|Beyond The Trick Question
By Nancy K. Austin
Instead of probing for the inner candidate, smart
interviewers want to know one thing: Can you do the work?
Years ago, an executive with a reputation as a superb judge of talent told me his
"secret" to hiring the right people: He picked good drivers. About halfway
through an interview, he would toss the keys to his Taurus to the astonished applicant and
suggest a short spin around the neighborhood. The executive figured that the way the
candidate responded -- first to the invitation, then to whatever the trip might offer --
was a reasonable indicator of how she would handle the stresses and surprises of business.
Of course, there was nothing at all reasonable about the driving stunt, but even managers
who would never dream of doing such a thing will confess to using a few offbeat strategies
to smoke out the real person behind the tailored suit and word-perfect resume. They try to
trick people by asking gimmicky questions: "If you knew you had only a year to live,
what would you do differently? If you were an animal, what would you be? Can man legally
marry his widow's sister?" (Hint, if a man has a widow, he's too dead to marry
anyone.) Or they go in search of the inner applicant using personality tests: "When
you have to do something unpleasant, would you rather do it all at once, or an inch at a
time?" Or they try to find what a candidate is really made of by conducting the dread
"stress interview," in which a half-dozen executives surround the applicant,
barking out questions and interrupting any attempts to answer. (It's a method favored by
certain consulting firms, investment-banking houses and cops; intimidation, not
enlightenment, is the goal here.)
Now, though, a few companies known for getting the most out of their people, including
Kraft Foods, Delta Air Lines, AT&T, and Procter & Gamble, are seriously rethinking
the way they size people up. They've learned the hard way. "There is absolutely no
correlation between how well you interview and how well you perform on the job," says
Nick Corcodilos, managing director of the North Bridge Group, an executive-search and
consulting firm based in Lebanon, N.J. "Managers keep hiring on the basis of
personality rather than ability to do the job."
Wait a second. Isn't doing the job the point of the whole exercise? It should be,
Corcodilos says, but "employers and candidates alike tend to get lost in the
formalities of the interview. These include a slew of standard questions that are almost
meaningless, except that they produce a lot of anxiety. Interviewing is not about where
you see yourself in five years. It is not about your weaknesses or your strengths. It is
not about your most challenging experience or greatest accomplishments. Interviewing is
about the job." And achieving that focus, as Corcodilos explains in The New
Interview Instruction Book [no longer in print], means reinventing the interview process.
"The new interview," says Corcodilos, "is a hands-on, at-work meeting
between an employer who needs to get a job done and a worker who is fully prepared to do
the job during the interview." For this new model to work, both sides have to be
prepared. The payoff for the employer is a more reliable judgment about a candidate's
value to the organization.
It's not hard to understand why companies are embracing this new approach: Old-fashioned
recruiting and selection methods can't keep pace with corporations' rapidly changing
needs. That's why Mary Kay Haben, executive vice president of the pizza division at Kraft
Foods, spends so much time thinking about the questions she and her managers ask. "We
work hard to focus our questions on the job that has to be done," she says. That
means lots of open-ended inquiries to get beyond the canned responses that, let's face it,
applicants are sick of giving and interviewers are sick of hearing: 'What decisions have
you made that you wish you could take back? How do you motivate others?'" Haben
quizzes candidates on mini case studies: "I'll describe a situation and ask, 'How
would you handle this?'" In other words, she lays out a real live business problem,
then steps back and watches the prospect tackle it. She also relies on "multiple data
points," reactions from five or six Kraft managers who individually interview the
same roster of candidates, then meet later to compare notes. "In the old days,"
she says, "everybody followed the resumes and asked exactly the same things. That
doesn't happen anymore."
For job applicants, then, homework is mandatory. No more breezing into an interview
relying on charm and a good line of patter. The new-style interviewer expects serious
candidates to demonstrate an understanding of the company's operations, its standing in
the market and its strategic and tactical problems. Yes, applicants have to recommend ways
to improve the company's products or services, but they also had better be ready to
explain how they'd turn their recommendations into action.
There are, of course, those diehard interviewers who never met a gimmick they didn't like.
They're the clods who take a smart, well-prepared candidate to lunch and volley their
toughest questions at her when she's working on a mouthful of baby greens with
walnut-raspberry vinaigrette. Or they'll drive by a candidate's house to see if the lawn
is neatly edged and the car is washed. Roger Dow, vice president and general sales manager
of Marriott Lodging, has no patience for that sort of nonsense. "If you play
games," he warns, "you'll hire a group of game-players."
In the interviews he conducts, Dow sticks to actual business issues. "I always pose a
live situation," he says. "I might say, 'Here's one of the biggest challenges we
face in our business: The competition is consolidating. What can we do about it?'"
The candidate he's looking for will present at least the broad outlines of a solution that
will have a favorable impact on profits. If she doesn't have a solution, she should be
able to show how she'd find one -- fast.
The Tale of The Tape
That's not to say the new interview is all about function, that personality doesn't count.
Showing that you belong, that you are motivated and enthusiastic, is still as important as
demonstrating that you can do the work. To make sure you're conveying that impression,
Reiko Hasuike, president of Decision Quest, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that
specializes in jury selection, strongly recommends that women take a hard look --
preferably on videotape -- at what they do during an interview. "Women nod a lot when
an interviewer speaks, and men don't," she observes. "Women often smile more,
and they have a rising intonation at the end of a sentence. In the end, it makes you
subservient." But don't overcompensate, warns Corcodilos. He's seen too many women
who have picked up "men's terrible interview habits, like having an overly forceful
handshake or trying to be too clubby. The most successful women I know in business have
ignored the traditional male back-slapping. These women focus on what really matters:
getting the job done profitably."
And being feminine isn't necessarily a liability in an interview. "When women make
direct eye contact," says Hasuike, "when they lean forward to ask a thoughtful
question during the interview, it is very persuasive."
If this seems like too much to take in, don't worry. In the end, you only have to remember
a few simple rules. If you're in search of a job, you must be able to demonstrate to a
would-be employer that you can do a broad range of work, not just meet the bare minimum of
the job description. To do that, focus on the work during the interview. (Not that you
should tear up your resume. Part of focusing on the work is talking about how you tackled
similar assignments earlier in your working life.) Talk about specific tools - market
research, computer technology, the skills of your team - that you'd bring to bear on a
problem. And be ready to detail how your approach would affect profitability.
As for employers, they have to assess every ounce of capability and fit, keeping one thing
uppermost in mind: the ability to solve a problem - i.e., do the job. If the candidate can
make a convincing display of that ability, it's time to ask the least gimmicky question of
all: "When can you start?"
Please tell us what you think of this
Copyright (c) 1996 Nancy K. Austin. Reprinted here
by Nancy Austin's kind permission. This article appeared originally in the March 1996
issue of Working Woman magazine.
Nancy Austin is the author of The
Assertive Woman, the first book about assertiveness for women (over 400,000 copies in
print), and co-author, with Tom Peters, of the management classic A Passion for
Excellence. Nancy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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