attracted to companies that go deep into all of the impressive things they have done in their past. And critically, they will use the rigorousness of your process as a proxy for the quality of your team. If my process was superficial and salesy, I assume it was for everyone else as well. Remember—top performers desperately want to work with other top performers!
  • Ask about their prior job changes. Even top candidates are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear if you ask them explicitly why they are interested in you—they have little incentive to do otherwise. But when you ask them what led them to make prior changes, you will reveal the implicit motivators that have actually made them move in the past. For example, they may tell you they are impressed with your market opportunity, but every prior job move was about having more autonomy. Focus on autonomy (to the degree you can legitimately offer it), and you will have a far more powerful message for your candidate.
  • Likewise, pay attention to their questions about the opportunity. Candidate questions reveal hidden obstacles that may bite you down the road. If you ask them for what concerns them about the role directly, you may get a watered-down response.
  • "Set the hook" before you make the offer. Once the offer is made, the bargaining power shifts, often dramatically. Ask them what it will take to accept an offer while they are still in the process, and address whatever those items are vigilantly. Keep in mind, your biggest competitor for elite talent is often a better opportunity at their current employer, not a competing offer elsewhere. Getting them to tell you what will get them to say yes, in advance of an offer, is a powerful inertia-buster.
  • Tailor your selling plan. Once the offer is made, craft a simple, three-question selling plan: (1) What uniquely matters to THIS candidate (vs. all others)? (2) If they decline, what is the most likely reason? (3) What is the one thing we can do as a team that will move the needle most? Put this in writing, circulate it with the team, and execute flawlessly against it.

Any company, regardless of size or brand name, can acquire an unfair share of top talent. But they must be committed to that goal. Success requires having a disciplined process and relentless execution. It also requires a substantial commitment of time from senior leadership. Is it really worth the time?  Consider the best performer you have ever hired in your past. Picture them in your mind. How much impact did they have? How much value did they create? And most importantly, how much time did they save YOU in the months and years that followed? The answer is likely to be in the hundreds or thousands of hours. If you invest just a fraction of that time in hiring the very best, there is no question that you will earn that time back, many times over.

The First Minute: How To Start Strong

Have you ever been in an interview that was a struggle from the very beginning? You start late, and find yourself in “apology mode?” The candidate asks an unexpected question, and you find yourself hogging airtime for the first 5 minutes? You share too much information about yourself, and you find out you know all of the same people...to the point where a real interview suddenly feels inappropriate?

Interviews are interviews. They are positive and interactive, but the intent is to ask a candidate direct, probing questions to understand his/her skills and motivations deeply. Candidates know this—or, rather, they SHOULD know this, if you have set expectations appropriately. Good candidates are actually drawn to companies that engage in a thorough process (see my Oct 17 blog on “How Savvy Candidates Avoid Being Interviewed”). The key is to set yourself up for success, establishing that this is, in fact, an interview, and that you are in charge of the agenda. You will leave plenty of time for them to ask their questions, but you are here to get to know them first.

Here are a few tips and tactics for getting things moving in the right direction:

  • Nail the logistics. If it’s a phone call or Skype, make sure you have your contact information down, and you know who is calling whom. If it’s in person, meet them in the interview room, rather than engaging in a long walk through the halls that opens you up for various forms of “interpersonal uncertainty.” And start on time, always.
  • Warm it up. If it’s a call or a Skype from a remote location, consider asking, “How are things in [your area]?” and be willing to engage in some lighthearted banter about the weather or an interesting recent event. If it’s in person, offer them coffee or water (if someone hasn’t served them already). Give them a warm smile and handshake, and observe their energy. Are they calm and cool, or excited and energetic? Don’t judge—just match them to the degree you can.  Regardless of the format, engage in some pleasantries and small talk, thanking them for taking the time and sharing your enthusiasm for your interaction. Consider sharing a brief compliment based on the great things you have heard about them. 
  • Give a quick introduction. Ideally they should know in advance who you are and what role you play in your organization. Avoid going too far into the details, particularly if you are prone to jumping into “sell mode” in your interviews. Talking about yourself misses the point of the interaction—it’s not about you! It also opens the door for the candidate to interject a few well-placed follow-up questions that can derail the dialogue in these critical early moments.
  • Once the small talk is done, set the agenda. Let them know that you have some questions you’d like to ask them to help get to know them better, and that you will leave plenty of time at the end for their questions about the role and the company. Show that you are prepared and in charge—we all have an instinct to follow the lead of a person who conveys confidence and comfort.
  • Set expectations. If it’s a longer interview, let them know they can take a bio break whenever they need to. If you sense you are dealing with a “talker,” ask their permission to nudge or interrupt at times to make sure you leave enough time for their questions.
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact. You may have questions written down, but consider memorizing your first one or two so that you can establish solid rapport from the start. You should sense early on whether they like consistent eye contact, or whether they prefer to let their eyes wander. Again, match them to the degree possible—avoid bearing down on a nervous introvert and (likewise) stay focused on the eyes of an engaging extravert.
  • If they ask you a lot of questions early on, politely redirect. “That’s a really great question—I’ll be sure to cover this when we shift to your questions about us. Sound good?” Strong candidates will usually take the hint, and will be grateful that you have created a space for them to learn more about you.

