Building Teams: How to Recruit and Interview Talent Effectively (and Reduce Subjectivity)

A successful business is all about great People!

Recruiting and bringing in exceptional people is the key to success.  You can have a great product but without great people your company will either not go very far or simple won’t reach it’s full potential.  When I recruit and interview candidates to build my team – I put a lot of effort in identifying “great people” who will succeed at the company.  And yet I always remind myself of a key insight from Google which was shared by their former SVP of People and who made this observation from tens of thousands of interviews and carefully analyzed the data at Google – here is that very profound insight (source: Google):

Many managers, recruiters, and HR staffers think they have a special ability to sniff out talent. They’re wrong… It’s a complete random mess… We found a zero relationship.

– Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, a world-renown authority on recruiting talent, author or “Work Rules: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead”)


My hope is to share my own experiences and conclusions about interviewing more effectively – in summary:

  • Understand why most interviews are not very effective in getting you consistently good hires
  • Note the facts which prove that most interviews are done poorly and improve your interviewing
  • Make simple adjustments in your approach which will improve the consistency and quality of hires
  • Reduce subjectivity by asking better questions which get you more objective and predictive data
  • Also, when interviewing senior executives, avoid asking perfunctory junior-level interview questions
  • Design a real Recruiting Plan and establish objective criteria to identify and measure in candidates


So let’s look at these in more detail.


Many Interviews are Too Subjective (Therefore, Ineffective and Not Predictive)

There are many researches illuminating the flaws and problems of typical everyday interviews. For example, in research by Steinar Kvale at the Institute of Psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark, the research of typical flaws include: not scientific, not objective, biased, not reliable, based on questions that different people would interpret and find different meanings, not formalized and too-person dependent, not yielding generalizable results, and not valid because they rest on subjective impressions. (Source)

Also, here are some even more specific insights from “Problems Regarding Subjective Interview Techniques” (Source)

  • Studies show that standard interviewing procedures add at most only 3 – 7% validity to the hiring decision.
  • Most interviews last from 20 minutes to one hour. How can we really learn enough about a candidate in that short period of time to justify a hiring decision?
  • Every interviewer has his own “hot buttons” which will cause a candidate to be rejected or embraced under the “halo effect.” Very few interviewers can tell you what their personal “hot buttons” are because they arise from the subconscious instincts.
  • The primitive brain has no analytical abilities, it is entirely reactive. When a negative hot button is pressed, a switch in the primitive brain may be said to be switched to the “off” position and the candidate is rejected by subconscious instincts.
  • Just how many candidates will be “wasted” due to this mechanism is unknown.
  • The real danger here is that these are subconscious determinations that have been made without any rational process.


How to Significantly Improve Your Interviews


Predictive Criteria That Google Identified

Laszlo Bock, the SVP of People Ops at Google, said that two of the highly reliable predictors of people they hired at Google are “Capability + Learning Ability” (also see this publication from Dr. John Sullivan on what Google data revealed). I totally agree.  If you’re hiring capable people who are willing to learn and can learn well then you are going to build a great team. How? Start by adjusting your interview questions and ask the types of questions which focus on what the candidate is capable of and can they learn well.  Think about it, it’s a waste of your time to ask subjective and arbitrary questions that don’t help you uncover the person’s capability and learning ability.  If you hire smart people that are capable and can learn fast then you are doing it right.  Of course there is more to dig into – there are additional important things (as I talk about below) such as “personal values” that need to match to your company’s core values and principles.  But if you reduce subjective questions about irrelevant things and focus your questions on Capability & Learning Ability then you’re 80% there.

Asking ineffective questions (see a list of ineffective questions below) which don’t help you identify Capability and Learning Ability factors will just create subjectivity but won’t help you hire effectively.


Mirror Warren Buffett and Test For the 3 Factors He Uses to Hire Talent

One of the most successful executives and business experts in the world is pretty good at hiring Talent with a capital “T” and is a respected authority on investing and building highly successful businesses.  Warren Buffett hires for just 3 factors:  Intelligence + Energy + Integrity.  Successful executives will ask intelligent questions during their interview that will help identify evidence of these 3.  They will ask questions that seek out examples of these (and something like Intelligence can be easily gleaned from many parts of the resume).

If you ask candidates perfunctory and ineffective questions which don’t help you identify either the Capability + Learning Ability (as suggested by Google) or these 3 key factors (that Warren Buffett correctly suggests) will just make the process subjective but won’t help you hire the kind of Talent that will do well for you.



How to Interview For Management Roles

Google ran a research in 2002 called “Project Oxygen”. They did a ton of data-driven work to learn the key behavior that make best managers. Google came to a similar set of conclusions as those found in the “12 Elements of Great Managing” based on a study of over 10 million interviews and it’s also similar to the findings in McKinsey’s research study “Decoding Leadership – What Really Matters”.  Below are the Top 5 behaviors from Google’s “Project Oxygen” research which I’d focus on when interviewing for management roles:

  • Sets clear strategy for their team
  • Is a good communicator
  • Does not micromanage
  • Results-oriented
  • Good coach

Those executives who hire effectively are ones who focus on identifying these when interviewing their candidates for management positions.  There are a many questions that can be asked that will help illuminate the candidate’s qualities relating to these behaviors. Of course, I’d provide some examples of such questions but this would make this post too long so this is outside of the scope of this blog article but they are not difficult to figure out. They key point is to make sure you are focusing on asking the right questions that actually correlate to hiring Talent (i.e. that eliminate subjectivity and are aligned to factors that actually do matter unlike most things that are arbitrary and don’t correlate to hiring effectively).


