September 24, 2011

Become a Mystic Interviewer

Learning to hire great people is a little like learning to become a mystical fortune teller.

Why?  Because, like a fortune teller, you have to see into the future based only on a few short meetings.

Will this candidate be dedicated?  Passionate?  Have ideas?  Be a source of energy for the team?  Will she delight customers?   You need to predict all this and more.

Sometimes I wish I had mystic powers that would tell me how a candidate will work out on our team.  Unfortunately, I don’t.

But I *do* have a few tricks that allow me to peer into the future just like a mystic.

If you’re like me, you’re looking for people who are ambitious, who want to climb higher, who have positive energy and want to grow and learn and achieve.

One of the best ways to probe into a candidate’s mind for these qualities is to ask the question “What is the primary reason are you are looking for a new job?”  Asked properly, with good follow-up, this question will tell you everything you need to know about the candidate’s motivation and ambition.

I’ll give you an example of a bad answer first: “I want a job that is closer to my house.”

What does this answer tell you?  It tells me that the candidate is primarily focused on comfort and convenience.

She may be smart.  She may have great experience.  She may have stellar references.  But I’ve learned the hard way that none of those positive qualities matter if she’s more focused on comfort than she is on her career.  An ambitious person might want a shorter commute, sure, but all things considered she would prioritize advancement or learning or salary over commute time.

Other bad answers that signal a desire for comfort over achievement are “I want to work fewer hours” or “I want more flexibility in work time.”  These are deal breakers for me.  When I hear them the interview is over.

Another type of bad answer is that which shows the person is negative.  “I don’t get along with my boss” or “The company is unfair to me.”  While this may be true, answering in this way shows that the person is focused on getting AWAY from somewhere as opposed to getting TO somewhere.  Believe me, you want people who are moving TO something and not AWAY from something.  Negative people tend to remain negative regardless of their environment.

Great answers include things like “I’m ready to grow and do more” or “I’ve heard about the training people get at your company and I’m excited to learn” or even “I want to make more money.”  If you hear any of these answers it’s a great sign that this person is positive, ambitious and motivated.  Dig and ask follow-up questions to get a clearer picture and check if they’re speaking from the heart or just spouting a line.

Practice your “Mystic Interviewing” skills by asking this question the next time you interview someone.  Probe deeper and ask follow-up questions.   You will be amazed at how well your new powers enable you to peer into the future.

  • Great topic! Although, I’m curious about the moving TO instead of moving AWAY point you made.

    What if the person wants to do both, moving away from a company because they’re not getting what they want, or not being treated fairly, and moving to something they feel will be better suited for their career growth? Are you looking for HOW the interviewee expresses their negatives? I mean, of course you don’t want someone who only talks about why they’re leaving and not focus on more positive things like you mentioned, because they’re just complaining and whining at that point. But, what if some people are just more honest about how they feel and mentions first that they’re not happy with where they’re at, and then says that they want to work at a place that will give them A, B, and C.

    Isn’t one of the common interview questions is, “Why did you leave your last job?”

    I don’t think everyone who goes in for an interview feels like their last job was left on good terms. Not all of us have that luxury, sad to say. If a person expresses in the interview that they’re leaving a previous job because of the “negatives,” doesn’t that allow an open conversation about what the new (and potential) company has to offer? Or at least what they’re looking for in the new company. I mean, yes, you’re interviewing them, but interviews are a two way street. A good candidate needs the job as much as the job needs the candidate.

    • Chris

      Hi Linda,

      Great comment.

      Yes, I’m “looking for HOW the interviewee expresses their negatives.”

      I agree that there often are negative reasons why someone is leaving a job. That’s ok. How they express those negatives tells you a lot about how they think and whether they are fundamentally positive or negative in attitude.

      It’s like a the “half empty or half full glass of water” cliche. How a person answers tells you a lot about how they think.

      Where is the person’s focus? Do they say “I just want to get away from this bad boss” or do they say “I really want to work in an environment where I can contribute and feel like my work is meaningful”? Both answers could be related to a bad boss in the candidate’s current job, but each answer does tell you something different and meaningful about the candidate’s outlook.

      Negative answers also don’t tell you why the candidate is interested in YOUR organization over others. All a negative answer says is the candidate wants to get out, any company will do.

      In my experience people who dwell repeatedly on the negative, even with reasonable justification, are to be avoided. Those people are more likely to be negative thinkers in general and will lower morale in your organization.

      •  Nice post!

        As a interviewer, I agree that candidates shouldn’t mention negative reasons for leaving their past jobs. Their previous employer might have troubles but who care? Anybody has conflicts with each other and if you cannot solve these troubles and want to quick, it is your choice. But you should not bring it to another place :-) Stop there and let’s make a new life/ career.


  • Ahh! Thanks for the quick clarification, and yes, I agree. It’s all in how you present yourself.

  • Dwayne

    I offered an interview question that I got from reading a Jack Welch book one time. The interview question was like this:

    Jack Welch once wrote that he evaluated his people on four “E’s:

    Energy: Does this person have a lot of positive energy?
    Energize: Does this person energize others?
    Edge: Does this person make decisions in spite of conflicting and ambiguous information?
    Execute: Does this person get the job done? Are there measurable results?

    In your opinion, which one of the four E’s is most important? Of the four E’s, which one do you think you most need to improve?

    The answers I got were most interesting and gave me a lot of insight into a candidate’s leadership capabilities and understanding.

    • Chris

      Hi Dwayne,

      I’m also a big fan of Welch’s book “Winning!”

      Your question is a good one because it tests so many things — Is the candidate comfortable using straight talk about areas for improvement? Is he self-aware and mature enough to have identified areas for improvement?

      From this question you can segue into what the candidate is doing to improve himself. His answer will reveal his motivation and attitude towards constant improvement. I always look for people who are constantly looking to do better and have great attitudes about that.

      I like to ask people-leaders “Tell me about a management mistake you made and what you learned from it.”

      I had one senior candidate tell me “I’ve never made any mistakes.” Over my better judgment we hired this person. While she was great in many respects, her glaring weak area was an inability to acknowledge mistakes or ask for help. That caused a lot of problems after she joined. We ended up having to manage her out. Lesson learned — looking back I could have predicted this behavior from her answer.