The Art of Interviewing: How to Create Conversation

Job seekers tend to rehearse (prepare) for interviews.  Hiring managers, on the other hand, because they’re often busy executives, don’t necessarily prepare for interviewing candidates.

Candidates frequently report that an interviewer seemed unprepared and/or unintrested. At their worst, interviewers are doing most of the talking and barely ask a question or they ask the overly-scripted questions, i.e., “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” At their best, interviewers are relaxed and open. Candidates enjoy conversational interviews where a true connection is established.

The best interviewers work to create a conversation. One way to develop this skill is to approach the interview as an improvised scene. Put your focus on creating a conversation that allows for both the interviewer and the candidate to get to know each other. By doing so, it’s easier to assess the fit – culturally and otherwise – for both parties. An additional plus is that interviewing might even be enjoyable!

 Performance tips for interviewers:

  • Lead and enjoy the activity of creating conversation.
  • Be present as an active listener.
  • Be thoughtful and follow your curiosity.
  • Go slowly and allow the conversation to unfold.
  • Allow space for the interviewee’s questions. Be as honest and direct as possible in answering.
  • Take a risk and go somewhere together as you co-create the interview scene.
Recruiting is Career Play

 

Having recently completed a successful assignment as the Interim Recruiting Manager at a financial services advisory firm, I’ve been thinking about the process of recruiting talent into an organization.  In close to 20 years of recruiting it is the rare organization that puts the human equation before all else when it comes to recruiting.   Ironic as it may seem (because it is), all too often recruiters, human resource leaders and hiring managers create a process that works best for them and for their organization, without much thought for the candidates they are seeking to hire.

Sadly, it is not unusual for an organization to have an arrogant posture throughout the interview and recruiting process.  The performance of the interview team is analogous to conversing with a person who is “all about me” — and we all know how difficult it can be to spend time in conversation with someone who disregards “the other”.  Some interviewers will keep a candidate waiting, then s/he will sneak a peek at their emails while interviewing, some interrupt the interview to take a call, or even step out of the room and leave the interviewee sitting there dumbfounded. Of course the underlying message that is being sent to the candidate is, “I have more important things to do.”

A smart organization is thinking about how to create a thoughtful and efficient interview process that allows the team to really get to know the candidate, while conveying a culture that values it’s employees. Not everyone has the capability to do this.  HR leaders and recruiting managers are in the best position to ensure, in every step of the recruiting process, that candidates feel welcomed.  Having the right talent in place is critical for a company’s success; a strong recruiting process will attract the best and the brightest.

Creating and training a strong interview team is key to good hiring.  Not only do interviewers have to know the right questions to ask, perhaps the more importantly, they have to develop  a welcoming performance during the interview.  Learning to perform actions like a strong handshake, making eye contact and a greeting candidates with a smile can make all the difference for the interviewee.  Using emotional intelligence and a willingness to create a conversation that goes somewhere unexpected, tells candidates that the organization has a serious investment in fostering development and growth for it’s people.  Perhaps the interviewer shares something from her/his work experience that didn’t go well as a way to ask about times the candidate has failed and what s/he learned from their failure.

When putting together an interview team some questions to ask might be: Does this interviewer have a high level of emotional intelligence? Will this interviewer make a candidate feel comfortable? Is this interviewer an active listener?  Can s/he create a conversation that might very well go somewhere unexpected? Can s/he frame questions that help the candidate do her/his best at conveying their unique qualities, experience, creativity and ability to add value to the organization?  How are we, as an organization, conveying our corporate culture in our interviewing process?

How can organizations create a better recruiting process?  By putting themselves in the shoes of their candidates.  As one of my recruiting mentors used to say, “It’s simple, treat people the way you want to be treated.” Using the tools and language of improvisation and theatre, good interviewers focus on “the other.”  Be giving; a good performer always makes her/his fellow actor look good. Make your candidates look good and see how that changes your recruiting process.

Humanize the Interview Process – Become a Relational Recruiter

There have been some interesting reports about employee retention and turnover that started me thinking about why people look for new opportunities and how that impacts recruiting.  The Society for Human Resource Management recently published a report entitled “Skills Gap, Turnover Are Top Talent Concerns” in which they found:

About one-fourth of employees reported that they are likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months. They cited unhappiness with current salary (23 percent), followed by looking for a better opportunity (19 percent), not feeling valued (16 percent) and unhappiness with growth opportunities (13 percent).

