Sunday, April 2, 2017

Interviewing For New Hires

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.........................."

Our organizations are arguably no better than our people who work for them.  Even for the largest of our organizations (which really aren't that large), every employee, every staff member, is crucial for the organization to operate at its optimum level.  And even if employees operate in silos, disconnected for the most part from each other, the organization's ecosystem is still a sum of its parts, for the work itself is connected.

Because our organizations are small, vertical promotion is often difficult, if not impossible.  Today, it is much more common for younger people to naturally expect to have multiple jobs at an ever earlier stage of their careers.  Limited and overtaxed budgets and problematic fundraising mean our sector, for the most part, and particularly at middle level management positions, can't always provide the level of compensation available in the private sector. There is the growing desire to run your own shop.  Long hours, frustration, and a variety of other forces are at work to make employee churn commonplace.   And so while we try to recruit the best people we can, and retain their services over time for continuity and other advantages, turnover is inevitable.

Finding the right people for open positions in a highly competitive job market is critical to our successes as organizations.

Once an organization narrows its candidates for an open position, reviews their resumes, and vets their recommendations and past performances, we invariably come down to two or three finalists. At that point the last stage of the hiring process is the in-person interview, where we try to glean information so we can make the best choice.

It is with that interview that I have some problems.  Increasingly, the interview has become some contest to see how clever we can be in designing the questions we ask.Too often now those questions don't really elicit the kinds of information that allow us to make intelligent, let alone, the best choice between candidates.  Too often, our interviews ignore what should rationally be our goals in favor of questions which put the interviewee on the spot - our thinking being that that will give us insight as to how the candidate will perform in our environment.

Questions such as: "What is your greatest weakness"; "How did you deal with failure?"; "Define your work ethic" - all sound reasonable, but suffer, I think, from stemming mostly from our attempts to be seen as wise and smart, and which simply don't tell us what we really need to know.  On one level, such questions are invasive and invite the interviewee to simply parrot back what they think we want to hear (which practice, I accept, is applicable to almost anything we ask, and now so widespread as to be expected - and that reality is yet another reason these kinds of questions simply mask the information that would be most valuable to us.)  To the extent we are trying to "game" the process with clever questions, the candidates will likewise try to game the process with answers they think fit our line of questioning.  We don't want the interview to be a contest of gaming each other.  We want it to be a frank, candid interchange between us; honest, transparent and fair to all.

Our obsession with everybody in the entire field needing to be a leader; our preoccupation with educational benchmarks in the form of degrees, which we equate with automatically being able to do the best job); and our laser like focus on where an applicant worked before - all color our thinking when we determine what we should ask of our finalists.

There are really only two major pieces of information we need to make an informed decision:

1) Can the applicant to a good (great) job in the position.  Do they have the experience, the thought processes, the vision and discipline to work at the organization and excel at the responsibilities that will be theirs.  How would they handle a specific challenge facing the person who will get the job.  I would be less interested in their weaknesses, or their failures, and more interested in their strengths - and I think it is the interviewer's job to determine their strengths by finding out what they would specifically do given a specific challenge.   More important than what they did in the past, is what they can do in the future - not in general, but for your organization.

2)  Every organization has its own culture.  Some are hierarchical; some authoritarian; some loose and flexible; some favor innovation and independent thinking and questioning and some have narrowly prescribed areas of decision making and how things are to be done.  The first thing that needs to be done is a realistic assessment of the organization's work culture - so that you can craft questions that will give you an idea whether or not the applicant will fit in.  The chemistry between the new hire and the extant work staff - and the organization itself - is arguably as important as their experience, expertise and vision.  If it ends up being a bad fit, the cost will be high to both the new hire and the current staff.  Too often, how the relationships might manifest get short changed or ignored in the interview process.  That is a big mistake.  One question you ought to ask yourself at the end of an interview is:  "Do I like this person?" because that is important.

It's easy to go online and seek some sample questions to ask prospective applicants in an interview, or for those that can afford to hire a search firm, to demur to that firm to come up with the questions.  But that is risky, for too often the questions then asked are the latest in the changing trend of what is fashionable at the time.  Generic questions may, if you are very lucky, give you some information that will actually be helpful in making your hiring decision, but don't count on it.  And it is an abrogation of the responsibility to take control of the process.  Nobody - certainly not a search firm - knows your organization like the people who work there.  Most search firms never bother to really research a client to determine what the ideal candidate would look like; rather they have a standardized "ideal' candidate profile that is basically a description of a candidate that is too perfect to exist in reality.

Some standardized questions might work for you, if you tweak them to fit your organization and the job slot to be filled.  But many more favored questions don't yield the kind of information they claim to.  Yes, you want to know how the candidate sees both work itself and the environment in which work is performed, and yes you want to know what the candidate values in relationships, their past successes and how they dealt with adversity - but be careful that the questions will actually elicit the information you need.  Too many questions elicit stock answers that are rehearsed and stray far from the facts.

Sometimes, it isn't what you ask of the candidate that tells you what you need to know. Sometimes, when you invite the candidate to ask you questions about the job, about the organization, those questions are more telling.  If the applicant doesn't have any questions for you, then they likely haven't done much research about your organization.  Ideally, the job interview isn't one sided; it's a conversation about the job, the applicant and the organization.  To get to that point you need to shift the power dynamic in your favor as the one doing the hiring to a more equal footing whereby the questions are back and forth and the interview becomes a discussion during which you can actually learn something about the applicant.

Hiring is often a crap shoot anyway.  You make the best decision you can given the information you have.  Sometimes you make a great hire.  Sometimes it turns out wrong and the relationship doesn't work.

But those hiring decisions, even at the lowest level of employees, are critically important and you need to treat them as such by thinking through the process before it starts.  That is true whether a Department Head, an Executive Director or the Board is making the hire.  The better you can assess the fit, the more likely you will make a wise hire.

So, please spend some time drafting questions that will give you information about your job candidates as to how they will fit into your organization, and how they will handle the actual job they will be expected to perform.  You need to be as honest with yourself in preparing for the interview as you hope the applicant will be in responding to your inquiries.  THINK about it.  Knowing everything you do about your organization and the job, if you were the candidate, what questions ought to be asked to determine if you would be the right person to hire.  My guess is your biggest failure or other such irrelevant and invasive questions wouldn't be on your list.

Good luck.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

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