The best interviewers prepare to be surprised

ON EXCELLENCE

September 19, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Why do we always emphasize the wrong stuff? During the two years I spent getting a Stanford MBA in the early '70s, I crunched a zillion numbers. But I never had 30 seconds' worth of counsel about interviewing technique.

Subsequent experience as a management consultant confirms that there are lots of effective number-crunchers but damn few great interviewers -- Mike Wallaces of the business world, you might say. To state the obvious, what good are analytical skills if the information you're analyzing is skimpy or misleading?

Interviewing can be learned -- and is essential to the success of high-priced consultants and inquisitive managers alike. I've gleaned the following from 25 years of interviewing and watching superb interviewers at work:

* Don't overschedule.

This isn't a horse race. Three solid, hourlong interviews are a full day's work. If all your senses are tuned into the person on the other side of the table, you'll be exhausted by a single interview. Five? Six? Forget it.

* Save the Big Cheese for last.

Don't start by interviewing the CEO. She is likely to be impatient, and you don't know a damn thing. Save your most important interviews until you know the lay of the land.

* Find a comfy nest.

The more pleasant, casual and neutral the setting, the better. The worst: Your chair on the far side of your subject's desk. The best: a plain, cozy room with a few armchairs, a blackboard, a coffee machine and refrigerator with cokes and tomato juice -- and no phone.

* Prepare.

Study your buns off. Read everything you can, for example. (But try to avoid preconceptions -- you're there to be surprised, not confirmed in your assumptions.) Go into the session with several pages of questions. Will you get through such an imposing list? Heaven forbid! But it will give you a sense of security, guide you -- and, no small thing, foster the perception that you're prepared.

* "Please give me an example."

These are the five most important words in the interviewer's arsenal, and they can't be used too often. There is nothing worse than walking out of an interview and finding an extraordinary comment in your notes -- for which there is not a shred of supporting evidence.

The main purpose of an interview is to gather stories -- practical illustrations of how things work (or don't). Measure your effectiveness by the number of "sagas" an interview produces.

* Don't stop digging until you understand.

The best interviewers ask the dumbest questions. In any interview, you are by definition a foreigner: You don't understand the lingo, the culture, the details. When something isn't clear (it .. rarely is at first), go back over it and over it -- until you get it straight. Remember, you're being paid to ask stupid questions.

* Think small.

It's the details you're after: "Here, let's sketch the process." (Now you see why I want a blackboard in the room.) "No, try me again. At this point, purchasing gets involved, right? But to what level in the engineering organization does the requisition go?"

* Get out of executive row.

The devil is in the details, and the details are usually at the front line. I know lots of "analysts" who don't conduct front-line interviews from one year to the next. How sick.

* Discover "the way we do things around here."

At the end of an interview, get your subject to jot down (better than talk through) 10 statements that characterize the corporate culture -- i.e., what's most/least important. In a related vein, you might bring your 10 best such statements culled from previous interviews. ("Spare no expense when it comes to customer service." "Engineering wins all debates.") Have the interviewee score them on a 10-point, agree-to-disagree scale.

* Picture a day-in-the-life.

You are trying to figure out how the place works. What better example than asking, "How, exactly, did you spend your time yesterday?"

You'll invariably get leads worth chasing.

* Don't let your notes age.

Schedule time immediately after the interview to collect your thoughts (instantly write down a half-dozen impressions -- they'll never be so pure again; and make a first pass through your notes, to fill in holes while your memory is fresh. (You should have asked the interviewee for a time, tomorrow, when you can call back for 10 minutes to clarify stuff you find confusing.)

* Practice (and observe).

Tag along with great interviewers in your firm. Try not to focus on the content, but on how the interviewer plays her hand. Likewise, assess your own performance each day: What did you miss? Fail to follow up on? How could you have gotten out of there with so few concrete illustrations?

Tom Peters' column is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.

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