Tag Archives: interview

How to Interview for Soft Skills

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

How do you create interview questions about individual initiative?

Interview questions about individual initiative use the same model as any attitude, characteristic or soft skill.

  1. Identify the behavior connected to the attitude or characteristic.
  2. Identify a circumstance where we might see that behavior.
  3. Develop questions about the behavior.

Behaviors related to individual initiative –

  • Appropriately beginning a project without being told.
  • Continuing a project without being reminded.
  • Finishing a project (all the last steps) without being reminded.

Behavior – Appropriately beginning a project without being told.

  • Tell me about a project that needed to get started before your manager knew about it?
  • What was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • How did you know what needed to be done without your manager telling you?
  • What were the first steps in the project?
  • How did you know those steps would be okay to complete without specific direction from your manager?
  • Did your manager ever review the initial work on the project?
  • What was the result of starting the project before your manager knew about it?

Behavior – Continuing a project without being reminded.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on, where the flow of the work was interrupted by other work, perhaps a long project that had stages to it?
  • How were the stages of the project planned?
  • How long was the project?
  • How did you know you were at a stopping point in the project and it was okay to complete other work?
  • How did you know it was time to pick the project up where you left off?
  • What flexibility did you have to decide where to stop and where to pick up with all of your other work?
  • How was your work scheduled?
  • Did you have your own schedule that you created?
  • How did you remind yourself that you still had uncompleted work on a project that you stopped?

Behavior – Finishing the work (all the steps) on a project, without being reminded.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that never seemed to end, that when you thought the work was done, there were still more steps to complete?
  • At the end of the project, what kind of items popped up, still undone?
  • At the end of the project, how did you find out about those undone items?
  • At the end of the project, how did you keep track of those undone items?
  • Did you personally have to complete those undone items, or were there other people working on those items with you?
  • How did you track what you got done and what others got done?
  • At the end of the project, when ALL the items were finally completed, how did you know there were NO uncompleted items left?

You can interview for any attitude, characteristic or soft skill, as long as you can connect it to behaviors.

Everyone Liked the Candidate

“It happened again,” Ted explained. “I told myself that the next time we needed to hire someone, I would be prepared for the interview.”

“And?” I asked.

“Scott came down the hallway. He said the candidate in the conference room had talked to four other people and everyone liked him. Heck, I didn’t even know we had interviews scheduled.

“He asked if I had fifteen minutes to talk to the candidate, just to see if I liked him, too.

“Funny, I liked him, too.”

“So, what’s the problem?” I pursued.

“Everyone liked him, but here we are, two months down the road and I find out he doesn’t have any experience in one of the most critical parts of the job. He just told me point blank that he has never done this before. Worst part, he tells me he doesn’t even see that as part of his job. If we need that done, he suggests we hire an expert or a consultant to help out.

“Just what I need, to hire another consultant because someone on the inside can’t do their job.”

Who Gets on the Team?

“You will never be able to work on larger problems until your team becomes competent at the smaller problems,” I repeated. “You can never be promoted to a higher level role until you find someone to take responsibilities in your current role.”

“Yes, but who?” Drew replied.

“That’s for you to decide. In addition to making sure that production gets done, as a manager, one of your primary roles is to build the team.”

“You mean like team building?”

“More like a talent scout, except you get to observe all the time. Here are your levers.

  • Selection
  • Task assignment (what, by when, resources)
  • Assessment
  • Coaching
  • De-selection (if you made a mistake in the first step)

“Okay,” Drew hesitated.

“Start with selection. You can pick your friends. You can pick your nose. You can’t pick your friend’s nose, but you can pick who is on your team. That’s where it starts. If you do this job well, the rest is easy. You do this job poorly, the rest is miserable.”

“But, sometimes, I feel like I don’t get to pick who is on my team. They just sort of show up from HR,” Drew protested.

