Tag Archives: interview questions

Interviewing for Soft Skills

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I attended your presentation a couple of times. At the last event, you mentioned that you would share a list of interview questions which would help us to evaluate candidates for soft skills rather than just technical knowledge.

Response:
Interview questions about any soft skill uses the same model as any attitude or characteristic.

  1. Identify the behavior connected to the soft skill.
  2. Identify a circumstance where we might see that behavior.
  3. Develop questions about the behavior.

Behaviors related to listening –

  • In a coaching situation, where corrective action is required.
  • In a coaching situation related to misbehavior.
  • In a coaching situation, where a new skill is being learned.

Behavior – Listening in a coaching situation, where corrective action is required.

  • Tell me about a situation with a team member, where corrective action was required.
  • What was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What did you observe that required corrective action?
  • Where did you have the conversation with the team member?
  • How long did the conversation last?
  • How did you approach the team member?
  • Step me through the conversation?
  • How did the team member respond in the conversation?
  • What was the result of the conversation?
  • What steps did you take to follow-up on the conversation?

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.

Misinterpretation

“I just wish I understood people better,” Roger complained.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Sometimes, when I interview a candidate, I wish I could better interpret what they say. You know, their underlying motivation.”

“So, sometimes, you misinterpret what a candidate says?”

Roger thought for a minute. “More than sometimes. A lot.”

“In the interview, why do you think you misinterpret a response to your question?” I pressed.

“I told you,” Roger replied, “I just don’t understand people.”

“I think the reason you misinterpret responses, is because you ask questions that require interpretation.”

How to Define Decision Making in a Role

In a role, until we identify the specific decisions to be made and specific problems to be solved, the hiring manager will never hire the right person. This is not magic.

For a technician –
In this key area, what are the decisions that have to be made?
What is the time frame for those decisions?

  • Am I working fast enough to accomplish the output assigned to me today?
  • Does my output meet the quality spec assigned to the work today?
  • Does my attention to quality slow down my output?
  • If I work faster, does quality suffer?

In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
What is the time frame for those solutions?

  • Is this machine noise normal or abnormal?
  • If the machine noise is abnormal, do I need to shut the machine down, now?
  • Can I wait to shut down the machine when it finishes its current cycle?
  • Can I wait to shut down the machine at the end of my shift? And then, call maintenance?

For a project manager –
In this key area, what are the decisions that have to be made?
What is the time frame of those decisions?

  • Is the average output of production this week, sufficient to meet the output target for the month?
  • If output will fall short, what things can I shift in production to speed things up overall? More hands on deck? Overtime?
  • If output will overshoot, are we cutting corners in quality? Did I overestimate resources required? Can I temporarily reassign team members to another area?
  • If output will overshoot, are we using up raw materials in one process that may be needed in another process? What are the lead times on the raw materials? Re-order thresholds?

In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
What is the time frame for those solutions?

  • How often will we sample output for quality problems?
  • In what step of each process do we sample output for quality problems?
  • Should we discover a quality problem, what is our first step to prevent more output that does not meet spec?
  • When we solve a quality problem, how does that change our sample frequency?

It’s all about the work. Every role contains appropriate problem solving and decision making.

Four Power Questions Before the Interview

It’s all about the work. Most managers make hiring mistakes because they didn’t know what they were looking for in the first place.

  • How to know what you are looking for?
  • How to transform that vague picture into specific deliverables?
  • How to communicate that picture and deliverables to the hiring team, to make sure you are right?

I will know it when I see it, sets up the hiring manager for failure. Success is based on luck.

Work is a funny notion. Many managers focus on getting in touch with candidates, all warm and fuzzy. Not my purpose. Instead, get in touch with reality. The purpose of hiring is to get some work done.

Work is making decisions and solving problems. Few hiring managers think about the problems that have to be solved and the decisions that have to be made in a team member’s role. That is where it starts. The hiring manager is looking for someone to make specific decisions and solve specific problems. Until we figure that out, we will never hire the right person.

Here are the power questions to answer before you get into the interview room –

  • In this key area, what decisions have to be made?
  • What is the time frame for those decisions?
  • In this key area, what problems have to be solved?
  • What is the time frame for those solutions?

A Bad Attitude is Invisible

“So, tell me,” Russell asked, “how can we interview for a bad attitude?”

“Well, let’s think about attitude,” I started. “Is attitude, particularly a bad attitude, something inside a person, perhaps invisible?”

“You nailed it,” Russell shook his head. “It’s invisible, some people even hide it.”

“It’s invisible until when?”

“It’s invisible until something triggers it, or the pressure builds up. That’s when a bad attitude shows up.”

“See, I can’t interview for something invisible, like a bad attitude,” I said. “I can only interview for behaviors connected to a bad attitude. So, what I want to know is, how does the candidate behave when the pressure builds up?”

“I’m listening,” Russell replied.

“Tell me about a project, likely the worst project you ever worked on, where everything seemed to go wrong. A project where the customer was unreasonable, never satisfied, in spite of your best efforts.

  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • How large was the project team? Who was on the team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • How did you discover the project was not going well, as planned?
  • How did the customer find out?
  • What was the customer’s reaction?
  • Step me through the interaction with the customer?
  • What was the customer’s reason to be upset?
  • What was your role in the interaction?
  • How did you respond to the situation?
  • What resolutions were discussed?
  • What was the outcome?

“You see, Russell, I cannot interview a candidate for a bad attitude, only for behavior in a situation where a bad attitude might be driving things.”

Interview for a Bad Attitude

“We always hire people for their technical skills, but we fire them for who they are.” Russell explained.

“Tell me more,” I asked. “What do you mean you fire them for who they are?”