These tips should help set you up for a data-rich interaction. What happens if you follow these guidelines and you still struggle in those first 60 seconds? One of two things is happening. You may be nervous or lacking in confidence yourself, in which case you may simply need more practice. However, if you have executed your part well and the candidate is still unwilling or unable to follow your lead, you have gathered some important “meta-data.” The candidate may still be attractive, particularly if the role does not require a great deal of interpersonal interaction. But you have learned something concerning about their people skills which will prove useful in your decision-making and on-boarding plans.

Is Unconscious Bias Threatening Your Diversity Goals?

Many companies, particularly startups, have a real problem of “hiring in their own image”—favoring candidates that fit into a narrow monoculture exemplified by the founding team. The first few hires were friends of the founders, or close colleagues from a prior employer. The next few hires were friends of theirs, including many people from the same set of companies/schools/backgrounds, and so on. Before you know it, your culture emerges, and it has become…monolithic. Uniform. Unapproachable to outsiders. Not only is it lacking in gender and ethnic diversity, it is also lacking in intellectual diversity—precious few contrarians with a different way of seeing things.

With each passing month, and with every additional “one of us” hires, this monolithic feel becomes more deeply entrenched. At some point, you have created a "club" where applicants with different backgrounds from the core team don’t feel like they belong. They either self-select out of your process, or (more frequently) fail to apply in the first place, seeing few believable role models on your “Team” page. At this point, the company has essentially locked itself out of a significant portion of the available labor market, and shut the doors on the essential diversity that breathes life into any organization.

One way to get in front of this problem early on is by changing your sourcing and referral approach. Rather than trying to hire people you already know, aim instead for your friends-of-friends—those one degree separated from your immediate inner circle. This group is typically several hundred times the size of your immediate network, and invariably far more diverse. Specifically, think of your inner circle as potential connectors rather than potential candidates. Reach out to your friends who best represent the diversity you want to create, or who are otherwise well-connected in those talent pools, and ask them for referrals to potentially strong candidates.

After generating diversity in your candidate flow, the other critical tool in your arsenal is to eliminate unconscious bias from your interview process. “Unconscious bias” has become a bit of a buzzword in recruiting circles, but it is a very real force—one that can severely constrain your ability to achieve your diversity targets. The basic principle is that we can unintentionally bias our decisions when we hold candidates to different standards, or when we go into an evaluation process seeking to confirm/reject our hypothesis about a candidate rather than assessing each candidate on his or her own merits.

The most common root cause of unconscious bias I have seen is having an unstructured, gut feel-based interview process—giving hiring managers and interviewers license to ask whatever questions they want of a candidate, moving where the conversational winds happen to blow. It sounds appealing to offer that kind of freedom, of course. But with this approach, every candidate goes through a different process, and is therefore held to a different standard. When we rely solely on our instincts, we seek confirmation of our initial gut impressions, which are notoriously unreliable (and, by definition, inherently biased). We give our subconscious minds license to tip the scales in favor of the candidates we like—and these are usually the candidates who think, speak and even look like we do. 

The remedy is straightforward—adopt a structured interview process that gathers facts (not just impressions) about each candidate in a consistent manner. How do we do that? The most important first step is to clearly define what success looks like in the role, so that you are evaluating candidates against a consistent and objective measuring stick. Kill the long list of qualifications that do not have a direct impact on a candidate’s ability to get the job done. Items like “Masters degree from a top 25 program strongly preferred” or “3+ years at a tier 1 investment bank or consulting firm” are proxies for the results we expect from candidates.  Focus on the result, not the proxy.

Next, ensure you ask questions consistently across candidates. While the content of those interviews may vary across roles and levels, it is important to focus much of your time on gathering actual facts about a candidate’s prior performance rather than (for example) brain teasers and hypothetical questions. These questions can bias you towards certain personality traits (extraversion, self-promotion, overconfidence) that may not correlate with success in the role.