How to Interview “Senior Executives”

The best advice I give is to interview senior executives at a level that matches their seniority.  The biggest and costly mistake is asking them “junior-level” questions that are very common when interviewing junior candidates (such as recent college graduates who are interviewing for their first job).  And unfortunately it is common to see this interview misalignment when a company doesn’t have a structured Recruiting Plan or a Process in place and it’s also very ineffective for you and makes your company look amateur in its recruiting capability (i.e. the “Candidate Experience” for senior executives with your company will have a very low NPS if you actually measure it post-interviews).

I write more details about interviewing senior executives here: Interviewing & Recruiting World-Class A-level Executives.

As you will note, the good news is that it’s not difficult to make the necessary adjustments to align the interview to the level of the candidate.


How to Interview Junior or Mid-Level Sales Professionals

When hiring sales reps, there are a number of known factors that have proven to identify successful salespeople.  I wrote an article called “5 Traits of Effective Sales Professionals” and when I interview for sales roles then I really focus my questions on identifying these.


Test Everyone for Value Alignment Irrespective of the Level

Identify if the values of the individual align well to your company’s values. Most interviews don’t really go into values.  This is a big mistake. Precious time is wasted on asking questions that have no correlation to to hiring successful people yet very few interviewers invest into asking a question or two that uncover whether the person’s principles match to those of the company. This is typically a huge miss and results in problems of a lack of culture fit.


Design a Process to Avoid Ad-Hoc, Subjective Interviews and Gut Feelings

It’s very important to develop a Plan and be thoughtful about the Recruiting & Interview Process to ensure your outcome (i.e. hiring a great person) is effective and that you get a really good ROI on identifying great people.  Basically, just make time to identify and write down the 3-5 key criteria that you want to interview for and that you know are absolutely critical for your company.  These should be based on your stars and the best performers in whichever department or group for which you’re recruiting.  Make a list of another 3-5 (total of 10 in the end) that are important or a big plus. Create a grading process where a candidate gets perhaps 3 points on the first set and 1 point on the 2nd.  Or something that fits your needs.  Or make a rational decision and agree with others who will interview that if the candidate ranks high on the first set yet misses a lot on the 2nd set then you will still consider this a great candidate.  In other words, remove subjectivity and systematize the process of checking the key criteria. Make it formulaic. Write the key factors down, pass it around and get an agreement with others on the team to be consistent and follow the process.


Questions To Avoid & Which Do Not Consistently Predict Successful Candidates

Glassdoor and other companies have many articles on the types of interview approaches and questions to avoid – you can search on Google for bad interview questions that don’t help your company gauge the real quality of the candidate. Here are some examples of the most frequent ones I’ve seen people use (i.e. or mis-use):

  • Walk me through your resume:  You have a short period of time – don’t waste it on this very broad/unspecific question.  If you’re meeting someone, just look at their resume yourself to understand their background. This question loses a lot of time which is costly to your company (in terms of the cost of not identifying the best Talent) and doesn’t really get to understand this person’s alignment to the criteria/factors that are important to your company.
  • Tell me about yourself:  This question looks really good on the surface but it’s not specific enough and really doesn’t provide the value that you think you’re getting.  Instead you should be asking specific questions about the person that helps identify the tangible characteristics that are predictive of successful hires at your company.  Maybe some interviewers use it to get started or as some sort of a high level starting point.  But there are better ways to do that and you can easily start with some specific experiences on the resume.
  • What are your weaknesses: This is well known as a poor question to ask.  It really just doesn’t do anything.  Or any variant of this question – what will your former boss say about you if I ask about your weaknesses.  If you feel this is important, then just ask the former manager during a reference check.  But this is otherwise an ineffective question that may lose you 5 minutes of a one hour meeting.
  • Describe yourself in one word:  People cannot really be described in one word. It’s just not a realistic or feasible thing to ask. There is no useful answer that will predict anything about the person’s abilities when you ask your candidate to describe themselves in one word.  Let’s say someone says “smart” but does that mean they are a good fit?  People who ask this are looking for some unique or miracle answer but, even if heard, the answer won’t mean that the candidate is creative. It really doesn’t predict the level of creativity because creativity is more complex than that.  This question just really doesn’t do much and puts you at a disadvantage of subjectively considering the candidate not good enough if they don’t answer in a way that maps to your worldview of how this should be answered.
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years:  Every interviewer will interpret this differently – either answer can be good or bad.  Therefore there is no predictive quality to the answer.  More importantly, if you think it’s good to hear that the candidate will still work at the same company then how do you know that is actually good?  What if you decide later that you actually need more ambitious people who want to grow and have big dreams to run their own company? Or if you wanted to hear the opposite but turns out the better candidates are the loyal ones that want to stay with you forever.  Basically, there is just no measurable right outcome here that helps you hire a truly good candidate.  It’s a waste. And worse off, if you hear something that you personally and subjectively just don’t love hearing then you will pass on someone that could have been an exceptional employee that delivers world-class results.  This is just one of those questions that sound really good but are useless for predicting a good outcome which means I’d avoid it. Focus the limited time to understand what really matters – again, starting with the person’s Capability and Learning Ability. And those have nothing to do with what someone does 5 to 10 years from now.
  • Lastly, note that if you ask any types of these high-level questions in the first meeting then, by design, you won’t get details about the person. So if you want to get deeper, avoid asking high-level questions and ask very specific questions to glean details. But otherwise expect the first interview to be very introductory but you need to do a second one and you will get more information.  A lot of people interview at a high level in the first interview but then come away feeling the candidate doesn’t have depth. That’s an error and you’re just more likely to have lost a good candidate because you simply don’t know them to make a decision.


What else?  What are some other thoughts on doing Interview the right way to hire well and not mess up the interview?