Indeed.com just published their Talent Attraction Study: What Matters to the Modern Candidate in which they found:

71% of people are actively looking or open to a new job, and 90% of people hired within the past year actively looked for a job within six months prior to being hired. Also, 65% look at new jobs again within 91 days of starting a new job, leading us to believe that no one is “passive” about their career in 2015.

Indeed’s conclusion that “no one is passive about their career in 2015” led me to think about what people mean when they say they want “a better opportunity.”  On one hand, there is always going to be a grouping of people who will opportunistically move for better compensation packages.  Resumes that show a new position every 2-3 years are often representative of the person who is moving for better salary.  On the other hand, the more interesting question is what do we need to do to make people “feel valued” from the moment we reach out to them in the recruiting process.

All too often hiring managers and recruiters can forget that every aspect of the recruitment process is an opportunity to let potential hires know they are valued.  Recruitment agencies and internal recruiters ought to convey in their initial outreach that the human equation is what matters, not filling the job; we are in a relationship-oriented business.  All too often the relational aspect of recruiting and hiring is second to the need for speed and efficiency in recruiting which can lead to a commoditized process in which candidates feel like a cog in the wheel, rather than a respected and valued future member of an organization.

Interestingly, I read an article yesterday – The Trouble With Behavioral Interviewing – that is quite relevant to how we recruit talent.  I especially appreciate this comment from author Liz Ryan:

We are human all the time. We are foolish to turn job interviews, such potentially fun and fizzy human processes, into tense and grovelly affairs.

As a recruiter who is also an improviser, the activity of creating conversation is where I put my focus.  Again, I appreciate Ryan’s perspective:

If you care about talent, you won’t want to interview people from a script. You’ll want to sit down with them next to a whiteboard and brainstorm like crazy. How else will you know whether your energies resonate together?

Once I’ve established that a person is qualified for the role, I abandon “interview questions” all together in favor of having a wide-ranging conversation.  We can learn valuable information about a candidate when we allow ourselves to explore who someone is in the world, how they express their intellectual curiosity, and discover their goals both personally and professionally.  In the long run recruiting is about building rapport.  It is refreshing to create the conditions that eliminate the hierarchical framework that comes with a more traditional recruiting paradigm in favor of getting to know each other.

Interviewing – It’s a Performance! (Part Two)

imagesFrom time to time I get asked to coach MBA students at NYU Stern to help them prepare for interviews to secure summer  internships and/or a job upon graduation.  Most of my coaching clients at Stern have not had an easy time at these interviews and sometimes feel that there is something lacking.  These are very bright and well prepared students who don’t have the performance skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive environment.  This is, of course, also true for seasoned executives who find themselves interviewing for the first time in a long time.

An Interview is a performed conversation.  It requires a great deal of listening, creating conversation and performance energy.  Most people go into interviews looking to “say the “right thing” so they can “get it right” – that activity bypasses the creative activity of developing a performed conversation with someone and, instead, focuses on the end result (getting the job or the internship).  Perhaps you’re thinking “creativity in an interview?” so let’s deconstruct this thing we call an interview and put it into a theatrical context.

The scene begins with a warm smile and a solid handshake.  The performance demands that the interviewee be fully present, making eye contact, seated in a relaxed manner, self-conciously breathing and engaged.  This is a good moment to focus on the person across from you – giving full attention to the slow and steady building of the conversation.  Focus should be on the two words that we use in improvisation – “yes and” – listen to the questions, and respond.  Acknowledge what you’ve been asked (that is the “yes”) and respond in a way that builds the conversation (that is the “and”).  If you keep your focus on this activity versus “getting it right” or “saying something smart” you will build rapport, which is often overlooked during an interview.  Most candidates talk too much when they are being interviewed, which often happens as a result of nervousness.  You might want to stop and ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?” rather than going on and on and ignoring that your interviewer’s eyes have glazed over.  A good performer is very aware of her/his scene partner and when possible, works to make her/him look good.  That might mean saying, “That’s a great question!” with a smile even if you’re thinking, “How am I going to answer THAT question?!”

Another tool to bring into an interview is creative imitation.  A great way to develop an interview performance is to think of someone you admire for their performance skills – a mentor, a professor, a favorite actor, a great TED Talk – it doesn’t matter who you have in mind.  Once you think of that person the fun part is to perform your creative imitation of that person … in an interview.  This is a way to step a little bit (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone and pretend, play and perform as someone other than who you are.  The beauty of performance is that of course you are always who you are and at the same time you are other than who you are!  This uniquely human capability allows us to be shy and perform outgoing, to be insecure and perform confidence.

