To Hire Greatly, Interview Greatly

“[A resume is] a record of a person’s career with all the accomplishments embellished and all the failures removed.” — George Buckley, former CEO of 3M, as told to Geoff Smart and Randy Street in “Who”

Resumes are marketing documents: they give you a sense of the person’s profile, but not necessarily their capabilities, characteristics, cultural fit, or psychological profile. To understand who you’re hiring, you want to understand the real person, not the one they advertise.


That’s where interviewing comes in. Research suggests structured interviews are the best way of understanding the nuances of the personality you’re assessing.

But research also tells us it’s exceptionally hard to interview well. In Lazlo Bock’s book, “Work Rules!” he details research done in Google that suggested almost every single person in 100,000+ person organization of Google was less accurate at interviewing people than a group of great interviewers.


Interviewing is Like Viewing a House


Interviewing someone is like going to an open house. You’ve seen the ad online or at a property agents’ (i.e. their curriculum vitae) and now you’re going to walk the halls and rooms and understand all the good things and the bad things.


Almost every house starts with an agent opening the front door and showing you the entrance hallway. They’ll normally start telling you how many bedrooms there are and when the property was built. You get the overview.


Starting an interview is similar: you want to get a sense of the basics. What attracted you to this organisation? What made you apply to this specific role? What’s the outline of your background? What makes you uniquely suited to this position, in brief? (Recruiters often summarise these introductory questions as “Why this company? Why this role? Why you?”.)


After you get a general sense of the house, then you’re taking a walk around, right? You can think of the rooms in the house being like the set of criteria you want to assess. You want to see what the master bedroom is like, how big the bathroom is, whether enough light gets into the kitchen.


Interview questions are the way you walk through the house of someone’s mind and experience. Preparing what criteria you want to assess and designing interview questions to assess the candidate against those criteria is critical to interviewing well. In the same way, say, shower water pressure might be really important to you in a house, you’ll want to understand how well someone handles tight deadlines. After you’ve established the basics about a person, you want to dive into their strengths and weaknesses and how they measure against the criteria you have for the role. How great are they with numbers? Are they creative? Are they good with people?


Like walking through the house seeing what rooms there are, how they’re connected, how big they are, great interviewing should allow you to see what qualities the candidate has, how strong they are in particular areas, and how those qualities are inter-related.


At the end, you should be able to see the whole person in your mind in the same way after a viewing you can see the whole house in your mind. Reflecting on what you’ve seen, you have to decide whether it’s the house you can live in, or if the kitchen won’t work for your family.


The reason I like this analogy, is that every so often you find something surprising but valuable- like a massive basement (huge reserves of stamina), or a library in the attic (exceptional memory), which might make somebody more or less appealing to hire. Prepare to be surprised by people, and let their answers show you new rooms in their houses.


To Understand How People Will Perform, You Have to Understand How They Grow


Most people hire for who are person is, not who they will grow to be. But that’s not how we buy houses. Most of us want to know if we can build an extension out the back, or if you could knock down a wall to make an open plan kitchen/living area. To understand how someone will grow at your company, you need to understand how they will perform in an environment like yours and how they will respond to your culture.


While past performance isn’t always a predictor of future success it’s often one of the strongest signals. So to find out how someone will grow, ask them about how they have grown in the past. Dive into what skills they focused on and how, how quickly they developed them, and what precipitated that growth. Especially for positions that require exceptional leadership, you’ll have to understand how they react in the face of adversity, what they do when they fail, and how they respond to constraints, especially those imposed on them by others (who are fallible). You might then be able to craft a picture on how they’ll grow in the future.


Practice Practice Practice


As Lazlo Bock described, it’s really hard to be great at interviewing. To be great at anything takes practice, but as my old karate sensei used to say:

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” -Vince Lombardi (after whom the NFL Superbowl Trophy is named)

It will take time and lots of repitition to be a good interviewer. In my career, I’ve only ever known a handful of truly great interviewers. Practice, practice, and practice again and soon you’ll find your dream house for you and the kids.


Eoin spent just over a year working on hiring for Palantir Technologies in New York, Palo Alto, and London. He’s personally interviewed over 1000 people. Since leaving Palantir, he's returned to Dublin and founded Cantillon Labs, a firm helping European entrepreneurs scale their companies globally. This post originally appeared on Medium in February 2018.

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