Finally, it is essential to have a decision-making process that is deeply grounded in verifiable data about a candidate. Gut impressions can be helpful in some instances (particularly when your gut tells you something is wrong or missing), but aim to keep the content at least 80% fact-oriented rather than impression-oriented. This will help your organization build skill and comfort saying "yes" to high-potential candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Diversity is not just a nice-to-have.  It’s a business imperative.  Fortunately, it is also quite achievable if your entire process—not just the sourcing step—is oriented towards identifying individuals who can succeed in the role regardless of whether or not they fit your historical mold. 

Three Common Interview Questions To Avoid

It never ceases to amaze me how wide the gulf is between the enormous importance organizations place on hiring great talent and their actual skill in conducting high-quality interviews. Most companies are, frankly, terrible at interviewing. While poor execution comes in many forms, one key culprit is simply asking predictable, bad or otherwise uninsightful questions.

Let’s picture two candidates for a critical role in your organization. The first one (let’s call him Adam) has been struggling greatly in his past three roles, taking on responsibilities that were too much of a stretch, lacking the energy and commitment to get the job done, and spending a lot of time in desperate job searches as a result. He reached out to you twice in the past few months, and his earnest pleading (and well-crafted cover letter) encouraged you to give him a shot. The second candidate (let’s call her Sue) has been, and still is, on fire—widely exceeding expectations in her current role and working overtime to help drive her team to new heights. She took an interest in your company at the urging of a close friend, who encouraged her to take time out of her busy schedule to give you a look.

You bring them both onsite, and your interviewer asks them the following three interview questions:

1.     Tell me about yourself.

2.     Why are you interested in our company/this role?

3.     What would you do in your first [X days/months] on the job?

Adam (the weaker one) loves these questions. He’s had plenty of practice on #1, because he’s interviewed with 15 companies in the past two years alone. His self-pitch is smooth, efficient and well-rehearsed. He nails #2 because he knew this one was coming and he’s had several days to prepare a brilliant response—one that even includes a tidbit he heard from your CEO in a recent keynote speech on YouTube. And on #3, he weaves a brilliant fairy tale of his future victories based on everything he completely failed to do in his last three roles.

Sue (the stronger candidate) wasn’t quite as smooth. She didn’t have as much time to prepare as Adam did, because she was busy delivering results for her current employer. She also hasn’t interviewed as much—only one recent interview for her current role, a process that was pretty lightweight given she was pulled into the opportunity by her happy former boss. She manages to muscle through # 1, but because she's a passive candidate (i.e., not actively looking for a job), her “story” was not very smooth. On # 2, she gives a very honest and fairly compelling answer, but one that did not involve the same depth of research into your unique mission and culture as did Adam’s. And her response to #3 sounded fine, but it took her a few awkward seconds to formulate her response to your hypothetical question—again, she simply has not interviewed much in her all-star career.

The net result? You pass on the strong candidate and move forward with the weak one. A big hiring mistake, and a significant missed opportunity!

What is most amazing about these three interview questions is not only how unreliable they are, but also the fact that they are arguably the three most common questions asked in interviews:

  • I typically see the “tell me about yourself” question in organizations where the interviewer can’t think of anything better to ask. It’s basically the interviewer saying “I haven’t prepared any questions, so can you please fill the air for me while I form some gut impressions of you?” It’s the telltale sign of an interviewer without a clear goal or game plan.

  • I see the “why us” question absolutely everywhere—it’s not necessarily a terrible question, but it is the question that is most likely to give you a canned (read: inauthentic) response. And it is so pervasive that a candidate may be asked this same question three, five or even more times during an interview process. Their response gets better and better with practice (and as they learn more about the role in each interview). By the time they make it to the all-important final rounds, their response is well-rehearsed and full of the things they think you want to hear. It’s fine to ask this question in the right context, but do it sparingly, and don't put too much stock in a great response.

  • “What would you do in your first X days/months” is arguably the most overused question with candidates at senior levels (particularly VP and above). If you were to ask me what I would do in my first 90 days on the job as your new CFO, I could probably weave a pretty decent story about using metrics to create transparency, installing much-needed operational controls, securing new sources of capital and improving operating cash flow via working capital improvements. Unfortunately, I have never worked in a corporate finance role, and therefore lack the training and experience needed to do even 20% of what I am claiming. But my story certainly sounds good!