“Candidates may come in sideways. I know your hiring protocol. HR does a great job at trying to source candidates for your production team. I know your manager screens those candidates and several other people conduct interviews and give you their feedback. But, at the end of the day, you pick. As the hiring manager, you have, at a minimum, veto authority as to who is on the team.”

How Many Questions to Ask in an Interview

From the Ask Tom mailbag –


Yesterday, you talked about how we could evaluate the capability of a team member related to the work.  Your focus was all about the work, calibrating the level of work in the role.  But your evaluation appears to depend on observation of actual work output.  I get it.  But how do we evaluate capability in non-employees, candidates we are interviewing for roles.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of observation.  We get to ask them questions.  That’s it.  How do we evaluate capability?


Interviewing candidates and gathering clues on their capability is certainly more difficult than observing team members in actual work output (applied capability).  But the platform is the same, we just have to capture our clues in a different way.

It’s all about the work.  It’s still all about the work.  With internal team members, calibrating capability requires an accurate definition of the work, an accurate definition of the stratum level of work.  In a candidate interview, the cornerstone document is still the role description.

The role description should be organized into Key Result Areas, those tasks and activities that go together, grouped together.  And those tasks and activities that don’t go together, separated from each other.  Most roles have between 5-8 Key Result Areas (KRAs).  This is where the work, the level of work gets clearly defined.

In each KRA, my discipline is to create ten written questions about the work, decisions to be made and problems to be solved in the role.  If you have five KRAs, you will have 50 written questions.  If the role contains eight KRAs, you will have 80 written questions.

And the questions are all about the work.

For every written question that you ask, I expect you to ask two drill down questions.  So, if you have 50 written questions, at the end of the interview, you will have asked 150 questions, all about the work.

In the course of your previous interviews, it is unlikely you have ever asked 150 specific questions about the work contained in the defined role.  If you had, you would have a very clear idea about the candidates capability related to the work, the candidate’s capability related to the level of work.

It’s all about the work.

How to Evaluate Capability in a Candidate

From the Ask Tom mailbag –


How can I test to see if a person has Stratum II or Stratum III capability?


If you are looking for a paper and pencil test, there is none.  There is no test with a set of answers that you shove into a computer that divines a person’s capability.  Elliott chuckled when this question was posed.  Most psychometric instruments, he observed, have, at best, a .66 correlation with reality.  Most are based on personality, or behavior, or behavior connected to temperament.  While those tests, or profiles have statistical significance for repeatability and in most cases, a stunningly accurate description of a person’s tendencies or behaviors, their evidence of predictability, a specific profile for a specific role has significance barely above flipping a coin (.5 correlation).

Elliott conjectured, if there were a paper and pencil test for capability, its likelihood to stand the same test would likely yield no more than the same .66 correlation with reality.

But your question is still valid and there is a method to satisfy the high curiosity we have about a person’s capability related to the level of work.  There is no trick, no special technique, no psychological requirement that we climb inside the head of our candidate and play amateur psychologist.

Moreover, the validity of this method reveals between .89 and .97 inter-rater reliability.

It’s all about the work.  Focus on the work.  As you define the role, its task and activities, goals and objectives, what is the level of work?  Does the role contain Stratum II level of work or Stratum III level of work?  Examine the decisions that have to be made and the problems that have to be solved.  Examine the time-span of the goals and objectives in the role.  What is the longest time-span task in the role?

The biggest mistake most companies make is underestimating the level of work required in the role.  A defect in the definition of the level of work in the role will most assuredly result in hiring the wrong person.

Examine your role description.  What are the tasks and activities?  What are the decisions that have to be made?  What are the problems that have to be solved?  What is the time-span of the longest task assignment in the role?

Based on that definition of the role, does the candidate provide evidence of effective task completion?  It’s all about the work.

When we spend the time to accurately define the work, and accurately calibrate the level of work in the role, the questions become very simple.  Does this person work as effectively as someone in the top half of the role or the bottom half of the role?  And, in that half, does this person operate as effectively as someone in the top, middle or bottom.

