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.

The week@work April 13 – 19 Apollo 13, Brian Grazer & Adderall in the workplace

The week@work celebrated authors and their books at the LA Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles, commemorated the courage of the astronauts on Apollo 13 and explored the growing abuse of attention deficit disorder drugs in the workplace.

It’s interesting how the dots connect. Yesterday I was sitting in a large auditorium at the University of Southern California listening to an interview with Brian Grazer, producer and now writer, describe a self-improvement process he has utilized since graduating from college. Each week he identifies at least one person, a stranger, he would like to meet and have a ‘curiosity conversation’. It’s a practice he continues to energize and expand his capabilities. Speaking earlier this year at SXSW he emphasized “Curiosity is the source of all my success.”

In 1995 he produced the film Apollo 13, recounting the story of the astronaut’s survival. The key word is survival. His process in selecting this project connected back to a woman, Veronica Denegra, who had been tortured for 18 months in Chile for her opposition to the government. It wasn’t his interest in space, but his memory of Ms. Denegra’s story of survival that connected him to Apollo 13.

“You can never know how the dots will connect; how opportunities will come alive when you never knew they existed.”

The talented professionals at NASA who brainstormed their way through to a successful conclusion of the Apollo 13 mission were honored this week at the San Diego Air and Space Museum on the 45th anniversary of the mission. The story of the ‘real life’ events led by mission commander Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz remains a model case study of problem solving, teamwork and creativity in an extremely high risk work environment.

In the December, 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review three authors described their findings on how CEO’s innovate. In ‘The Innovator’s DNA’ Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen identified “five “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative executives: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. We found that innovative entrepreneurs (who are also CEOs) spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation. Together, these skills make up what we call the innovator’s DNA. And the good news is, if you’re not born with it, you can cultivate it.”

Here we have Brian Grazer, producer, who appears to be the poster boy for the innovator’s DNA, telling the story of another illustration of innovation, in the story of the Apollo13 crew and the folks on the ground at NASA who brought them home, 45 years ago this week.

“The conversations are the artistic fertilizer of what comes up on the screen. It enriches everything that lives in your mind in terms of exploring possibilities.”

The third story this week appears on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, ‘Abuse of Attention Deficit Pills Graduates Into the Workplace’. A generation that employed attention disorder drugs to stay up late to study for a final or complete a paper has now continued the practice, ordering ‘pills on demand’ to complete work assignments.

“Doctors and medical ethicists expressed concern for misusers’ health, as stimulants can cause anxiety, addiction and hallucinations when taken in high doses. But they also worried about added pressure in the workplace — where the use by some pressures more to join the trend.”

Young professionals believe they need these drugs to get hired. And once hired, believe they need chemical support to sustain their productivity, to be competitive.

We are only at the beginning of this story, but leaders should be paying attention and consider the effects of an organizational culture that facilitates this behavior. A dose of management emotional intelligence and creativity might go a long way to building an alternative workplace, a place where productivity is fueled by ‘curiosity conversations’, not drugs.

Mr. Grazer believes “Curiosity is the solution to every problem that you’ve got.” And he may be right.