What Terry Gross Knows About Interviewing

by | Dec 6, 2018 | Get on Board

Nearly every person who conducts interviews for hiring, focuses on the wrong thing. What is that? The questions they will ask. This puts the focus on precisely the wrong person, the interviewer. It often leads to a mechanical interview, distracts the interviewer, and treats the interviewee like an object. The only thing worse is an interviewer who is both unskilled and unprepared.

A great example of a skillful interviewer is Terry Gross, who hosts the fabulous radio show Fresh Air, on National Public Radio. She makes the interview look and feel like a conversation. Gross talks about her method in an article in The New York Times (Nov. 17, 2018). Gross’ method has broad application to social and business situations, the latter being the focus here.  

What is the big deal? 

The cost of hiring mistakes is enormous. The number often cited is a multiple of their salary but that is the least of it. In most organizations, poor performance is not met with a rapid response. Regardless of when the behaviors are noted or discussed, there is usually a lengthy process involved in removing someone who it was a mistake to hire in the first place. Exceptions usually include egregious acts that cannot be overlooked or denied.

While someone remains in a role ill-suited for them, these are a few of the things that typically happen:

  1. Their colleagues notice and wonder why something isn’t being done. If this continues, the leader’s credibility is tarnished.
  2. When poor quality work is discovered, it must be re-done.
  3. When poor quality work is not discovered, it leads to errors, poor service and damage to the company’s image.
  4. The people around them stop including the person in discussions.
  5. The manager finds him or herself having many conversations with the person and spending too much time trying to figure out why things aren’t working.

The deal is so big that organizations are willing to spend time and money to prevent them. For example, offering training to people about how to interview. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t work.

Three reasons why training doesn’t work.

First, training can help people learn ideas, frameworks, and techniques. What happens after the training exercise determines whether or not an individual will develop the skill to use them well or not. Too many organizations use attendance at a workshop as a proxy for the acquisition of knowledge and skill. That is like standing on a scale to find out how tall you are. It is the wrong metric.

Second, training involves cost. The people who made the decision to do it, want results. They want proof that the decision to use training was the right answer. They pressure the attendees to prove it was. This compels those who attend to use tactics and technique and report that they do so. Again, wrong measure.

Third, training is by necessity, one teacher and many students. That is why the cost is lower than individual developmental efforts. Developing good interviewing ability is iterative and requires actual interviews and rapid feedback. A workshop without subsequent in-vivo practice misses the interpersonal aspect of development, which most people find deeply rewarding and useful.

Too many organizations use attendance at a workshop as a proxy for the acquisition of knowledge and skill. Click To Tweet

The moral of this story? Don’t ask a trainer if training will help. It’s like asking a barber if you need a haircut.

Five reasons that mentoring works.  

Mentoring allows a person who has an ability (think ski instructor) to help someone who doesn’t have a particular ability (novice skier). The mentor and mentee are on the same slope, or in the same interview, so they have a common experience. The mentor leads at first, then is alongside, then steps back.

A mentor, in this case, is someone who is quite skilled at interviewing. How do you know if they are?

  1. Their decisions turn out to be good. Not perfect, but far better than average.
  2. The experience of the person being interviewed is positive, whether they are hired or not, promoted or not.
  3. They have the ability to de-construct just enough of the process to give the mentee something to hang onto.
  4. The mentor gives good feedback. What behaviors led to what result? No psychoanalysis needed.
  5. They do not foster dependency. When the mentee is almost ready to fly on their own, they push.

The anatomy of a good interview. 

A good interview should help you learn about the person being interviewed. It is not an interrogation, nor does it rely on tricks. If you feel you must trick a person into revealing something, either they aren’t appropriately open to the conversation or you are insufficiently skilled at interviewing. If most of the people you interview aren’t sharing what they should, it’s you. Before you blame the recruiters, look in the mirror.

Begin with a big question. Gross suggests, “Tell me about yourself.” You could also ask, “Tell me what interests you about this role?” Don’t be in too big of a rush.

Demonstrate curiosity. It’s not enough to think you are curious. It is important to convey it because that encourages people to share. Keep your questions to relevant topics but don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm for what you learn about a person.

Prepare. Don’t ask someone to review their resume, read it ahead of time. Ask questions about things that stand out.

Observe. The power of a great interview is not in a list of questions or a methodology. Who isn’t ready for the behavioral interview questions? The power of a great interview lies in listening to the themes and patterns revealed. A great interviewer needs only to guide the direction of the conversation.

Get off your high horse. Act like a peer, the person you are interviewing won’t die if you don’t like them.

What is at stake. 

The future of any organization hinges greatly on the decisions leaders, whether management or a board, make. The selection of a chief executive is one of the most critical roles of a board. Yet, the process of selection often begins with ‘who’, rather than ‘who for what.’ In this case, the stakes are extremely high and both the decision and performance following the decision, are known.

When acquiring a company or merging, decisions about who is a good fit to help the newly formed company achieve its objectives, are critical. As discussed in my book, The Merger Mindsettoo many bad decisions about people create what is akin to trying to fly a new, expensive plane with too much weight. Even if it is possible, it is far from optimal in achieving what are often ambitious targets.

Finally, the personal anguish felt by leaders at all levels when they don’t learn what is important and relevant about people in the hiring process is without measure. It needn’t be that way, even for those who do not possess the talent of someone like Terry Gross.