Interview for what you can’t change, not relevant experience

Interviewing is tough. You have about one hour to make a decision that has a significant impact on an organization. The stakes are high. A bad hire costs a lot of time, money, effort and morale. The smaller the company, the bigger the impact.

Of course, interviewing is only a part of the hiring process, which should also include things like testing and reference checking, but it’s definitely the most important one.

Yet interviewing is probably the most under-developed skill within most companies, especially startups. Hiring managers and interviewers rarely go through formal or even informal training on how to conduct an interview. In fact hiring teams rarely talk about what they are looking for in a candidate and how to figure it out from an interview. On top of all that, most people just don’t like conducting interviews.

I have had the chance to conduct hundreds of interviews for all kinds of positions in the last 5 years (I actually like it). This exposure has enabled me to develop a system for evaluating interviewees, which I would like to share. Every hiring failure (and I have had several) has served as an opportunity to re-evaluate it and refine it.

Here is how it works.

The first and most important thing I look for is brains. The smarter, the better. Being smart doesn’t solve all problems, but not being smart is a blocker. Intelligence cannot be taught or developed over time. So it’s a deal breaker for any hire. Of course, measuring one’s intelligence or even defining intelligence is a matter of heated scientific debate. Undeniably, though, figuring out whether an interviewee is smart is much like what United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote about pornography “I know it when I see it”.

I subsequently look for qualities that I can’t train for and are universally applicable regardless of job description. Such qualities are usually ingrained personality characteristics that cannot be developed over time, at least without an enormous amount of effort. They are part of someone’s personality that has been shaped by genes, environment and experiences. Examples include honesty, integrity, commitment, ambition, work ethic, manners, positive attitude and love for what they do.

Equally important is to look for such qualities that are blockers for any position. A person with attitude, arrogance, lack of ethics or passive-aggressive behavior is poisonous for any organization, no matter how smart he/she is.

Next on the agenda are qualities and skills that are critical for the specific job description and are also very difficult to train for. A web designer better be creative. A QA person must love attention to detail. A project manager cannot be communication averse. Of course, these qualities don’t apply to every position. It’s probably ok if a sales person doesn’t pay enormous attention to detail or if a software developer is communication averse. As such, I evaluate them not only against the current job description, but also against one’s potential growth path within an organization.

Last and in many ways least come the qualities and skills that are relevant to the specific position and are mostly related to a candidate’s past training and experience. This is stuff that can be taught or developed over time, but a certain minimum level may be required depending on the position. The goal is to determine how ready someone is or how much development time is required to get there.

This is rarely a blocker. An interviewee who scores high on all previous categories, but is a bit junior for the position, will most likely turn out to be a very good hire. It will just take a bit more time and effort.

On a final note, an interview is also about chemistry. If there is none, it’s a problem, even if everything else looks great. There has to be something there that says “I want to work with this person”. That’s because you will have to do it, every single day.

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3 thoughts on “Interview for what you can’t change, not relevant experience

  1. Pingback: What’s Holding You Back? – Skills and Experience – Beat Redundancy Blues | quirkybooks

  2. Sorry but I do not agree with all that. Let me explain myself:

    1. Smart people are usually more expensive (because of their strong academic background), have high standards and may not be able to tolerate unpaid work or bad behaviour. These things happen in a highly pressured environment.

    2. Their profile is ‘academic’ oriented, not ‘business’ oriented. They may get bored if they do trivial things. I am not aware of many (greek) companies that do actual R&D and keep the interest of their employees alive.

    3. Only a few companies can offer training to their employees. Especially in Greece, training might be limited to asking someone senior questions. If the project budget is tight and time matters, you can not rely on the learning curve of each individual, even if he is ‘smart’.

    4. A smart employee might be dissapointed and leave early if he is not satisfied with his work/ salary/ perspectives. An employee with less self esteem might be reluctant to leave the company when things do not get as expected.

    5. Last but not least: A project manager/ technical expert/ boss might not really like the idea of having someone really smart in his team. If he learns quickly, takes initiatives and gets the attention of the senior management, this young, smart employee might be his replacer. Similar, if the projects fails, he can not accuse his “dummy” colleagues.

    • Thank you for your comment Stamati.

      Most of the issues that you raise point to poorly managed companies, rather than hiring or interviewing considerations. I still see no reason to compromise for less than the smartest people you can find out there.

      On your last point, a manager’s success is primarily measured by his/her ability to recruit and build a team with the best possible talent.

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