Women & Interviews

Beyond The Trick Question
By Nancy K. Austin

Women & Interviews
Chat Transcript
Beyond The Trick Question
A Lawyer's Adventures
Career Basics For Women
Career Matchmaking
Ms. Xecutive Holds Forth
Ain't No Personnel Jockey
Recruiter's Point of View
Brassy, Foolish Dames
Ask The Headhunter

Instead of probing for the inner candidate, smart interviewers want to know one thing: Can you do the work?

Years ago, an executive with a reputation as a superb judge of talent told me his "secret" to hiring the right people: He picked good drivers. About halfway through an interview, he would toss the keys to his Taurus to the astonished applicant and suggest a short spin around the neighborhood. The executive figured that the way the candidate responded -- first to the invitation, then to whatever the trip might offer -- was a reasonable indicator of how she would handle the stresses and surprises of business.

Of course, there was nothing at all reasonable about the driving stunt, but even managers who would never dream of doing such a thing will confess to using a few offbeat strategies to smoke out the real person behind the tailored suit and word-perfect resume. They try to trick people by asking gimmicky questions: "If you knew you had only a year to live, what would you do differently? If you were an animal, what would you be? Can man legally marry his widow's sister?" (Hint, if a man has a widow, he's too dead to marry anyone.) Or they go in search of the inner applicant using personality tests: "When you have to do something unpleasant, would you rather do it all at once, or an inch at a time?" Or they try to find what a candidate is really made of by conducting the dread "stress interview," in which a half-dozen executives surround the applicant, barking out questions and interrupting any attempts to answer. (It's a method favored by certain consulting firms, investment-banking houses and cops; intimidation, not enlightenment, is the goal here.)

Now, though, a few companies known for getting the most out of their people, including Kraft Foods, Delta Air Lines, AT&T, and Procter & Gamble, are seriously rethinking the way they size people up. They've learned the hard way. "There is absolutely no correlation between how well you interview and how well you perform on the job," says Nick Corcodilos, managing director of the North Bridge Group, an executive-search and consulting firm based in Lebanon, N.J. "Managers keep hiring on the basis of personality rather than ability to do the job."

Wait a second. Isn't doing the job the point of the whole exercise? It should be, Corcodilos says, but "employers and candidates alike tend to get lost in the formalities of the interview. These include a slew of standard questions that are almost meaningless, except that they produce a lot of anxiety. Interviewing is not about where you see yourself in five years. It is not about your weaknesses or your strengths. It is not about your most challenging experience or greatest accomplishments. Interviewing is about the job." And achieving that focus, as Corcodilos explains in The New Interview Instruction Book [no longer in print], means reinventing the interview process.

"The new interview," says Corcodilos, "is a hands-on, at-work meeting between an employer who needs to get a job done and a worker who is fully prepared to do the job during the interview." For this new model to work, both sides have to be prepared. The payoff for the employer is a more reliable judgment about a candidate's value to the organization.

It's not hard to understand why companies are embracing this new approach: Old-fashioned recruiting and selection methods can't keep pace with corporations' rapidly changing needs. That's why Mary Kay Haben, executive vice president of the pizza division at Kraft Foods, spends so much time thinking about the questions she and her managers ask. "We work hard to focus our questions on the job that has to be done," she says. That means lots of open-ended inquiries to get beyond the canned responses that, let's face it, applicants are sick of giving and interviewers are sick of hearing: 'What decisions have you made that you wish you could take back? How do you motivate others?'" Haben quizzes candidates on mini case studies: "I'll describe a situation and ask, 'How would you handle this?'" In other words, she lays out a real live business problem, then steps back and watches the prospect tackle it. She also relies on "multiple data points," reactions from five or six Kraft managers who individually interview the same roster of candidates, then meet later to compare notes. "In the old days," she says, "everybody followed the resumes and asked exactly the same things. That doesn't happen anymore."

For job applicants, then, homework is mandatory. No more breezing into an interview relying on charm and a good line of patter. The new-style interviewer expects serious candidates to demonstrate an understanding of the company's operations, its standing in the market and its strategic and tactical problems. Yes, applicants have to recommend ways to improve the company's products or services, but they also had better be ready to explain how they'd turn their recommendations into action.

There are, of course, those diehard interviewers who never met a gimmick they didn't like. They're the clods who take a smart, well-prepared candidate to lunch and volley their toughest questions at her when she's working on a mouthful of baby greens with walnut-raspberry vinaigrette. Or they'll drive by a candidate's house to see if the lawn is neatly edged and the car is washed. Roger Dow, vice president and general sales manager of Marriott Lodging, has no patience for that sort of nonsense. "If you play games," he warns, "you'll hire a group of game-players."

In the interviews he conducts, Dow sticks to actual business issues. "I always pose a live situation," he says. "I might say, 'Here's one of the biggest challenges we face in our business: The competition is consolidating. What can we do about it?'" The candidate he's looking for will present at least the broad outlines of a solution that will have a favorable impact on profits. If she doesn't have a solution, she should be able to show how she'd find one -- fast.

The Tale of The Tape
That's not to say the new interview is all about function, that personality doesn't count. Showing that you belong, that you are motivated and enthusiastic, is still as important as demonstrating that you can do the work. To make sure you're conveying that impression, Reiko Hasuike, president of Decision Quest, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that specializes in jury selection, strongly recommends that women take a hard look -- preferably on videotape -- at what they do during an interview. "Women nod a lot when an interviewer speaks, and men don't," she observes. "Women often smile more, and they have a rising intonation at the end of a sentence. In the end, it makes you subservient." But don't overcompensate, warns Corcodilos. He's seen too many women who have picked up "men's terrible interview habits, like having an overly forceful handshake or trying to be too clubby. The most successful women I know in business have ignored the traditional male back-slapping. These women focus on what really matters: getting the job done profitably."

And being feminine isn't necessarily a liability in an interview. "When women make direct eye contact," says Hasuike, "when they lean forward to ask a thoughtful question during the interview, it is very persuasive."

If this seems like too much to take in, don't worry. In the end, you only have to remember a few simple rules. If you're in search of a job, you must be able to demonstrate to a would-be employer that you can do a broad range of work, not just meet the bare minimum of the job description. To do that, focus on the work during the interview. (Not that you should tear up your resume. Part of focusing on the work is talking about how you tackled similar assignments earlier in your working life.) Talk about specific tools - market research, computer technology, the skills of your team - that you'd bring to bear on a problem. And be ready to detail how your approach would affect profitability.

As for employers, they have to assess every ounce of capability and fit, keeping one thing uppermost in mind: the ability to solve a problem - i.e., do the job. If the candidate can make a convincing display of that ability, it's time to ask the least gimmicky question of all: "When can you start?"

Please tell us what you think of this article.

Copyright (c) 1996 Nancy K. Austin. Reprinted here by Nancy Austin's kind permission. This article appeared originally in the March 1996 issue of Working Woman magazine.

Nancy Austin is the author of The Assertive Woman, the first book about assertiveness for women (over 400,000 copies in print), and co-author, with Tom Peters, of the management classic A Passion for Excellence. Nancy can be reached at nkaustin@cruzio.com.


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