You’re hiring? Congrats! In my experience as an executive leadership consultant helping company founders, C-suite executives, and small-business owners shape effective teams, I’ve noticed that interviewing—especially if you’re doing it for the first time—can be as nerve-racking for the interviewer as it is for the candidate. But don’t worry: By pausing, taking a few deep breaths, and following the 15 tips below, you’ll conduct a smooth and professional interview—and increase your chances of making and retaining the right hire.
When conducting an interview—or coaching others to—I like to categorize the process into five phases:
- Prep for the interview. Get clear on the process and what you’re looking for in a hire.
- Begin the conversation. Welcome the candidate into the interview and start the discussion.
- Discover who the candidate is. Learn more about the interviewee’s competencies.
- Learn how the candidate works. Understand the interviewee’s thinking and collaborative style.
- Wind down. Explain next steps and send the interviewee on their way.
Flowing through all five of these phases will help you stay focused and confident, while gaining in-depth insight into the candidates you’re interviewing. I’ll walk you through each phase below.
Phase I: Prep for the Interview
You and the rest of the hiring team are probably clear on what technical skills your new employee should have, but have you thought about what personality traits—such as the ability to communicate directly, be quiet and analytical, or build relationships—work best for the role? Is your job description merely a list of tasks, or does it tell the interviewee how the role is linked to the company’s mission?
Once you’ve answered those questions, create a blueprint for the interview, with interview questions to ask at each phase that will help bring out the specific information you’re looking for. You also want to be prepared for questions the candidate might ask you—including inquiries about compensation.
Having a plan is useful, but think of it more like a set of guideposts than a strict road map. You want to come into any interview with a healthy dose of curiosity about the candidate, and if you’re too worried about sticking to a rigid plan, you might miss the opportunity for spontaneous conversations that will help you learn more about the person you’re considering for your team.
A startup founder getting ready to bring on a few new hires recently said to me: “Resumes don’t tell me anything. I need to know how the person lives and thinks in order to make the right hire.”
This is a trendy mistake. While a resume can be a rather two-dimensional way to learn about a multifaceted person, it still tells you some key things about your candidate’s skills and the work environments they’ve been in. Familiarize yourself with a prospect’s resume to learn about their career trajectory, work history, competencies, and education, as well as potential points where you and the candidate might have a personal connection, such as common acquaintances or former workplaces.
Reading the interviewee’s resume will help you personalize the questions you came up with when doing your more general prep. And referencing a candidate’s resume during their interview shows that you’ve spent time getting to know them, which will make them feel valued. Don’t forget: Applicants are interviewing you, too, so it’s important to make a good impression.
Phase II: Begin the Conversation
“You drive? In New York?” That’s how one of my first bosses kicked off our interview. I had put “licensed driver” down on my resume because it came in handy at a college job. We ended up chitchatting about growing up in New York City. I started off nervous, but the bonding small talk helped me relax.
“Interviewing isn’t a ‘gotcha’ game anymore,” says Stephanie Smith-Ejnes, VP of People and Organization for Sony Pictures Entertainment, referring to a style of interviewing that puts people on the spot to see how quickly they think. “It’s about connecting, even briefly, with the person across from you.”
Have you been introduced to the candidate through someone you know? Does their resume reveal something you have in common such as attending the same school or pursuing the same quirky skill or hobby? Is there something interesting on their resume or cover letter that sparks your curiosity, but isn’t directly connected to the role they’re interviewing for? For example, one leader I work with, an animal lover at a social justice organization, started one interview by asking the candidate about the time they’d worked at a zoo.
If you’re struggling to find the perfect way to start, don’t fret too much. Your job is to lead the candidate through the process, first by making them feel welcome. Regardless of what exactly you say, keep the tone friendly, Smith-Ejnes says, and use “eye contact, smiles, curiosity, and warmth” to establish rapport, which will help you get to know the candidate better.
It’s tempting to explain the role, going over each point in the job description and fleshing it out, but I don’t recommend it, especially since it tends to make an anxious prospect’s eyes glaze over.
So instead of telling them about the role and rehashing what’s listed on the posting they applied to, ask if the job description was clear. What questions do they have about it? This should spark a conversation rather than a monologue. It also shows you how thoughtful, prepared, and curious they are.
