The Art of the Interview

Most of us approach a job interview as an interrogation instead of a conversation. What if the interview was a bit more like those conducted in front of an audience by James Lipton or a podcast by Debbie Millman?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we select employees for our organizations. Today, in our age of analytics, large corporations believe they can select a candidate using an algorithm to build a scaffolding of interview questions. The process of determining ‘cultural fit’ has morphed into finding folks you would like to hang out with vs. ones who have the skills to do the job.

Both approaches seem to miss something. On one hand, science excludes humanity and on the other, the modern version of the ‘old boy’ network finds its’ candidates at the familiar fraternity mixer. Neither path leads to a diverse organization. Maybe it’s time to look outside current human resources thinking and learn from the ‘masters’ of the interview.

I have this one touchstone article that continues to resonate on a variety of levels. It’s a Harvard Business Review article published in December 2009, ‘The Innovator’s DNA’. In it, the authors (Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen) posed the question, “What makes innovators different?”

The first skill:

“Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator’s DNA.”

 The second, questioning:

“innovators constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom”. 

Networking, the third skill:

“Devoting time and energy to finding and testing ideas through a network of diverse individuals gives innovators a radically different perspective. Unlike most executives—who network to access resources, to sell themselves or their companies, or to boost their careers— innovative entrepreneurs go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains.”

With this framework in mind, I was reading Debbie Millman’s 2010 ‘How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer’ last night, and it all came together. In his foreward, Steven Heller, describes the role of an interviewer:

“Interviews must be tackled with zeal, and the interviewer must control the discussion while waiting for that unexpected revelation to leak out. A skilled host must therefore prepare exhaustively: Take James Lipton of ‘inside the Actors Studio’, with his famously large stack of blue index cards, each containing a pointed question neatly integrated into a systematic progression; while he theatrically examines the narratives of his subjects’ careers, he is always flexible enough to flow with the unforeseen currents of conversation…”

Interviewing requires considerable acumen to enable both the expressive and, especially, the reticent guest to open up. 

Debbie Millman, who has hosted the Internet radio program, ‘Design Matters’ since 2005, always does her homework – and then some…she plies each of her visitors with questions to evoke the unexpected response. At the same time, she inspires their confidence, owing to her sincere interest in the life and work she’s exploring.”

We ask candidates to prepare, but often the distractions of the other things we do, besides recruiting, interfere to a point where we ‘wing it’ as interviewers and rely on the algorithm generated questions. We end up with plain vanilla data to compare with other plain vanilla data and add a dash of our subjective judgment.  The lead candidate we hoped to recruit was probably not too impressed with the experience, knowing he or she was just another cog in the assembly line of interviews of the day.

This may not be a new idea, actually it’s quite fundamental. But imagine the success of an interview when both parties are prepared for the conversation, the interviewer inspires confidence in the candidate to present their authentic self and both can demonstrate a sincere interest in the life and work of the organization.

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