In working closely with first time founders, I often hear their feedback regarding first interviews—specifically, frustration about not being able to extract the information they want from a candidate. Despite having received the background overview from the recruiter presenting the candidate, founders may be unclear of how good the candidate would actually be for their company. Since it’s impossible to learn everything about a person in one conversation, it’s imperative to use the time efficiently to extract information to your best advantage. Whatever you do, please don’t walk into an interview blind—take the time to prep. When appropriate, I approach the first interview with two main pillars and their subparts.
I. What to focus on
II. How to allocate the time together
Set the Stage
I. What to focus on
- Candidate Mindset: Know where they are at in their search.
First and foremost, make sure you understand the mindset of the candidate—Are they actively looking? Are they happily employed at a great company and you are using this time to pitch them? Etc. Putting yourself in their shoes will infer how much of the conversation you should spend asking them questions vs. selling the opportunity. Before you meet with the candidate, touch base with the referral source to get an idea of where they are in their search process, so you can adjust your conversation accordingly.
- Candidate Impression: Determine how you want them to walk away thinking about the company and of their experience.
Another way to think about this: What can I do to ensure that each person who comes in contact with our company has the best candidate experience regardless of the outcome? It’s not just the one conversation they may have with you, but the entire candidate journey: from scheduling process and communication, to greeting upon arrival, punctuality of participants, mental presence during the interview, competence and respectfulness of interviewers, thoughtfulness of interview process and thorough follow-up, etc.
Just like potential and existing customers, candidates talk to their friends, families, and trusted co-workers about their experience. Every company, outside of how well the business is performing, has a candidate experience brand which should be thought out. Below is some direct feedback which serves as an example of instances that should be avoided!
“When I arrived, the person I was supposed to meet with wasn’t there, so they asked me to come back tomorrow.”
“The CEO spent half the time on his phone answering emails.”
“I took time off work for this interview and their assistant emailed me one hour before to cancel.”
“The interview felt like an interrogation.”
- Determine Outcomes: Plan ahead on what you want to explore.
If you took the time to create a scorecard for this role, select at least one outcome and relevant capabilities to focus questions around. Another way to do this is to think of a challenge you are currently dealing with, which you can naturally bring into the dialogue to see how the candidate has handled or would handle. For example, if you are interviewing to hire a VP of People and one of your tangible outcomes is for this hire to facilitate, create, and implement performance reviews across the organization, go into the interview with the intent of bringing this into the conversation if it doesn’t come up organically. In addition to what you want to extract from them, pay attention to the questions they ask you and the information they are looking to learn. You aren’t going to be able to cover everything, but for the things you are able to cover, focus on making them meaningful.
II. How to allocate the time together
- Set the Stage: Use the time to the best advantage.
Don’t be shy to kick off the conversation with an outline of what you want to cover. Candidates appreciate this more than stepping into a blind dialogue. Example:
“We have one hour together, and If alright with you, I would like to use the first 30 minutes of our conversation to share an overview of what we are working on, some of the issues we are facing, and how we view this role; for the other 30 minutes I’d like to learn more about your background and explore how your experience could be helpful to our company. Feel free to jump in with questions at any time, and I will do the same. Sound good?”
- Sell: Clearly convey on what the company is doing and why the role is important.
In your overview, remember to take a step back and think about what is most critical for this person to know to intrigue them about what you are building. Even if the candidate isn’t right, you should have them walking away with a strong impression of the company and of you. Practice with someone you trust and ask for honest feedback on whether your overview is realistic, compelling, clear, etc. This often includes:
- Why did you start the company (if applicable)?
- What are you building and what is the problem you are trying to solve?
- Who are your investors, what specifically made them interested in what you are doing?
- What major milestones have you hit in the past year that you can share?
- Where is the company at right now (team, business, etc.) and what are you focused on for the next 12 months to get it to the next stage (this is often a great segue to tie in why you are hiring for role X)?
- Why is this role critical to the company’s success?
- What currently exists within the function, what doesn’t, and what are the measurable outcomes this person will be held accountable for?
- Stay Curious: Ask questions to dig deeper.
As you go through your overview, it’s natural for it to turn into a dialogue and for the candidate to ask questions. Let them. If the conversation gets too off course or dives into irrelevant areas, politely steer it back to the original outline. As they ask questions, be mindful of why they are asking—are they trying to understand more about the space you are in? Are they trying to understand how the team operates? If the candidate isn’t from your direct space, don’t expect them to know everything about the sector you are operating in and don’t use it against them if it’s not relevant for their role. If they continue on within the interview process this may change, but remember, it’s the first interview.
As you dive into the second half of the interview and the candidate is sharing their experience, don’t be afraid to ask direct questions regarding how they accomplished the achievements they bring up. Using the VP of People example, a candidate may be listing their responsibilities, with one being tied to an outcome you wanted to explore prior to the interview starting. For example, they may list re-doing the employee performance review process. Before they are able to jump to the next topic, or when there is a short enough pause, bring it back and dive deeper:
“Performance reviews are something on our horizon and would be a responsibility of this role. Could we double click on how you re-did the employee performance review process? I would love to know what existed when you joined, how you developed it, how it was perceived once rolled out, etc.”
As they explain each area, ask more follow-on questions specifically related to performance reviews. It’s ok to spend a chunk of time digging into something they are taking ownership of. Your goal is to walk away with a deeper understanding of what they really did and what they know. Someone who is knowledgeable on a topic will be able to tell you why they did it that way, how they did it, who was involved, and what the outcome was. And remember to ask them what they would do differently, as you can learn as much from this question as you did from how they did it.
Founders should leave a first interview feeling as though they have an understanding of who the candidate is, and what value he or she could bring to the company. It’s easy to take for granted the information that can be gleaned from an interview, so interviewers should always set themselves up for success by being prepared and conducting a productive conversation.