If you want to gather useful, hard-hitting, insightful data about your candidates in interviews, stop asking these overused questions. Focus on gathering specific information about each candidate’s actual accomplishments and mistakes. Go deep on where they have been and what they have done, and the factors that motivated their prior role changes. When it’s time to make your decision, put your trust in the actual data points you uncover, rather than the smoothness and charisma of their delivery.

Self-Awareness, Self-Critique And Deceptiveness

We’ve all sat across the table from candidates who weren’t able to be forthcoming with their mistakes and weaknesses. It’s never a good sign, and it’s usually a deal-killer, especially when the issue is consistent and pronounced.

But sometimes we see only slight signs of this concern. Let’s say you just finished interviewing a new candidate for your senior team. During your interview the candidate discussed a conflict he had with a key peer, and was not very forthcoming in mentioning his own contribution to the tension. Perhaps this candidate is close enough to the mark? “No,” one of your colleagues remarks, “it’s a clear sign that he tried to hide the truth, and honesty is central to our values as a company.” But another team member sees the situation quite differently: “Maybe he wasn’t being deceptive, maybe he just tends to focus on the positives and forgets the lessons learned—it’s not a great thing, but it’s not deceptiveness.” And a third team member has a very different hunch: “I don’t think he forgot the lesson learned—he never even got it in the first place.  It’s a fundamental lack of self-awareness.”

What’s the real difference between these diagnoses, and how can we use our interview data to tell us what is actually going on? Let’s start by providing a practical definition of each.

  • Lack of self-awareness is an inability to understand how we come across, a deficiency in our own reflective consciousness. It is, in essence, an inability to gather certain kinds of information. It can stifle a person’s growth path and lead to persistent performance issues, especially in roles that require a lot of teamwork and interpersonal engagement.
  • Resistance to self-critique is a subtle but very real issue. The candidate knows how he or she is coming across in the moment, but tends to selectively filter out or even repress the negative feedback over time, because it threatens his or her self-concept. It is not a matter of information, but rather of emotion and identity. This person may have an easier time relating to and connecting with others in the short term, but over time relationships can become strained and the individual’s learning curve can flatten.
  • Deceptiveness is a deliberate attempt by a candidate to withhold information about his or her past, and it is (arguably) a fundamental issue of character. The candidate knows the truth but is unwilling to share it.

How can we tell which factor is at play? As with anything involving humans, there is no perfect science, but here are some guidelines that I have found based on my assessments with hundreds of senior executives:

  • Candidates who lack self-awareness typically struggle to offer up both positive AND negative information about themselves in an interview. They can talk about the accomplishment or the mistake (the “facts”), but when you ask them to trace that back to specific qualities that they either possess or lack, they either give you blank looks, or a diagnosis that does not seem to fit the evidence. In the worst cases, there are clear signals in their in-room behavior (i.e. they are oblivious as to how they come across). But it is not necessary for a candidate to exhibit strange behaviors for self-awareness to be a problem—many individuals with sub-par self-awareness have learned how to interact well with others, even if only by subconsciously detecting cues from others.
  • Candidates who are resistant to self-critique display one or more of the following traits.  First, they tend to have an easier time recalling mistakes and weakness from their recent history vs. their distant past, even though the same is not true of their accomplishments and strengths—these come easily regardless of timeframe. Second, when they do mention mistakes and weaknesses, they may display subtle signs of distress in their words and nonverbal behaviors. Because they tend to personalize negative information, they respond to it through defensiveness, blame or withdrawal. Third, they rarely take strong ownership of the critique they do get—rather than putting together an action plan and soliciting periodic feedback, they downplay it or (if it’s bad enough) move on to a new role/organization where they can start anew.
  • A deceptive individual dodges and deflects consistently when asked about mistakes and weaknesses. Like the individual struggling with self-critique, they exhibit subtle signs of distress in the interview—but their distress is not from discussing their mistakes, it’s from their efforts to avoid the topic altogether! Unlike the others, the deceptive candidate is often quick to reply to your question about a mistake or weakness—they have a decoy in their pocket and they are ready to throw it out, hoping you will take the bait. They often share “strengths disguised as weaknesses” and “mistakes” that always seem to be due to others’ actions or to “politics.” And in the end, their story does not seem to add up—expectations and targets change, job transitions don’t make sense, and boss feedback seems mismatched with performance.

None of these three traits is an attractive quality of course. But the truth is, we all possess kernels of these attributes in ourselves, even if only in very small degrees. It’s important to understand the distinctions between these traits, especially when the magnitude is small, so that you can be confident in your eventual hiring decision.