Friday, August 21, 2015

Interview techniques that work

I have been working over the past year and a half with several folks, mostly new library directors, as a coach. One of my clients just hired a key person for her team, and was curious enough about a hiring technique I have used in the past to give it a try herself.

Mostly, this is a version of the "assessment center" technique known as the "leaderless discussion." (You can find out more about the assessment center here.)

The core idea is very simple. First, know what you're looking for - at least in the sense of demonstrable skills.

Second, create a scenario or exercise in which that skill must be demonstrated. In the case of many leadership positions, a leaderless panel discussion, large enough to promote real interaction (at least five people) and around some relevant job topics, is a rich source for observational data.

Third, have multiple observers, who have been coached about how to observe people's communication behaviors (I give them a chart with headings - voice, non-verbal, process management, content - then walk them through some examples). Usually, observers are assigned to watch one person in particular, with at least one dedicated observer per candidate.

Fourth, after the exercise, excuse the candidates, then pool the comments. The facilitator has to be careful to note the difference between a judgment and the behavior itself. So if someone offers that "this person is too aggressive," the facilitator asks, "what behavior made you think that?" Let's say the answer is something like, "she kept cutting off other speakers." Then the facilitator asks, "Did anyone else see that?" The object here is to build up a communication profile that is as specific and grounded in observed behavior as possible. Bottom line: this is how the person manifests their abilities, and that's what you're going to get on the job. Then I have some suggestions about ways to get a rough calculation of the fit of the candidate for the position.

That takes care of one half of the interview: figuring out if an organization wants to hire someone. (And it also allows a lot of people to participate in a transparent interview exercise that is staggeringly efficient: 7 candidates in and out in 45 minutes, with as many observers as you want to accommodate.) But what about the other half? How does the candidate know if he or she would take the job if offered?

The new twist: put the staff on a panel (typically, the director, a supervisor, a colleague, and maybe a customer, internal or external). Ask them: what do you think this job is really about - its key function and key needs. Then the candidates watch, learning what people will expect of them, and watching how they communicate with each other. All of the candidates hear the same information. This exercise takes only about 30 minutes.

Again, take the two together, and you get a very cost-effective process, focused and on point, with both sides better understanding what they might be getting into. But there are some unexpected benefits.
  • The staff panel tends to draw the team a little closer together. They hear each other talk about the job needs, and they can't help but want to make the place seem like a good place to work. 
  • The focus on communication behavior tends to make the staff more thoughtful about their own behavior, and what kind of style would be a good addition to the staff. 
The combination of the two tends to promote better teams, and a more mindful and positive culture.

At any rate, I was delighted to hear that the process worked well for my client: helping her get at the subtle cues that mark the right hire, and making the organization itself a little stronger. Since few decisions are as important as getting the right people on the bus, that's a big deal.

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In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...