When you ask the team member to do a self-assessment, ask the manager and ask the manager-once-removed (MOR) about effectiveness, the inter-rater agreement approaches .97 (.89-.97).  With this practical evaluation system, why would you want to resort to other methods that might only have a .66 correlation with reality?

It’s all about the work.

How to Miss Something Important in a Candidate Interview

Kirklin was shaking his head.  “I don’t know how we missed it,” he muttered.

“Missed what?” I asked.

“We hired this guy about a month ago, to be a supervisor in one of our technical areas.  Six guys on his team.  How hard could it be?”

“I don’t know, how hard could it be?” I probed.

“Apparently, pretty hard.  His team’s production is behind and his team members are coming up to me privately and complaining.”

“What are they complaining about?”

Kirklin thought for a moment.  “Just general stuff, doesn’t really matter.  Bottom line, this new supervisor has never supervised a team before.”

“Then, why did you pick him for the job?” I wanted to know.

“Well, he was a supervisor at his old job.  I mean, he had a supervisor title.  Today, I asked him how many people he had on his team.  Turns out, he didn’t have a team.  He supervised a machine.”

“How did you miss that in the interview?”

“I guess I never really asked THAT question,” Kirklin replied.

Judging Potential in a Candidate

“So, I was considered to have potential, because I got to know the inspectors at the building department?” Monica chuckled.

“That was only the tip of the iceberg,” I said. “Do you remember, as a supervisor, you were playing around with the construction schedules. One group said they would get their work done in so many days, and the next group needed that many days. And most of our projects were always coming in late.”

“Yes,” Monica nodded. “It was an interesting experiment. Everyone thought I was nuts until I brought my project in ahead of schedule. That never happens in construction.”

“And you did it without raising your voice,” I observed.

“It was funny,” she explained. “The framers said they needed three weeks, the electrical guys said they needed one week and the plumbers said they needed two weeks, and that was just for the rough-in. Then the sheetrock crew wanted a week, the trim guys wanted a week for the finish work. Then the electrical guys wanted another week for their punch list and the plumbers another week to set all the fixtures. That’s ten weeks. And I only had seven weeks for that phase of the project.”

“And do you remember what you did to accelerate the project?”

“It was easy really. I knew everyone was padding their time budgets. I call it a buffer. I asked each crew to divide their time budget into the working part and the buffer part. I mean, there are legitimate things that happen to delay projects, that’s why they build in buffers. So, every team gave me their work time budget and their buffer time budget. Each group had almost 40 percent of their time in buffers and none wanted to budge. Total work time was six weeks, total buffer time was four weeks. I told each crew that we were preserving their buffer time, but moving all buffers to the end of the project, scheduling only for work time. One thing I know, if you give a crew ten days, six days work and four days buffer, it will take them ten days to finish. Work expands to the time allotted. But if you give that same crew six days to work, they will finish in six days. So, if there was a legitimate delay, I gave them back one of their buffer days from the end of the project. Indeed, there were some delays and over the course of this phase of the project, we used an entire week of buffer. But, at the end of seven weeks, we came in on time with three weeks of buffer left over.”

“So, when we considered that you had potential to be a manager,” I explained, “we based our judgment on evidence, not hope.”

How to See Evidence of Potential in an Interview

“If you are not going to let me hope,” Monica protested, “then explain to me how I got this job? When I was promoted to manager, I had never been a manager before. If the interview had only centered around my prior role as a supervisor, then how did the interviewer make the judgment that I had the potential to be a manager?”

“Do you think the interviewer only had hope for you in this manager role?” I asked. “Monica, I watched you, in your role as a supervisor for three years. I sat in on the debriefing after you were interviewed for your current role as a manager. Do you think that decision was made based on hope?”

“Not if you were in the room,” Monica admitted. “But, then how did you know I had the potential to be a manager if I had never been a manager before?”

“Okay, let’s step through some questions. As a supervisor, do you think you were operating as effectively as someone in the top half of a supervisor’s role or the bottom half?”

Monica smiled politely, nodding, “Top.”

“And in the top half, were you operating as effectively as someone in the top third, middle third or bottom third?”

Monica continued to shake her head. “Top,” she repeated.

“What is the evidence for that?” I pressed.

“You always want evidence,” Monica replied. “My projects always came in on time, within the specs from the customer and always within budget.”

“And why did your projects always come in on time? Did you always get the easy projects or were there problems?”

“There are always problems, but you know, 90 percent of the obstacles are predictable. For example, permits are always a problem. And permits are outside my control, it’s a government agency that processes the permits. But I took the time to get to know the inspectors down at the building department. I know it is not part of my job description and sometimes they are not the easiest people to get acquainted with, but I also know it’s important.”

“So, you took the time to go beyond prescribed duties in your role as a supervisor. You anticipated obstacles that might get in the way and created alternate paths, to solve problems that might occur,” I recounted.

“Well, you know, if you don’t have a relationship with the building inspectors, then you don’t know what criteria they are using to get your project approved. And if you don’t know what they are looking for, your project can get stuck. It’s easy to blame it on the building department, but if your project is 18 months in scope, thirty days might mean the difference between an on-time finish or having to pay liquidated damages for coming in late. There is a lot of risk.”

“So, when we decided that you had the potential to be a manager, it is because we could see evidence of that potential beyond your role as a supervisor.”

How to Interview for Potential

“I want to hire this person. Of all the candidates I have talked with, they seem to show the most promise,” Monica explained.

“So, you haven’t made up your mind?” I asked.

“No, I said I want to hire this person,” she clarified.

“Are you basing your decision on evidence? You sound uncertain.”

“You are right. The level of work in their previous job is short of the level of work we need in this position. But it might be that she was just underemployed,” Monica thought out loud.

“So, far, you are basing your decision on a promise and a maybe,” I clarified.

“Yeah, but how do you know? How do you know whether or not she has the potential?”

“I asked you if you were basing your decision on evidence. Is there evidence of potential? Look, you spent a great deal of time properly writing the role description. You carefully organized the tasks into Key Result Areas. In each Key Result Area, you defined the level of work. In your interview, you either establish evidence in the level of work or you don’t.”

“You mean I can’t hope?”

How to Interview for Cultural Fit

From the Ask Tom mailbag.


When you talked about interviewing for “fit” with our company culture, you said that we should interview for behaviors. I understand what you mean, but I don’t know what the questions sound like.


Creating interview questions for candidate traits like fit, values and attitude just takes a couple of steps. First, we have to translate the warm fuzzy into a behavior. Let’s start with “fit,” since that is the one you asked about.

Ask yourself the question, “How does a person who fits our culture behave?”

I work with a company that has a real sense of urgency in everything they do. People show up to work early, they start projects early, they return phone calls quickly, they turn paperwork around fast. It is a real culture of “gitter done.” People without that sense of urgency don’t last long at this company. It is an important area to interview for.

So, step two is to ask the person about those critical behaviors. Here is how it sounds.

Tell me about the working hours at the XYZ company? In your position, what time did you arrive for work? In your position, what was the most productive time for you?

In your position, what kind of customer interaction did you have? How many phone calls per day did you receive? How did you handle that phone call volume? When you could not answer a question in the first phone call, what was your system to make sure you returned the call later with the answer?

In your position, tell me about your paper workload. What kind of paperwork did you handle? How quickly did it pass across your desk and on to the next step? What was your system for handling that paperwork?

Remember that the purpose of these questions has to do with behaviors that “fit” the culture. I am not looking for the correct way to run an “in” basket. I am looking for momentum, energy and action, because those are important to “fit” in our culture.