Hiring talent is the hardest thing a manager does. Period. I thought I’d cracked the code on this process about a decade ago by conducting multiple interviews, sharing a dinner with front runners, calling references not provided. And yet, my odds of success were about the same as roulette.
Hiring and keeping talent was challenging even before COVID led to millions of people leaving their jobs or the workforce. That reality only increased during the last two years, with company culture playing an important role in whether to stay or go. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 38 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, not including the December numbers that haven’t been released yet. And culture plays an important role. According to Jobvite’s 2021 Job Seeker Nation Report, the importance of company culture in the decision to accept or leave a job has skyrocketed, with 86% of those surveyed saying it is somewhat or very important.
Cultures evolve over time, generations even, and it takes enormous and holistic effort to truly change a culture. Hiring managers need to be realistic about what the day-to-day is in their organization and on this particular team. While you might be thinking you don’t want to scare away great talent, don’t worry: Your culture will do that handily if the IRL situation isn’t what you sold. To get the fit right, managers need to both objectively assess and reflect their workplace while getting to the heart of what makes a candidate tick.
For example, if you work in a tightly hierarchal environment that requires layers of approvals to get anything done, it’s not likely a place a hard charger with a bias for action would succeed. If it’s a fast-paced environment and your candidate is a person more comfortable ruminating for weeks or months, also not a great fit. And that leads me to the first question I ask all job candidates: “What’s your story?”
I generally preface this by reminding the interviewee I’ve already read your resume so there’s no need to walk me through it. I’m looking to better understand you as a person. That said, 85% of candidates appear stumped by the question and generally recite their resumes anyway. That, in itself, tells you something, right?
I remember the first time I was asked this question. Wholly unprepared, I meandered around the high points of my career as a journalist and then as a PR person before the interviewer said, So you’ve been a communicator for two decades.” Yes! More accurately, I’ve been a communicator and a storyteller my whole life, starting in childhood and continuing today. It would be impossible for me to be in any role or company that didn’t value these traits and skills.
One candidate not long ago responded to this question by telling me she’d been a concert pianist who had an injury and had to quit during college. She then took a deliberate approach to identify what also fueled her passion and embarked on a career in corporate communications. Here’s what I learned: She’s resilient, knows who she is, and is purposeful in her pursuit of a challenge.
Some folks have shared how high school or college sports framed their worldview or how quitting a role to take care of a sick family member led them to reevaluate their career and the role it played in their life. Being part of a team in your formative years usually conditions a person to collaborate and work well with others while pursuing the win. Not a bad combination. Someone making the tough choice to care for an ailing loved one and being thoughtful enough to see it as an opportunity for change suggests they’re both insightful, selfless, and confident.
So what happens if someone whiffs this answer or recites their resume? Try these follow-ups:
- Tell me about an amazing day at work: What happened and why did it make you feel so good?
- Conversely, tell me about a terrible day at work: What happened and why did it make you feel so bad?
I generally ask these questions anyway because they get a level deeper into what truly drives this candidate and what is likely to drive them out.
Again, the answers are almost always illuminating. One candidate told me about leading a big project at the request of a high-profile CEO and then having that person loudly question the entire endeavor in a room full of people. Another admitted they don’t do well in highly political environments, which opened another path to explore and better understand since any group larger than three has some kind of politics.
As a hiring manager, you don’t want to be searching for a replacement in three to six months. So it’s important to take the time to get to know the top candidates and to know yourself. Try writing out your own story and get comfortable sharing it with job prospects. You’ll find it forces you to define who you are and what you want, what you’re good at, and what you don’t care to be good at. Plus, you’ll be more sympathetic when an incredible job candidate is fumbling to find the right words. Also, there’s the opportunity to ask someone to send you their story before or after the interview so they too can be thoughtful. Either way, it’s the information you’re after, not a speed test.
And for interviewees, remember this is a two-sided interview. You get to ask the same question of the interviewer and seek a better understanding of your possible new work environment.
Anne Marie Squeo is CEO and founder of Proof Point Communications, a boutique marketing and communications firm, and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist.