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 strong interpersonal connections 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 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
  • 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 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

Let’s picture two candidates for a critical role in your organization. One of them (let’s call him Adam) has been struggling greatly in his past three jobs, taking on roles 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 him Bob) has been, and still is, on fire—crushing his targets in his current role and working overtime to help drive his team to new heights. He became interested in your company at the urging of a close friend, who has encouraged him to take time out of his busy schedule to give you a look.

You bring them both onsite, and set them up with two interviewers. The first interviewer does a thorough review of each candidate’s career histories, diving deep on the relevant accomplishments and mistakes across their careers. In her interviews she very quickly identifies Adam’s serious liabilities and Bob's consistent pattern of above-par performance, and recommends proceeding with Bob only.

The second interviewer asks the following three interview questions:

1.     Tell me about yourself.

2.     Why are you considering joining our company/taking on 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 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 almost sounds like your CEO might have said it. 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.

Bob (the stronger candidate) wasn’t quite as smooth. He didn’t have as much time to prepare as Adam did, because he was busy delivering amazing results for his current employer. He also hasn’t interviewed as much—only once in the past five years, for his current role—a process that was pretty lightweight given he was pulled into the opportunity by his happy former boss. He manages to muscle through it, but because he's a passive candidate (i.e., not actively looking for a job), he's simply not as well-rehearsed.

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 #1 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?”
  • I see #2 absolutely everywhere—it’s not a terrible question, but 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 excellent and well-rehearsed. So in general, 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.
  • #3 is arguably the most overused question with CEO/CXO candidates. 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, securing new sources of capital and improving operating cash flow. Unfortunately, I have never worked in finance, and therefore lack the training and experience needed to do even 20% of what I am claiming. But my story certainly sounds good!

Do you want to free up interview time to gather useful, hard-hitting, insightful data about your candidates? Do you want to stop hiring bad candidates who weave stories that have zero correlation with their eventual on-the-job performance? If so, stop asking these questions, and focus on learning about their past performance.

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.

Conducting a High Quality “Problem Solving” Interview

Problem solving interviews have been a mainstay in many industries for decades. Consulting firms and investment banks are well-known for using “business case” interviews to evaluate candidates’ analytic horsepower and structured thinking. Technology companies use live coding exercises extensively in evaluating software developers — in fact, many companies use little else when evaluating engineering talent.

Problem solving interviews have an important role to play in evaluating candidates for certain types of roles, but they do have limitations. They are notoriously prone to generating false negatives (rejections of candidates who would actually be quite capable of performing well in the job). This happens because the interview format is inherently contrived—few companies actually require employees to solve problems in a matter of minutes via a high pressure, 1:1 interaction and without any supporting computational tools or reference materials.  Therefore, these interviews are best used when the cost of false negatives is lower, e.g., there is an ample supply of candidates, or with more junior-level candidates don’t have a great deal of career history to evaluate.

Problem solving interviews can be quite useful when used appropriately, and I strongly recommend them as a supplemental lens to evaluate candidates who will be hired into an intellectually or analytically demanding role. There are several important guidelines for making them work:

  • KEEP IT RELEVANT. Make sure the problem you are presenting to the candidate is highly relevant to the role they are interviewing for. Avoid random brain teasers or riddles—stick with problems that closely resemble those they can expect to face on the job. In fact, the best problem solving questions are often directly derived from actual work in the company. Not only does this ensure you are testing relevant skills, but it also gives the candidate some direct exposure to the kinds of problems your company solves every day.
  • MAINTAIN OPTIONS. Ideally, choose a problem in which there are multiple potential paths to solve the problem. It is common in software development “coding” interviews to present a problem that can be coded up in several different ways, some being (for example) more flexible, scalable or efficient than others. This allows you to make finer distinctions between good vs. great candidates, and increases the probability that weaker candidates will come out of the room feeling they did a good job.
  • USE PHASING. Whenever possible, structure the problem in distinct phases or steps, allowing you to see different elements of the candidate’s thinking process. Many such interviews (both business and technical) are set up three steps—(1) diagnose the problem, (2) design the best solution and (3) implement/execute on it.
  • KEEP IT INTERACTIVE. Stick with problems that can be broken into components and discussed interactively. Encourage your candidates to explain their reasoning and talk through the tradeoffs they are making as they go along. Much of the data you will gather about candidates will come from their process, not just their solution. An overly “black box” approach robs you of this valuable information.
  • CREATE SAFETY NETS. Make sure you have plenty of “nudges” handy for candidates who may struggle with one or more parts of the problem. Doing so ensures you avoid awkwardness with weaker candidates, and ensures all candidates come away feeling as good as possible about their performance. I have seen situations where a fairly simple nudge turned a potential crash-and-burn situation into a solid overall performance.
  • MAINTAIN RAPPORT. In biographical interviews, great rapport comes from showing curiosity about the candidate him/herself. In problem solving interviews, that same curiosity can be channeled into your collaborative exploration of the problem with the candidate. Even though you may have presented this problem dozens of times before, it is important to maintain believable passion and interest throughout the interview. Similarly, be very careful not to express disapproval, judgment or frustration if the candidate gets off track—candidates can detect this and it can taint the entire hiring process.
  • STANDARDIZE. Maintain objectivity and consistency by using a standard set of problem solving interviews across your team. Get clear on what constitutes top 10% vs. merely top 50% performance on a given problem, and track candidates’ performance over time to ensure you are well-calibrated. Periodically check Glassdoor to ensure your questions have not inadvertently leaked—this is a frequent problem that can create obvious bias.

Problem solving interviews are not the be-all, end-all approach to vetting candidates, even in roles with a heavy analytic or problem solving component. They are merely one of many acceptable interview formats, and should be viewed as a supplement to a deep understanding of your candidate’s unique career history. When misused, problem solving interviews can deliver “noisy” data and can create a bad candidate experience. But when used appropriately, they can provide insights into an individual’s intellectual capabilities and thought processes that no other interview format can match.

How Savvy Candidates Avoid Being Interviewed

Of all of the mistakes companies make in their hiring processes (startups in particular), there is one so simple and fundamental that it boggles the mind. The mistake is...failing to interview the candidate at all. And it happens far more often than you’d think.

Let’s say you’re the CEO of a promising technology startup that recently secured its Series A. You are desperate to hire a new VP Engineering to take the reins of the development team and deliver on your ambitious product roadmap. One of your new investors is able to convince an experienced and well-known techincal lead from a top-tier software company to grab lunch with you. You review her LinkedIn profile, and it is...spot on! You meet with her, and immediately she is peppering you with questions about you, your business model, your competitors and your technology—impressive questions across the board. You deliver your responses in rapid succession, addressing every subtlety, and you come away with an agreement that she will drop by your offices to meet more of the team.

You spend the next day envisioning her on board. You imagine making the introduction to the rest of the team on her first day, her decisive voice and vision in your weekly product sync meetings, and the new inspiration in every face you see in the office. When you talk to your management team members about her upcoming visit, you find yourself spending most of that time prepping them for questions they should expect rather than questions they should ask. She comes onsite, and you and your team NAIL it. The rapport was right, the energy was high, and your team’s answers were consistent and compelling. And then, three days later...she calls to let you know she's taking another opportunity. What happened?

Star performers are turned off by an overly salesy process. They actually want to be vetted, and vetted thoroughly. Why? Because they want to work with other star performers—people who were rigorously evaluated on the way in. They don't want to waste valuable years of their careers working with average colleagues who were arm-twisted into joining a mediocre organization.

There is a surprisingly simple way to avoid this pitfall. When your hot prospect expresses interest in the opportunity, simply...ask them if they would like to interview for the job! It’s absolutely fine—in fact, it’s best practice—to sell like crazy when you are first engaging with a strong prospect. But at some point, you need to convert this lead into a candidate. Phrase it however you like, but in essence, you are saying: “I think you might be an excellent fit for this role, and it sounds like you share our excitement for the opportunity ahead of us. Would you like to start the interview process?” 

If they say yes, put them through your process. Ask them the tough questions! Push them, dive deep, showcase the depth of diligence you and your team are committed to delivering with every candidate. If they say anything other than yes, ask what they would need to get to that point. Follow through on whatever they ask, and then ask them again. If they stay in this half-in "limbo zone," walk away—it's much better to chalk it up as a missed opportunity than to try to bring in someone who isn't willing to be interviewed.

There is another benefit of taking this approach, one that plays on a deeper psychological mechanism called cognitive dissonance. Let's say I'm a top-performing candidate and you are interviewing me for your relatively unknown organization. You begin asking me direct questions about my capabilities and performance, and I respond. The moment I answer you I have to justify to myself why I am doing so. I have to come up with an explanation of why you are worthy of engaging me in this activity, which compels me to elevate your importance and attractiveness in my own mind. My (subconscious) thought process: "Wow, here I am, selling my skills and capabilities to this person. Why am I doing this? It must be because he is impressive, his company is highly selective, and this opportunity doesn't come around every day!"

So the next time you find yourself in front of a superstar prospect you want to attract to your company, remember they have two decisions to make—the first is to apply for the job, and the second (should they prove worthy) is to accept your offer.  And in between those decisions is a rigorous and engaging interview process that EVERYONE goes through.

Remember—NOBODY gets into your company without being interviewed. Your superstar team will thank you for it!

The Worst Kind of Interview Question

Take a moment to think about your greatest weakness. That thing you hate doing, or that nagging item that has reared its head on many a performance review. Maybe you are hopeless with administrative details. Maybe you really hate sticking your neck out to “cold call” new prospects. Maybe you struggle to have tough conversations with underperforming team members. Do you have yours in mind? Great.

Now imagine that an interviewer asks you a hypothetical question that plays on that very weakness. For example, you’re the type who hates to deal with underperformers, and you are asked, “How would you deal with someone on your team who was clearly missing performance expectations?” Could you come up with a good story for this? Maybe one about how you would move quickly, decisively and objectively, putting emotions aside and doing right by both the company and the underperformer him/herself? Perhaps…a story that bears ZERO resemblance to how you would actually handle this in real life? 

Hypothetical questions are terrible, because they give a candidate a license to fabricate reality. The only value you can get is if a candidate gives a clearly terrible answer. A good answer, however, tells you essentially nothing. 

Consider this—what kind of candidates are best prepared with great answers to hypothetical questions? There are two types that come to mind most often. One is the active/desperate job seeker who has been asked this question 3 times in the past month. The other is the candidate for whom the subject of your question is a significant problem, and they have been given lots of coaching and feedback on the right way to do it. In other words—great answers to hypothetical questions can actually be a negative indicator of your candidate’s potential!

When I share this point in my workshops, I often hear resistance related to problem solving or “business case” questions. So let’s be very clear about the distinction here. A problem solving/business case question requires the candidate to solve a novel (and challenging) intellectual problem in front of you. This approach has its merits, though it also has risks and should not be overused (the subject of a future blog...) A hypothetical question is one that a candidate has a good chance of having encountered or at least thought through in his/her past, such that they can paint a fictional picture for you based on what they know you want to hear.