“Well, they may have the right experience, know how to handle the technical part of the job, but their attitude is a little out of whack. In the beginning, it doesn’t show up, but after a couple of months, little things appear. After six months, this strange behavior actually begins to flourish and it’s downhill from there.”

“What do mean, strange behavior?” I was curious.

“Sometimes, it’s just people skills. They are a little gruff at first, then a couple of people get on their bad side. Pretty soon, they become downright rude. They publicly dress people down in meetings. No one can disagree with them without a huge public confrontation.”

“Do you interview to discover this type of behavior?”

“No, usually the person is pretty well coached by a headhunter on how to handle the interview, so we don’t find out until later.” Russell stopped, his brow furrowed. “Do you mean, you can interview for a bad attitude?”

“Yes, you can.”

I Can Talk the Game

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your post on Wednesday [Hypothetical Questions are a Trap], you caught my attention. As an interviewer, I use hypothetical questions all the time. It lets me know if the candidate can think on their feet. I try to use real hypothetical questions for circumstances they will run into. What’s wrong with that?

Response:
Hypothetical questions are a trap for both sides of the interview table. Intellectually, hypothetical questions seem to make sense. In reality, they force the candidate to play a guessing game and require the interviewer to suspend judgement of reality.

When the interviewer asks a hypothetical question, the candidate must now search for the answer they believe the interviewer wants to hear. This is a guessing game. The candidate, if they are like me, will have done some reading up on your industry, will understand the basics of industry jargon and be able to create some believable response.

Two problems. Just because I can talk the game, does not mean I have ANY REAL experience in the circumstance. Second, if my response is in the ball park of believe-ability, the interviewer unwittingly suspends judgement and checks the box for a good response. The reality is that I have never been a project manager for any construction project larger than a bathroom remodel. And, frankly, I wasn’t very good at that.

The interviewer cannot fact-check a hypothetical response. It’s hypothetical.

Oh, I will dazzle you with schedules of value, resource planning, milestone review, budget to complete, over and under billings. But, if you had asked about my bathroom remodel (actual experience), you would have a totally different judgement of my skills and ability.

Routine Grooved Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In the Four Absolutes, under Required Behaviors, you talk about habits. How do you interview for habits?

Response:
Habits are routine grooved behaviors kicked in by the brain in an approach to problem solving or decision making. To set the context, here are the Four Absolutes (required for success in any role).

  • Capbility (stated in time span)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors

Under Required Behaviors, there are three strings attached.

  • Contracted behaviors
  • Habits
  • Culture

To be successful in any role, there are some required behaviors. When I interview a candidate, I examine the role description, in each key result area (KRA), I identify the critical role requirements (required behaviors) and identify the habits that support and the habits that detract.

We all have habits that support our success, we also have habits that work against us.

Reading the resume
Habits are patterns. Read the resume from the back page to the front page. Most resumes are written in reverse chronological order, very tough to see a pattern going backward.

Identify the habit, then look for it
When I hire for a project manager, one habit I look for is planning vs improvisation. Improvisation is fun, but creates chaos. Improvisation may get the job done (once), customer may be very happy, but the cost is organizational body bags and friction, negatively impacting project profitability.

Effective project managers possess the habit of planning. Planning is a behavior that I can interview for. I will look for patterns of planning behavior as I move through the resume from past to present. Then I specifically look for planning behavior with specific questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project where planning was required?
  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project
  • How many people on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • At what point during the project did planning begin?
  • Step me through the planning process for the project?
  • What was the form of the plan? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • How was the plan used during the course of the project?
  • How often was the plan referred to during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan handled during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan documented during the course of the project? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • What were the results of the project in comparison to the original plan?
  • Step me through the debrief (post mortem) of the project in relation to the plan?
  • What did you learn from the project debrief that impacted your plan on the next project?

Habits are those routine grooved behaviors automatically initiated by the brain in response to a problem that must be solved or a decision that must be made. -Tom

All in Your Head?

“Let me see your list of questions,” I asked. I could see by the furtive glance that Claire didn’t have a list.

“I don’t have them written, just in my head, but I could probably write the questions down for you, if that would help,” she responded.

“How many questions do you have in your head?”

“Well, none really prepared, I have the resume, so I will just ask questions from that.”

It’s not Claire’s fault. No company ever trained her to conduct a job interview. No company ever trained her to create interview questions that reveal valuable information to make a hiring decision. Hiring interviews are one of the most critical management skills for the successful manager.

I see many managers conduct the hiring interview solely from the candidate’s resume in their hand. Change this one thing to make your interviews better. Craft your interview questions from the role description rather than the person’s resume. Every question should have a specific purpose to give you data about the candidate relative to the role you want them to play in your company. It’s not what the candidate has done (though it may be fascinating), but what the candidate has done related to the role. -Tom

Open Ended Questions in the Interview

“But the biggest mistake in the interview, was the gift you served up to the candidate,” I said.

“What gift was that?” Marianna asked.

“Open-ended questions,” I replied.

“But, I was taught to ask open-ended questions. I even read a book that said to ask open-ended questions,” she pushed back.

“Marianna, as the interviewer, you have a job to do. Your job is to gather specific data about the candidate related to the critical role requirements. When you ask an open-ended question, that question loses its purpose. When you ask an open-ended question, you are on a fishing expedition without a goal. The candidate is searching your face and fabricating a response that you want to hear. Open-ended questions give the candidate latitude to follow their own agenda, to create a narrative that may have little to do with the critical role requirements.”

Marianna sat quietly.

I continued. “Have you ever read a resume that was a bit enhanced? Have you ever read a resume that contained a little fluff? Have you ever read a resume that contained outright lies?” I stopped. “Open-ended questions give the candidate latitude to enhance their response, add a bit of fluff or create an outright lie. And you invited them to do it.” -Tom