Courier Workshop episode 6: Effective interviews
You won’t be hiring the right people without a carefully considered and structured interviewing process. While plenty of small businesses opt for more informal and instinctive approaches, if you want to make sure it’s as effective and as inclusive as possible, you need to give it due time and attention. Here’s how to go about it.
AMIRAH JIWA: From Courier, I’m Amira Jiwa.
DUNCAN GRIFFITHS NAKANISHI: And I’m Duncan Griffiths Nakanishi.
AMIRAH: Welcome to Courier’s Workshop podcast. Every two weeks, Workshop breaks down one essential business topic and explains how it could be useful for you. Our goal is to get you just the right amount of info to help you apply what we’re talking about to what you’re working on. I’ll be speaking to experts with practical tips and founders with relevant experience.
DUNCAN: And I’ll be explaining essential terms and summarising the key takeaways at the end of the show.
AMIRAH: Today’s topic is an essential driver of any business, that is the people behind it. Specifically, we’re talking about the interviewing process and how to set one up that identifies the very best people to join your team. If you’re running a small business or startup, your current interview processes might be pretty informal and something you just come up with on the fly. Everyone that we spoke to about this topic emphasised the value of structured, intentional interviewing.
NORA JENKINS TOWNSON: A lot of smaller businesses and companies don’t believe that they need to have a formal interview process. They think that they can feel it out from their gut, or take someone for coffee or a beer in the before times. And I think that’s definitely a mistake.
ALINE LERNER: So I think there are two things that are critical. One is a conscious acceptance by the founders that hiring is going to eat up huge chunks of their time, that it can’t be an afterthought. That this is something that probably shouldn’t be as time intensive as building a product, but close.
JAN FIEGEL: I think the biggest mistake that gets made in recruiting talent is not being intentional, not having thought about what is it that I actually want? What is it that I actually need?
AMIRAH: First up, here’s Nora Jenkins Townson, whose speciality is HR for startups. Nora headed up HR at Canadian startups Wealthsimple and FreshBooks before founding Bright + Early, a consultancy focused on workplace design.
NORA JENKINS TOWNSON: I’m a little biased, but I believe people are the most important and the hardest thing to do well. You can run code, figure out why it doesn’t work, solve it. At the end of the day, the numbers add up or they don’t. People are a lot more difficult. The things which keep founders up late at night end up being those people-related issues.
AMIRAH: So your focus is on startups, what tends to be the startup approach to hiring and what kinds of things can you help them with?
NORA: I think there’s a good case for when you are under 20 people, to bring in those folks that are risk takers, that are builders, that are fine taking on things with no particular agenda or structure, that are willing to get their hands dirty in that. But where I see founders really start to fail and struggle on this is trying to find those people or having the expectation that everybody will behave like that, beyond that phase. I talk to a lot of CEOs and founders who are maybe at the 30- or 50-person mark. They’re all saying that everyone they hired never used to ask about career paths or about a raise, nobody would complain about this, that and the other, where are all those people now? The thing is that the person who joins your company at five people, it’s just not the same as the 15th person. The 15th person, the 30th person, they have expectations – they want to know where their career is going. They expect benefits, they expect some process in place.
AMIRAH: Where should a company that wants to put some of those processes in place start?
NORA: What I like to say is don’t invite people over to a messy house. You want to work on your existing team first. Make sure that you’ve had discussions, enlisted some speakers or training, you’ve reviewed your policies, your systems of how people are evaluated job wise, how people are paid. Make sure that if you have some benefits in place, that they’re thoughtful for different types of people. Have you thought about parental leave? Have you thought about different types of caregiving arrangements? Just making sure that you have some things in place so that anyone who’s in a position of power – whether it’s you, your managers, or who’s making those career decisions for people – that they understand the power dynamics and bias and things like that. We can recruit all the folks that we want, but if we’re going to bring them into a poor experience, a) that is awful for them, and b) we’re wasting our time by bringing people in that aren’t going to be happy or succeed in that environment.
AMIRAH: When they’ve cleaned up some of that mess, what is the first thing that they should do when it comes to interviewing?
NORA: A real inventory of this particular role and what the expectations are. Even doing research, talking to other people who are in this role to understand what’s realistic. Making sure that you have a good vision for what success looks like, and then aligning questions around that. Make sure that your job descriptions are inclusive. You can use tools that analyse the language in your job description and tell you whether it’s gendered or will appeal to a certain type of person. Textio is one good product for that. But, overall, just be aware of coded language. A lot of startups will have language talking about sports or drinks or ping pong and so realise that you might be sending out coded messages about who’s going to belong at your company.