Based on your candidate’s questions, you can spend a few minutes clearing up any confusion and digging into the aspects of the job they’re most interested in. Plus, this conversation will tee you up to enter the next phase.
Phase III: Discover Who the Candidate Is
Many interviewers try to gauge an applicant’s self-awareness. And in doing so, they might default to questions that are really better answered by coworkers or bosses, such as “What are your strengths?” “What are your weaknesses?” or “Tell me about your work ethic.”
But since a person’s colleagues are not at the interview, I recommend asking, “Why do you think you’re a good fit for the job?” This question invites a candidate to share their reasons for applying and helps you tap into their self-awareness and motivation. While you listen, be on the lookout for their perception of your company, their level of confidence, and their skills—plus, how easy it is or isn’t for the candidate to explain them.
I recommend asking, “What makes you good at your [current or last] job?” as a way of leading the candidate into talking about their skills. You’re looking to make sure they have the skills critical to carrying out the tasks of the role. But don’t stop the inquiry once they list their proficiencies.
“When interviewees speak of their prior jobs they will name what they did and the discussion will remain at a general level,” says Richard Nodell, a leadership and organizational consultant. “Interviewers [mistakenly] avoid asking exactly what the work they did was and how they proceeded [in doing it].”
Instead, you need to dig down into the specifics of the candidate’s answer to get a better picture of who they are, Nodell says. For example, if they “ran a big project,” or “led a marketing team,” ask them: What did they actually do? What kinds of software did they use? Were there meetings? Were there deadlines? And, as a preview to what you’ll be uncovering in Phase IV, if there were other people involved, how did they interact with or lead them?
As the qualifications of the candidate become clearer, you’ll naturally start to match them with your requirements. And knowing specifics will really help you see how those skills play out in real time. For example, a team lead (and client of mine) who was interviewing someone for an HR role was impressed with the applicant’s people skills. However, digging deeper, he discovered the applicant had an assistant who put information into the company’s project management software, and the candidate admitted: “I don’t do spreadsheets.” Since there was no assistant assigned to the role the interviewer was hiring for, and Excel was a major part of the way his office shared information, this was an important point, and it might have been missed if he hadn’t asked for specifics.
By this point in the interview you’ve heard what your candidate does and gotten a sense of their skill set. But every applicant offers unique qualities and gifts that another person with the same skills may not have. A special trait may involve their actual work (e.g. they’ve been written about in trade publications for their creativity or are a reputable speaker on industry best practices) and/or their personality or soft skills (e.g. they are easygoing, listen empathetically, or like to bring in home-baked goods on Fridays).
For example, a client of mine believes she got her latest job when the interviewers asked, “What is unique about you that makes a special contribution to the workplace?” and she answered, “My team calls me The Synergist.” The term synergist (coined by leadership expert Les McKeown) refers to a leader who understands the importance of business process, operations, and vision in equal parts—and that was exactly what the company needed.
When an applicant shares their uniqueness, it helps you see what they could be adding to the company beyond their skills. It can help you envision how they will fit in with the people and culture at your company and how they might interface with clients and vendors as a representative of your organization. And if they are known in the industry, it may even boost the reputation of your company to bring them on board.
Phase IV: Learn How the Candidate Works
Ask your candidate to tell you about a regular day in their current or most recent role, inviting them to go into all the details. Listen to understand: How do they structure their time? Are they managing crises? Do they have a regular schedule of interacting with other staff or clients? Do they take breaks? Don’t be afraid to ask for more specifics and get into a deeper conversation about how they work.
Look for the rhythm and pace they describe to see if it matches that of the role and the culture at your workplace in general. If you feel there’s a discrepancy—for example, maybe the person takes longer to complete daily tasks than you envision for the role, or alternately, they don’t admit to taking any breaks at all—be sure to follow up with questions like: How does working without any breaks impact your level of concentration? Mention the differences in pacing and style between your team and their description and see how they react. Checking now to see how a candidate’s work style matches up with your team or company can help you avoid friction in the workplace later.
Ask your interviewee how they solved a problem that occured at their job. What you’re looking for is not only their thought process, but also their collaboration skills and style: In the problem-solving, did they hunker down and work by themselves, or were there others with whom they consulted or partnered? How did they feel the communication went? Who have they historically relied on to do their job well?
