What makes a good interview?

My experience of recruitment is largely anecdotal, I am not a professional interviewer or HR expert. My limited experience of interviewing has been as a candidate, a hiring manager, or sometimes even as a subject expert. I’d estimate that over my career my experience is approximately 8:1 in favour of being an interviewer over being an interviewee, but I have been on both sides of the table often enough to know how it feels from either perspective. 

Over the last 5 or so years the amount of effort I have put into recruitment has been considerable, especially considering it is not really meant to be a significant part of my role. I’d estimate that I have hired an average of one person ever 2 months or so.   I even like to think I am pretty good at it,  although as you will see I am probably mistaken in that opinion.

What is striking though is how much time this takes, very anecdotally I’d estimate that depending on the quality of the CVs that I receive, on average only 5% will make it through the screening and interviewing to getting an offer(probably less). But the 95% that get rejected still consume a lot of time, and of the 5% selected we don’t always get it right, and I’m pretty sure quite a few good candidates get missed. The process is far from ideal.

recruitment

But what makes for a good interview?

As a candidate I have had interviews lasting less than 15 minutes (where I was offered) and interviews spanning 3 days, for a graduate recruitment programme, and just about everything in between. I have had good experiences and bad.

Some, in fact most interviewers seem to forget that the candidate is also interviewing them, and that the candidate is deciding if they want to work with you in the same way you are assessing them – it is not a one way decision by any stretch. Such is the lack of understanding and sheer arrogance of some that I have been asked extremely obscure technical questions that provide no clear value, I have been challenged(insulted) to gauge my response, I have had panel of interviewers quick-firing questions and had interviewers who were clearly reading my CV for the first time during the interview.  Why would any good candidate have any desire to work for you after an interview like that?

I haven’t kept accurate records, and I appreciate this is anecdotal but I’d estimate I have turned down close to three job offers for every one I have accepted over my career. Now I am well aware that I am fortunate to have in-demand skills at a time when the market is booming, I have also had a lot of rejection.  Similarly, as a hiring manager I’ve had too many candidates turn down offers, or more frustrating get a better offer before we could complete the hiring process.

The hiring process is so expensive and so important I am surprised at how often it is treated in a cavalier manner.   Why oh why would you be so arrogant to treat candidates with anything less than the respect you would expect them to show you?

Live to work, not work to live.

It is often said that happiness is about finding balance in your life, sometimes this means making time for the different aspects of your life, work, hobbies, family and so on, but what if balance is achieved by taking pleasure in all these endeavours? Not simply making time for each but making sure each is fulfilling in its own way.

Too many people seem to suggest that they dislike work, or that it is a chore to be endured for the pay cheque. I find this an odd perspective. Why would you spend 40 hours a week, every week, doing something you endure? Chances are you spend more time at work than anything else. 

I am very lucky, I have a job I love, although I also love my bed and find getting out of bed on a morning difficult sometimes. But once I am up I am itching to get to work, I have ideas and plans and normally can’t wait to get started, at the end of the day there is usually more I want to achieve and it is only self-discipline that makes me come home at the end of the day, I set myself a time box on my working day to avoid taking on too much or allowing work to take over, I try hard to only rarely exceed it, this is a personal choice and I’m aware is not common but works for me and is something I encourage in teams I coach. 

I have covered this before but being clear on what you can achieve in a working week is vital. To quote Dickens.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and six pence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Charles Dickens.

My philosophy is similar – if your workload can be achieved in the time available the result is happiness, if your workload exceeds the time available the result is stress and unhappiness.

If you work extra hours to get the extra work done, the result is that next week the work will grow more and then more, until at some point you will collapse or be forced to set a limit, so set the limit now where you are able to do so objectively.
When it comes to job satisfaction it is fair to say that my job is not saving the world, I am not doing something overtly exciting or grandly creative, the teams I work with are about streamlining business processes to increase automation, reduce errors and reduce staff to save the government money, as a 7 year old I was hardly saying “when I grow up I want to save the government money”. But nevertheless I love my job, I work with some really nice people and we are working hard to do a good job. I take pleasure from achieving goals, and especially seeing teams and individuals develop, I take particular pride when my advice or coaching bears fruit.