AMIRAH: OK, so they have a fair and unbiased idea of the role that they’re hiring for. What’s next?
NORA: Having a specific structure that every single candidate for the process is going to follow. Make sure that they’re all going through the same thing. Say you’ve lined up an interview with Sally, and then an interview with Duncan, present them both with the criteria that you’re looking for – give those people questions, give those people training. Everyone thinks that they have this incredible gut for hiring, but we all have our inherent biases. I’ve been hiring professionally for probably 15 years, and even I, at this point, have learned that I absolutely should not trust my gut, that I need to have that formal process in place. What it does is it gives you a way to compare people and their experience, what they bring, and then what you can bring to them on very equal terms. If we ask them all the same questions, we know how the different answers compare. If we know specifically what it is that we’re looking for and how the questions we’re building align to our values and align to this role and what we really need from it and we’re being thoughtful, we’re just more likely to have success.
AMIRAH: And anything else that smaller companies should keep in mind as they think through setting up the interview process?
NORA: This is a sales process on your end, too. As much as you love your company and you love your startup and you completely get it, you want to hire people who are into it and are passionate but, at the same time, you need to have a few selling points of why they should work there. Definitely do some market research to make sure that you’re competitive on not just the salary side, but also everything else that goes into a work experience.
AMIRAH: Our next guest, Aline Lerner will pick up on exactly that aspect of the interviewing process, the idea that can play an important role in building your employer brand. Aline is CEO of Interviewing.io, a mock interview platform for software engineers. Aline started off as an engineer herself, and then moved into technical recruiting for tech companies.
ALINE LERNER: Many, many small companies are taking their cues for how to conduct a good hiring process from giants like Google and Facebook and Microsoft, despite their hiring practices. And the reason they’re actually good is because they’re strong brands. People know that smart people work there and they also know that they’re cool projects to work on that are very impactful. No matter what kind of terrible hiring process any of those companies have, because of those reasons, they will have a revolving door of candidates. Their process in many ways could be a coin flip, it could be making candidates run in circles, it could be a bunch of arbitrary things. At the end of the day, because they have such a good supply of candidates, and as long as their selection process is slightly better than a coin flip, they’re gonna win long term. But smaller companies don’t have that luxury, right? Because no one’s heard of them, they don’t have the brand.
AMIRAH: So how can smaller companies compete for talent?
ALINE: One of the ways that smaller companies can really stand out from larger ones is making the process feel personal. If you think of hiring as a funnel, which it is, every time a candidate passes one stage in that funnel – so let’s say they did well in a technical interview – they become much more valuable to you. For that candidate, there are, say, 20 to 100 other candidates that didn’t get there, and you still invested time in those. So the opportunity cost of losing that candidate gets higher and higher and higher the further they get.
DUNCAN: Hey, butting in with the first definition. ‘Opportunity cost’ refers to the potential benefits a business misses out on by choosing one option over another.
ALINE: After they pass a technical phone screen, that’s already really valuable. Then after they pass an on site, you’re about to make them an offer; extremely valuable. You’ve made them an offer; even more. So you need to carve out time just like you did to kick-start your recruiting process. You need to carve out time to make the candidates that are moving through your process at various stages, but have already succeeded at passing one or more, feel really, really valuable. That could just be having a phone conversation with them and finding out what matters to them, what their concerns are. Sometimes you can’t match large companies on compensation, but you can do other things. Make sure that they feel like they’re seen and that they’re potentially going to be really, really impactful and that everyone’s excited about them joining.
AMIRAH: And what about those interviews themselves?
ALINE: What I recommend to companies is to think about what interesting problems you’ve solved in the course of doing your job. Take those problems and share those solutions in a Google Doc. Go through them and think about some of the key takeaways. Then think about how you could turn those takeaways into a set of interview questions to ask in the span of 45 minutes. What’s cool about that is not only does the candidate feel like you’re investing in them and in them having an interesting experience as much as they’re investing in you (having some value symmetry where both sides are putting in), but if it’s a good question, it’ll actually stick in the candidate’s head afterwards and they’ll think, ‘Hey, I would love to do something like that every day,’ and that is one of the best selling points you can have.
