Systematic preparation vital for interviewers

By Byron Kalies, Management consultant

This is the second in a four-part series on the interview process and starting a new job

The right questions and active listening ensure the process goes well

A good basic premise for any interview is that future performance is best predicted by looking at what has gone before. Therefore, if someone has successfully managed a division or company at some point in the past, the chances are they will be able to do so again. It should be easy enough to determine this, but life has a way of making things complicated. That is why you need to take certain steps to ensure a thorough assessment process.

Not surprisingly, it begins with good preparation. Nowadays, it has almost become a management cliché to say that preparation is everything. It's not, but comprehensive preparation certainly does make any job a great deal easier.

In the context of interviews, that means being clear about the role of each person involved in the process, especially if candidates are to meet a panel consisting of several people. In many organisations it's felt that experienced executives automatically know how to conduct an interview. That's not necessarily true, so it is important to define responsibilities and ensure that panel members all have the same focus – selecting the best candidate for the job.

This will involve agreeing a system of questioning and deciding how to allocate time. Areas of required competence should be specified and individuals nominated to handle each of them with the candidates. Panel members should also decide in advance how they will work together – who will lead off, what tone to set, and who will summarise their conclusions.

When it comes to the interview, things can still be difficult, no matter how well you have prepared.

First impressions play a part – a big one. There are various theories about how long it takes to form a first impression and most conclude it is somewhere between 10 seconds and three minutes. It is natural for interviewers to decide very early on if a candidate is suitable and then to spend the rest of the interview confirming that initial impression. This trap should be avoided, as should that of interviewers choosing the candidate who is most like them. It is vital to be aware of these risks, and having different personalities on the interview panel certainly helps.

Right questions
The key to behavioural interviewing, however, is asking the right questions and listening to the replies. The interviewer's objective should be to get as much evidence as possible about the candidate's previous experience. He or she should be familiar with the information given in the application and ready to fill in gaps or find supporting details. This can be tricky if the candidate has limited experience, but then the interviewer must be prepared to work a bit harder.

I once interviewed a candidate who seemed to be ideally qualified for a managerial post, except that he could supply no evidence of organisational skills. After several probing questions about his previous jobs, which yielded nothing, I asked about his interests outside work. It turned out he was responsible for running the local boys' football league – 12 teams, referees, fixtures and pitches – and probably had more organisational skills than most people in the company!

If interviewers are doing their job correctly, they will be worn out at the end of the day – from listening. Active listening requires a great deal of concentration and can easily be disrupted by too much thinking. Not the type of thinking which helps you assess the candidate's replies and form conclusions about them, but the sort that leads you to start considering what time you'll get home tonight. Less experienced interviewers should also avoid planning their next question, thereby not listening to the answer to the previous one.

Maintain control
The secret is to focus only on the interviewee and, if necessary, to take a moment or two to decide on your next question. This allows you to control the interview and it will soon become almost automatic to know what to ask next. If an answer is not clear, ask supplementary questions until you have filled any gaps in the information to your general satisfaction.

While listening, the interviewer should also be observing body language closely. Discrepancies can often be detected between the words used and what the body says. Sometimes this is a matter of instinct, but really skilled interviewers learn to read gestures and posture and will ask appropriate questions to check out their impressions. I once asked someone with their arms tightly folded if they felt defensive about a particular line of questioning. The answer was no – they just felt cold!

When the interview has been completed, panel members should first complete their evaluations separately and then discuss their views. One member should lead the discussion and the others should make sure they are sufficiently assertive to express their own opinions. It is important to reach consensus, but not without a thorough review of what each candidate has to offer.

In the next article, we will examine what an interviewee should be doing to enhance the likelihood of landing the job.

Points to note

  • Interviewers should always prepare thoroughly
  • The main purpose is to obtain evidence about the candidate's previous experience
  • Individuals on an interview panel should know their different roles
  • A skilled interviewer listens actively and reads body language

    Byron Kalies ( is a writer and management consultant currently based in Liverpool, England. He writes for a number of magazines and newspapers across the world and has written a book 25 Management Techniques in 90 minutes.

  • Taken from Career Times 17 June 2005
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