Do their answers show the ingenuity you’re looking for? Are they a lone wolf or a collaborator? And if they’re a collaborator, how do they collaborate? In certain jobs—for example, a remote software programmer at a law firm—a lone wolf alone could be the right fit. Alternately, if the culture at your company involves lots of teamwork and partnership, seeing how the candidate interacts with others and communicates while solving problems will help you picture how they’ll mesh with the existing team.
Communication is a broad topic. There’s interpersonal communication: how one delivers and receives information from others. And then there are the technical aspects—i.e., the software that is used in communication. Use this time to ask your interviewee about both. What platforms (Slack, Zoom, project management software, text, email) do they use at their current or former job? Which one, if any, would they choose for a difficult conversation? Share which forms of communication are favored in your workplace and get a sense of the candidate’s level of comfort with them.
It’s also useful to understand how prospects respond to feedback because it’s an essential part of work life. Ask interviewees if they can recall a good experience of receiving feedback. How was the feedback delivered? How did they grow as a result? This answer can give you a lot of information about their temperament, work and leadership style, and ability to collaborate.
As you learn about their openness to feedback and what forms of communication they’re comfortable with, you’ll be able to see how the candidate measures up and how much of a learning curve there might be for them to get up to speed with your organization.
Phase V: Wind Down
With all interviews, you’re looking to hire for a specific role right now to fill an organizational gap. But for this interview, are you looking for someone who wants to grow with your company and move into a more senior position in your organization in the future? Being clear on this will help you know if you should hire with retention in mind. Regardless, you should find out where the candidate sees this role fitting into the larger vision of their career trajectory. A useful question for starting this conversation is: “If you were successful at this job, what would come next?”
The interviewee may not have thought of this beforehand, so give them some time to answer. If you’re interested in an employee making a contribution to your company for a long time, but discover the interviewee is in graduate school for another field, it will help you ask the right follow-up questions and make an informed decision, reducing the possibility of unwanted employee retention surprises six months or a year down the line.
Hopefully you’ve been leaving space for questions throughout the interview, but it helps to offer some structured time at the end as the interviewee collects their thoughts. Transition the candidate into this phase of the interview by saying, “OK, I think I’ve gotten everything I need to know at this stage, thank you. Is there anything more you would like me to know? Do you have any questions?”
Keep in mind: You don’t have to launch into long explanations for every question they ask. You may not even know the answer if the question is highly technical, and it’s fine to say so. Just make it a point that you will get back to them with an answer—and be sure you follow up!
In certain interview processes, you’ll need to review all the applicants with the hiring team before contacting candidates about the next round of interviews. In this case, tell the applicant when they can expect to hear from you. “You’ll hear from us within 10 business days about next steps,” is a good example of what to say, and make sure the time frame you suggest is actually feasible.
However, if you’ve been given the authority to make a decision about who to move forward and the candidate’s skills, presentation, and personality tick off most of the boxes you’ve established beforehand, you can explain what the next round of interviews will entail, including who they’ll meet with, how long it will take, and how to think about preparing.
If you want to learn more about their competency levels, consider assigning a take-home test. You may give the candidate some sort of skills test, and/or now that you’ve seen how they solve problems at their job, you could explain a problem that you or your team encountered recently and ask them to figure out how they would have handled it.
Even if you’re busy and you’re not sure about the person you just spent 20 minutes to an hour with, you can acknowledge their efforts by walking them to the door and making sure they know where the bathrooms are and which exits to use. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way in establishing rapport. Even if the interviewee doesn’t end up with a job at your company, you still want to be a brand ambassador by helping your organization be remembered as a nice place to work.
As soon as possible after the interview, don’t forget to spend a few minutes documenting everything of significance you can remember in your company’s ATS (applicant tracking system) or chosen platform of communication during hiring processes. Even when writing about a strong candidate, be sure to share not only the strengths you see but also any doubts you have. And be available to the rest of the hiring team if they want to follow up with any questions about your notes.
Being a good interviewer means you get to learn all sorts of things about new people. So as a final, bonus suggestion: Try to have fun. Chances are, if you have fun, your candidate will, too.