Life is shaped by experience and I have found that no matter what the work there can be pleasure in it. In the past, I have been a debt collector, I owned and ran a small retail bookshop, But I have spent most of my career in software development, some interesting projects some much less so, but it has been only rare occasions that I haven’t enjoyed work. My first post-university job was with Bell Labs working on GSM, the established guys got to work on the roll-out of GPRS, but the new guys got the ‘dull job’ we had to fix bugs on an old C++ Unix system, but it wasn’t dull at all, we had a largely absent boss so we mostly organised ourselves, every bug was a puzzle, a challenge and a learning experience (I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious because it really was enjoyable) we had a small team that were great fun, we would lunch together most days, we had a pretty poor softball team that played in a league and lost most of the time, and we often socialised together, because work isn’t just about the work it is about the people. 

My worst experience was also at Bell Labs, the team had an ambitious boss, he wanted a juicy high profile project and so he turned down anything that didn’t fit this requirement and so the team went through an idle period where we quite literally had nothing to do, it was sole destroying, we would come to work for our required hours but there was nothing to do, we read, and looking for training, we talked and we played silly office games, we formed a league for Ball-in-the-box a game where we threw a mini American football the length of an office to bounce into a photocopy paper box, after many hours playing we became quite adept. But what we were not allowed to do was work on something, we had to be ready for the next plum project.  Thankfully a senior manager saw what was going on, and transferred the team to UMTS (3G) this was a lifesaver the morale was getting pretty low.  I find it odd that my worst experience was where I was paid to do nothing but chat have fun and play games, for me at least I get pleasure from being busy and doing something I see as productive and valuable. 

Perhaps the most influential aspect in anyone’s life is their parents, I was a “vicar’s kid” or “son of a preacher man” etc etc, my father was a minister of religion and I was the 3rd of 4 children, the only boy, as a result I have developed a pretty strong rebellious streak, but what surprises me looking back is how much my father’s work has influenced me, as the leader of a church he was an archetypal servant leader, a church is a voluntary organisation, the minister is employed only with the support of the church and he has very little power, his job is to lead and to serve. It is extremely challenging and often unrewarding. 

So now like him I am the servant leader, only in business, I see myself as having two roles one to serve the team and one to lead them to achieve, and what I have learned is that it is important to create an environment where your team can enjoy work, this is a paradox for many as the assumption seems to be that if you are having fun you are not being productive, my experience is the opposite – not being productive is no fun at all.  

Make work an enjoyable place to be and people will work harder, make them feel invested in the organisation and they will work harder still, create a team spirit and collective sense of purpose and they will amaze you.

Trust is often lacking and this is a real sticking point for many managers and businesses, but my opinion and experience is that the normal situation is that people have an inherent desire to work hard and achieve and give the opportunity they will, what often prevents this are people or processes that restrict or control, managing should be about setting goals and guidelines, creating a framework to achieve not a culture of control.

My number one piece of advice for a ‘task’ manager is to give a team a clear goal and stand back, you will be amazed. 

Your only three jobs as a leader are to remind the team of the goal, to remove any obstacle in their way and most importantly  to Trust them. 
As an aside for business leaders I’d also suggest if you want to build and retain an effective happy and productive workforce, to indulge them (sensibly) make them feel valued, give them the best tools – generally whatever they ask for, the cost is likely a fraction of their salary and tiny compared to recruiting and training a replacement if they are lured away, give perks – for example issue everyone an iPad and a pluralsite subscription, this costs very little(and is tax deductible) in comparison to an average salary (far less than 1%) but I’d bet your team would feel valued and would broadcast what a great employer you are, and chances are they might even do some training too. Provide coffee and snacks, encourage social activities, make time for the team, if people feel it is a great place to work recruitment becomes easier and they WILL work harder. And lastly pay more, especially to those that have proven themselves, being generous early saves a fortune later, if you are not paying your best people well above average it is inviting them to leave.