The magical thing about performance is that, after awhile, you might very well become a person who aces interviews – not by “getting it right” – but by creating a deliberate, self-conscious, thoughtful performance of an interview.

Interviewing – It’s a Performance! (Part One)

It might seem counter-intuitive but my experience as an executive search consultant and coach is that the role of interviewer can be more challenging than being interviewed.  While job seekers rehearse (prepare) for interviews, interviewers are often busy executives who have been asked to interview candidates along with the many other responsibilities that all too often take priority, absorbing most of their attention.

Unfortunately, many of us have been in the “bad interview” play from one side or the other – the interviewee arrives at the interviewers office and that busy executive that is conducting the interview is winging it.  S/he is distracted.  Perhaps running late.  Whirling around in the interviewer’s head are things like: “Did I see a resume on this person?  What job is she/he interviewing for?  I don’t have time for this.  I’ve interviewed so many people this week I can’t get my work done.  What core competencies am I supposed to be interviewing for, anyway?”  Meanwhile, the interviewee wonders why s/he is not being asked thoughtful questions.  When recruiters debrief candidates about an interview it is not unusual to hear, “The interviewer did all the talking.”

There’s a lot to do in an interview – assess skill level, cultural fit, leadership and emotional intelligence to name a few.  And there is often a need to sell a talented candidate on the job and the company. The hiring manager has a responsibility to organize her/his team to appreciate that talent acquisition is critical part of their job, to create an environment where the candidate feels respected and valued, and to clarify what each interviewer is looking for in her/his interview.  While one person might be interviewing for cultural fit, another might be digging into the candidate’s skill set.

Now, I’m all for improvising (vs. rehearsing and learning lines) but it’s good to remember that a well trained improviser is always making her/his partner look good. We are very keyed into “the other.”  We are active listeners.

Above all else I think the job of any interviewer is to create a conversation.  A performance for the interviewer might be to lead and enjoy the activity of creating conversation.  Be in the present and be present as an active listener.  Be thoughtful.  Go slowly.  Let the conversation unfold. Follow your curiosity.  What does it take to get to know the person?  Take a risk.  Go somewhere together.  Allow space for their questions and be as honest and direct as possible in answering.

A great resource for interviewers is Adam Bryant’s weekly column in The New York Times – The Corner Office – http://projects.nytimes.com/corner-office/interviews/oldest/sort Bryant does a great job of interviewing hiring managers about how they interview and usually asks his subject’s for their favorite questions.

Have a great show!

Are you listening?

dreamstime_132351051How well do you listen? This is an important question for all of us. I’ve been thinking about listening a lot this week. It is certainly a critical part of my work as an executive search consultant and also in the work I do teaching and coaching. Listening is the most important activity for creating conversation and intimacy. It’s an underutilized “muscle” and therefore it needs strengthening in most of us.

I was interviewing a candidate for a sales position and I was struck by his understanding of the value listening brings to his ability to sell. He described his sales methodology and it was all about his being with prospective customers as an active listener. Because we both approach creating conversation with a shared understanding of the critical importance of listening we were able to create rapport and connection that is a rewarding and valuable aspect of the interview process. I am not surprised that this sales executive has consistently overachieved his targets!

Yesterday I led a workshop for the International Class of the East Side Institute, an international training center led by my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman. I decided to spend most of the workshop leading the participants in an exercise to help strengthen their listening muscles.

I had two participants begin a conversation. The “rules” of the exercise include not asking leading questions and actively listening for “offers” – gifts that we receive in conversation – that when accepted, acknowledged, and responded to will build closeness, rapport, and intimacy. All too often we listen for opportunities to say what we have to say then we ask the question that will lead into what we have to say, rather than responding to the other. That is what I mean by a “leading question”. In our overly-individualized culture the voice we listen to the most is often our own internal voice rather than giving our full attention to the other who is speaking.

When a participant did ask a leading question or was not accepting and building with offers, I would tap them out and bring in a new conversant to pick up and continue the conversation. After a few rounds the conversation deepened and the participants – both the conversationalists and observers – were able to be closer to one another. I was improvising my role as teacher. I was listening to the students and creating with what they gave me.

