Effective Interviewing: How to Appoint the Best Manager

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What are the most effective interviewing tools for appointing a top manager? Managing Partner Ella Sytnik and Senior Partner Sergey Vorobiev talk about how Ward Howell helps its clients tackle this question.

Not long ago, Peter, the vice president of a major company, invited us to have a conversation, but with the disclaimer that while the topic of conversation would be related to attracting people to a company, it would be atypical. When we met, Peter explained what was troubling him.

From the moment it was founded and over the last five years, the organization developed quickly, setting ambitious goals for itself and unquestionably outperforming its competitors. “We wanted serious results, and quickly, and in order to get them, we sought out the best professionals on the market, ones that were ready to fight,” said Peter. “First and foremost, we looked at professional skills; decisions on key positions were made quickly by the president and me, and we quickly got used to parting ways with people if something just didn’t fit. Today, we’re a leading business, are not growing as quickly as before, and have a lot of managers; the hiring process is being done mostly by mangers, but we’re not getting the results that we want. In other words, we’re started to hire people worse and slower.”

In the process of the conversation we came to the conclusion that there are several possible reasons for the ineffective manager recruitment process. Firstly, the directors involved in the hiring process did not have the knowledge or logistics to be conducting interviews. Secondly, company leaders often consider the hiring process, including that for hiring key managers, as of secondary importance, “the necessary evil of spending important business time on non-operational issues.” So what do you do? We decided to hold a training for the company’s top 10 managers, including the CEO. Peter stressed that it was important not only to teach people best practices for interviewing candidates for managerial positions, but also to explain how best to make decisions and change the top managers’ attitude toward evaluating and choosing candidates.

This task piqued our interest. Choosing the right employee, and more so the right manager, is a key process. Any mistake in hiring can be costly, not least due to wasted time on expensive people. Organizational development slows by at least half a year – which is about the amount of time it takes to realize that a manager isn’t meeting expectations and find a replacement.

In 23 years of work, we have amassed a significant volume of academic knowledge and practical experience. It seemed timely and appropriate to share some relevant tools and technology with our client.

The dilemma we were faced with in preparing for this event was how to make it most compelling and useful, especially given that our contingent was comprised of experienced, authoritative and extremely busy managers. We chose a format for the session that combined the following elements:

  • team analysis of problematic subjects;
  • a list of best practices;
  • skill training through practical work;
  • development of a concrete plan for changing processes within the organization.

This is how the Effective Interviewing workshop was born.

System, structure and rules

The first thing the managers discovered about themselves in the session (all were members of the company’s executive board) is that despite the enormous amount of time each spent on formally interviewing candidates, they had almost nothing to show for it. Typically, after a series of interviews, none of those participating in the process had a clear impression of whether or not the person they interviewed would be a good fit for the position, nor could they even convey their opinions. Another interesting discovery was that the organizational values and skills that existed and had been developed by the team were not at all sewn into the recruitment process – that is, no one asked any questions about skills or values in the interviews.

Recruiting processes lacking a well-defined structure and general rules is typical for many fast-growing companies in our market. The result of this is particularly felt by top managers, who feel that they are wasting their time and that no one cares about their opinion, which leads to apathy or an unwillingness to even take part in the recruiting process.

The interview continues to be the cornerstone of the process for choosing a candidate. At the same time, though, international research shows that the validity of the traditional interview does not exceed 35%. The only way to improve this statistic is to give the interview some structure. The structure should be replicable, which allows you to compare the results of different candidates’ interviews for the same position. Just like with Legos, the interview structure for various positions in different organizations should be based off of similar elements and have much in common, even though the effective interview structure will be tailored to a specific manager, organization and environment. During our workshop we explore the content of each element and help our clients develop the optimal placement interview structure for them.

It is also important for all members of the process to discuss rules and make decisions together so that the interview serves as a regulated tool, instead of having a deconstructive effect on the team, in which it becomes a source of doubt, emotional likes or dislikes, or lengthy and unending debate.

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“Hired for hard, fired for soft”

A typical mistake made in the search and selection of candidates for management positions is the incorrect identification of requirements. Managers often employ a job description that lists only the hard skills – professional and technical characteristics – needed. In companies for which we have led our workshop, soft skill requirements had either not been identified at all, or had only been mentioned in general, meaningless phrases. Such neglect tends to become more costly the higher the position, because soft skills, such as emotional intellect and leadership quality, are critically important for climbing the career ladder. In the course of the workshop we show our clients how to properly allocate time and objectively evaluate personal qualities and assess values.

Getting a handle on it

We all think that we’re well-versed in soccer, ballet, and raising children. Almost all of our clients are sure that they can interview someone and understand who they are in three minutes. However, our experience and many years of observation show that a manager needs significant practice and self-reflection in order to master the skill of formulating an objective judgment in a conversation with a candidate.

The competency interview is an important structure offered to us by our designer. Within the workshop, we acquaint participants with its essence and offer extensive practice in formulating and expressing necessary competencies for a concrete position.

Both sides of the coin

Ray Kroc, founder of the fast food chain McDonald’s, said “You are only as good as the people you hire.” In our workshop, we give our participants the chance to examine this phrase from both sides: on the one hand, the best indicator of recruiting effectiveness is the ability of a team of interviewers to draw out all of the necessary competencies in the interview and come to the right conclusion about a person. On the other hand, the readiness of the best talent on the market to work at your company is an indicator that the company has positioned itself the right way, as a strong brand. How employees of a company interview impacts this positioning.

During one of our workshops, members of a leading industrial company’s executive board identified the interview as one of the most important channels of communication with the outside world. Even little things, such as an interviewer running late, can have a long-term negative impact on the employer’s brand.

Having an open conversation on how the company should be perceived by external candidates and why the best people should want to work specifically for that organization is also a necessary step in creating a recruitment strategy. In the course of our workshop, we dedicate significant attention to developing a unique value proposition.

Not just an interview

It is absolutely necessary to confirm the hypothesis you formulated in the course of an interview through several recommendations or an additional third party assessment of the candidate.

A recommendation from a colleague or a contractor is one of the most relevant sources of information about an applicant for a position. However, recommenders are also living people – their answers can vary. It is for this reason that within the workshop we teach managers how to attain the most useful information when gathering feedback.

An executive assessment is another useful tool for verifying interviewers’ hypotheses. For more on this process, see our article “Executive Assessment: Ward Howell's approach.”

Chain reaction

Typically, following our workshop our clients adopt and integrate the following into their recruitment process:

  • Key principles on positioning an organization – that is, how an organization can win over the best candidates;
  • Small applied hints that help increase the interview’s manufacturability and, therefore, its validity;
  • A methodology for collective interviewing and rules for making decisions.

Within our Effective Interviewing workshop, we offer managers the opportunity to dig deep into the critically important topic of attracting talent. This inevitably leads to the participants finding a new identity for themselves within the recruiting process and changing their attitude toward their role in creating a team.