Top Five Telltale Interview Filters

I’m not sure exactly how many in-depth candidate interviews I have conducted over the past 17 years, but I am fairly certain the number is over 10,000. By necessity, I have had to learn how to avoid wasting precious time barking up the wrong tree in pursuit of mediocre talent. Over the years, I have observed that the best executive recruiters develop a highly-tuned instinct that switches into “ninja-mode” when evaluating candidates for top level positions.

This means that the “tuned in” Executive Recruiter is not just listening to the expected content in responses to questions, but equally to how the candidate views and thinks about the world. Each candidate’s experiences play a major role in shaping their confidence, attitude, and approach to work/professional relationships. Here are five interview filters that will help you tap into your own recruiter instinct:

1. Positive or negative?

A negative outlook may not always be obvious, so you really need to listen for cues as a candidate is explaining her career path, decision-making process, and motivations. Interpret how she has handled challenging situations, stress, and difficult people. If a candidate complains about her boss, it does not mean that she should be dispelled. However, when you dig deeper, you will learn more about how the candidate views her world. A positive “can-do” approach has been correlated statistically to greater performance and success at work.

2. Leader or follower?

Does the candidate identify as a leader and comfortably take on roles of greater accountability? Look for examples where candidates may have challenged the status quo or taken a calculated risk. Are they able to give examples of how they can present with impact and influence others? The best leaders will be focused on creating an environment where employees’ talents are maximized. Beware of candidates with exaggerated titles or who have over-inflated egos. Also, recognize that there are different levels of leadership. If you are looking at a Director who might be ready to move to VP, be thoughtful about evaluating the scope of the role and the competencies required for making the leap before assuming that he or she is ready. Too often, candidates get hired or promoted into positions beyond their level of competency.

3. Learning approach or “know it all”?

Candidates usually fall into one of two camps, those who are consciously aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and those who think that they have all the “right” answers. People who seek out and apply information from many sources are generally more successful than those who work in a vacuum. If a candidate has been in one company or one job too long, it is possible that he may not push himself outside of his comfort zone. Look for candidates who crave new challenges and can point to many examples of this in their careers.

4. Specific or vague?

Do not accept lazy answers! If you get ambiguous or non-specific answers when digging for details, then it might indicate an embellishment of the truth. Be sure to ask what a candidate’s role was on specific accomplishments. Is she largely responsible for the success or did she play a small role on a larger and more successful overall team? Top performers will fervently explain how they achieve goals or create successful outcomes. Vague answers can be a sign that a candidate is incompetent at his or her job, trying too hard, positioning his or her experience too high, or just simply lacking integrity.

5. Passion or pedestrian?

Some people thrive in a dynamic setting where change is occurring on a daily basis, while others prefer to have a more stable platform and resources to leverage. Sometimes it boils down to the difference between large and small companies. However, it is possible that some large company candidates are interested in having a greater impact in a smaller, more entrepreneurial setting. Likewise, many emerging companies can be highly structured and process-oriented environments. Listen to how candidates approach getting things done. How committed are they to reaching goals? How do they make or influence decisions? If you are hiring into an early stage entrepreneurial environment, it is especially important to look for people who have a passion for achieving meaningful goals both at work and in life.

If there is anything that I have learned after interviewing thousands of candidates, it is that remarkable talent is rare. There are many ways to achieve success and even more ways to fail. When interviewing, use these five filters to help keep an open mind and look beyond the resume to discover significant talent potential. It’s like the difference between a recreational athlete vs. a professional athlete. There are many great athletes all around us, but few who can rise into the elite ranks (without doping). Intellect, business acumen, creativity, leadership, and passion are the ingredients for this type of talent in the business world.