Lois was also participating in the workshop and when we had a debrief about the experience she observed that we were learning to speak as a creative activity. We were listening to the activity, not the words that were spoken. I found Lois’ response wondrous, unexpected and enormously helpful.

I hope this is a useful guide to active listening. Give it a try and discover
how this valuable skill enhances your professional and personal development.

Recruiting? Make Your Candidates Look Good!

I’ve been thinking about the process of recruiting talent into an organization.  In close to 20 years of recruiting it is the rare organization that puts the human equation before all else when it comes to recruiting.   Ironic as it may seem (because it is), the focus all too often for recruiters, human resource leaders and hiring managers is to create a process that works best for them and for their organization, without much thought for the candidates they are seeking to hire.

I was very glad to come across this article in the Wall Street Journal, “Building a Process for Recruiting the Best” by Scott Weiss.  Although he is describing a recruiting process for startups, I think Weiss’ suggestions apply to any organization that wants to create the conditions for successful recruiting of top talent. http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2014/01/24/scott-weiss-building-a-process-for-recruiting-the-best/

Too often organizations have an arrogant posture throughout the interview and recruiting process.  The performance of the interview team is analogous to conversing with a person who is “all about me” — and we all know how difficult it can be to spend time in conversation with someone who disregards “the other”.

It’s important to ensure that in every step of the recruiting process the candidate feels welcomed.  Too often I’ve seen hiring managers and other interviewers keep a candidate waiting beyond the scheduled time for the interview.  Of course the underlying message that is being sent to the candidate is, “I have more important things to do.”  Having the right talent in leadership roles is critical for a company’s success yet the process that is often put in place doesn’t conform to the need.

Recently a client told me about an interview he had with HR that consisted of what he experienced as “trick questions”.  Creating an interview process in which the goal is to trip up a candidate rather than bring out the best in her/him is an example of what I see as an “arrogant / all about us” recruiting process.

Here’s where using emotional intelligence and having the ability to create a space for  intimate conversation comes into play.  By intimate I mean creating a conversation that goes somewhere unexpected, perhaps the interviewer shares something from her/his work experience that didn’t go well as a way to ask about times the candidate has failed and what s/he learned from their failure.

A smart organization is thinking about which managers are in the best position to create a thoughtful and efficient interview process that allows the team to really get to know the candidate.  Not everyone has the capability to do this.  Some interviewers will sneak a peek at their emails while interviewing, will take a call or even step out of the room and leave the interviewee sitting there dumbfounded.  I’ve heard this kind of feedback from candidates more times than I’d like to think possible.

Creating and training a talented interview team is key to good hiring.  Not only do interviewers have to know the right questions to ask, perhaps the more importantly, they have to work on their performance during the interview.  Simple things like a strong handshake, eye contact and a smile can make all the difference for the candidate.

When putting together an interview team some questions to ask might be: Does this interviewer have a high level of emotional intelligence? Will this interviewer make a candidate feel comfortable? Is this interviewer an active listener?  Can s/he create a conversation that might very well go somewhere unexpected? Can s/he frame questions that help the candidate do her/his best at conveying their unique qualities, experience, creativity and ability to add value to the organization?

How can organizations create a better recruiting process?  By putting themselves in the shoes of their candidates.  As one of my recruiting mentors used to say, “It’s simple, treat people the way you want to be treated.” Put your focus on “the other” — be giving.  A good performer always makes her/his fellow actor look good.  Make your candidates look good and see how that changes your recruiting process.

 

Don’t sell…organize!

Yesterday I had a couple of interactions with candidates that got me to thinking about the activity of “selling” someone vs. organizing them.  My experience of someone “selling me” is that it is distancing and rarely includes active listening – it’s a defensive posture.  In the executive search business the job of the consultant/recruiter is to make an assessment based on the client’s requirements in terms of skills and experiences, cultural fit and the interpersonal interactions with the candidate during the interview.  I think there’s a misconception that if someone comes at a recruiter with a strong “sell” one can push ones way into being presented to the client.  I think it’s a bad strategy.

My background includes many years as a fundraiser for an organization (the All Stars Project www.allstars.org) that has an organizing approach to fundraising.  What that means is that when we call someone to solicit a contribution we engage in an organizing activity which is an intimate activity.  It’s a slow building process.  It’s the antithesis of “selling”.  I work hard to listen and build off of everything (every offer as we say in improvisational language) a donor gives me in a conversation in order to deepen our relationship.  I do the same thing in a recruiting call.  This is what I mean by organizing vs. selling.