The art, science, and labor of recruiting: Interviewing

Why interviewing is difficult

Everyone knows the “right” answers to give. How do you decide if what you’re hearing is the truth, and, more importantly, the whole truth? If a candidate was involved in a success (or a failure), what was their real contribution to it? Were they just lucky (or unlucky) to be there?

Be very wary of big titles and perceived authority or experience. 

How do you get behind this façade – “I worked at IBM or Google or the latest hottest company?” Among my biggest mistakes was to automatically believe that the head of the IBM PC business would be a great hire for a PC laptop business at Dynabook. My interviews were too cursory to discover that such a person would fail in an entrepreneurial environment. I was looking for confirmatory data that he was good and not asking the more fundamental question: IS he the right candidate if I did not know his previous title? One strategy is to ask the same question in different ways at different times and then triangulate answers. Do different contexts provide different answers? By the same token, candidates who have seen lots of change, lots of success and lots of failure learn a lot of intangibles that can be very valuable to an entrepreneurial company. This experience matters more than most entrepreneurs realize.

Another common area for error is when an entrepreneur does not know their own limitations. Try to understand what you, as the interviewer, are qualified to assess. Is your lack of experience going to lead you to mis-assess or miss what the candidate offers and even what your needs are? Know what you don’t know and get very good (in all areas, not just recruiting) to know whose judgment to trust on what topic!

Another strategy is to probe beyond the polite reference responses given by “provided references.” Are you getting the real history, performance and perception of a candidate? Additionally, look to read a candidate’s indirect characteristics in each question/answer; often multiple characteristics can be “read’ from the same answer. 

Functional requirements like “experience in distribution channel” are usually over- weighted, whereas more qualitative requirements are under-rated.

In CEO search, “leadership” and “team building” or “aggressive hiring” are far more critical than “domain knowledge”. 

However, in some position or areas where skills are rare, specific qualities (like yield in solar cells or battery manufacturing) may be critical and should be given more weight than “leadership.”

Take a look at Jeremy Allaire’s interview in the New York Times where he states “I’m one of those people who believe that there are certain phases of building an institution when you really shape the DNA of the company. I hired 10 people early on who worked for me directly, who were setting the foundation of the company. You have to get that right, because they’re going to be the people who hire the next 50 to 100 people. The die is cast, and now we’re approaching 300 people. For that foundation, I had a very clear idea of what the DNA needed to be.”[1] We have authored a similar paper called “Gene Pool Engineering” on how to engineer the gene pool of a company to the specific risks and opportunities of a company.[2] It is also important to consider how the candidate’s skills and abilities complement the existing team: do they fill needed functional vacancy and substantially add to the team outside their “area”? A separate paper covers yet another dimension of recruiting, maybe the single most important and most ignored dimension, called “gene pool engineering.” Gene pool engineering of a team to add genes from all areas/disciplines/backgrounds, is vitally important to managing the risks and opportunities a startup has.

It’s not them; it’s you

Your evaluation can depend upon what mood you are in and what unrelated events may have affected you that day or week.

For critical positions try 2-3 interviews, for 2-3 hours each, separated over a period of time. That way, each interview is different; your mood is different and your inquiry uses a different approach.

Cultural “fit” is difficult to determine in a functional interview. Anecdotal history of a person versus the “fabric” of a person is different and unearthing the latter is often challenging. How do they respond in crisis? How much heart they have when things get tough? How much passion? How do you even test for “heart” and passion while still focusing on other functional and non-functional needs? How much energy do they have? How open were they to ideas in the past? There’s no one correct answer to these questions beyond staying aware during the interview process.

Expect about a 67% “hit rate” in your assessment. Mistakes will happen.


A few thoughts about interview technique

Earlier, I mentioned triangulating answers to uncover inconsistencies and get to the truth. When it comes to questions, try to get a response in multiple ways. For example, ask:

  • What did their boss think of their job performance? Where were they right or wrong?
  • What did peers think? Where were they right or wrong?
  • What did direct reports think of the job they did? Where were they right or wrong?

The emotional distance provided by these “third-person” questions, can reveal some illuminating information.

Ask them first – when not discussing a position – about their “strengths & weaknesses” and consistency-check against the questions above for each position a candidate held. Also, cross check with references and their performance reviews from previous jobs. Separate the questions from each other during the interview(s) and look for consistency across answers:

  • What are their strengths and weaknesses? Determine how consistent their latter answers are with their self-described strengths and weaknesses.
  • What were their key contributions? Be sure to assess how realistic and self-aware are they of their contributions.
  • Where have they made the most difference in each job? Observe whether they “show” by specific examples and stories or simply “tell” you through unsupported statements of what they do great at.
  • What would they do over again?
  • What would others say about you? Cross-check consistency with what the candidate thinks employees/bosses/peers would say about them.

The focus of their answers shows you what they think is important – is this consistent with what you are looking for? What are they hiding? That reveals to you how open they are.

Consider what a candidate liked and disliked about previous jobs (look for consistency across questions and their biases/ preferences – as clichéd as it sounds, a leopard does not change its spots and you can rarely teach an old dog new tricks). Also consider a candidate’s self-image. How does it correlate to references? How good are they in assessing their strengths and weaknesses?

Note that it is important, no matter what area you are trying to investigate, to look for what the candidate “shows,” not just “tells.” It’s easy for candidate to simply “tell” you she’s great, but look for specific examples and stories that show how the skills the candidate claims, rather than “statements” about what the candidate did. Have them prove assertions with examples.

Finally, ask them what questions you should ask their references; that shows you what is important to them and what they want to avoid.


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