AMIRAH JIWA: Okay, so Nora and Aline may have persuaded you of the value of a structured and well-thought-out interview process. But what does one of those actually look like? We spoke to Jan Fiegel, who heads up talent at Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation company that’s part of Alphabet, which is the parent company of Google. Here’s Jan on the framework that Sidewalk Labs uses to make all of its hires, no matter the function or level of seniority.
JAN FIEGEL: What we landed on are really four different dimensions that we think describe what it takes to be successful at Sidewalk, regardless of what work you’re doing. Let me take you through those really quick. First, we call it ‘experience and expertise’, that’s really about understanding somebody’s past: what have they done? What do they know? What is the experience that they’ve had? That’s important because, of course, to an extent we are all a product of our history. Yet that doesn’t explain everything. Particularly when we look through the lens of equity, inclusion, diversity, we know that if we’re trying to fill jobs that don’t necessarily exist elsewhere, we want to give people opportunities, even if they don’t have the ‘perfect background’ for it. We need something else.
The second dimension we refer to as ‘role-related problem-solving’. This is, again, about understanding somebody’s potential to succeed in the role, but using demonstration rather than their history in the past to assess it. Here, we lean on role plays and case studies, anything that is really about engaging in the substance and the format of the model of the work. With those first two dimensions, we’ve described individual performance and capacity.
Now, nothing in an organisation gets done in isolation, which is why our third dimension is what we call ‘working with others’. This is where, depending on the level and the role, you look at collaboration, people-management skills, influencing without authority, communication, collaboration. These are all themes that go into working with others successfully.
Then the fourth dimension is called ‘fourth dimension’, because we couldn’t come up with a better title. And, in physics, the fourth dimension is time and we want to understand how somebody will do over time. So this is where you’re getting into values, into mission alignment, into are they aligned with what the opportunity really is or are they not? We found that those four dimensions are giving us a framework that can stay consistent, and yet can actually still allow us to tailor what the actual interview is and to a specific role.
AMIRAH: That’s really helpful to hear exactly which attributes your hiring process looks to identify. What is the process, then, for finding the people that have those attributes?
JAN: So it’s not about anchoring on a title, but actually thinking about: what is the goal that I need? What is the work that I need to get done? What does success look like? And I’ll just attach here something that I think is also breaking with a dogma, and which is really about how we write job descriptions. We are all taught to write job descriptions centred on responsibilities and skills. I think that’s very much too vague, and often misleading. Responsibilities for my role, you might say, you will be responsible for the recruiting function of Sidewalk Labs. That’s objectively true. It also means very little if you don’t understand the organisation from the inside. This is in contrast to thinking about deliverables. Saying: by the end of the year, you need to have hired 50 people that probably represent 12 different industries, and 14 different functions within those industries. That starts to become a lot more tangible and, of course, I will be responsible for the recruiting department in the meantime, but we have really found that trying to be specific, much as we do company planning with different companies using different tools, but OKRs have become quite en vogue and have been a useful tool.
DUNCAN: OKRs stand for objectives and key results, a performance management tool used to set, communicate and monitor goals.
JAN: And it’s very much the same thinking: what is the work to be done? And then let’s work backwards from that.
AMIRAH: And how do those interviews work?
JAN: Trusting instinct, trusting gut, feels very comfortable. It’s very intuitive, but isn’t predictive of actual performance, of actual fit to a role, which is why we want to introduce thought and forethought and intent. That’s really the most basic idea of structured interviewing. Structured interviewing is fundamentally about being explicit about the objectives, thinking ahead, planning ahead and then developing a system that you use consistently.
The standards you will find with almost everybody is a screen at the very front end. For us, that’s usually a recruiter screen, and that’s where you check general credibility of the candidate and some logistical factors. Are they available on the timeline that we would need them for? Do our compensation expectations align? Does location work? Trying to get a general sense for the person and what they might be capable of.
That’s then followed up with a general hiring manager screen. Here it’s about going deeper, trying to gauge a candidate’s technical and skill capabilities, as well as understanding their background more so we get a fuller picture. Then we move to what in an old world would have been called the ‘on-site round’. Now, we do it all virtually and that is really driven by our four dimensions. Our default and our starting point is one interview per dimension. So one interview will involve a 45-minute deep dive into somebody’s past. Another, as I mentioned earlier, will incorporate a case study or some form of role play, which allows us to engage in the substance or the action of the role. The third is about working with others. The fourth is about the fourth dimension. And that usually gives us a pretty comprehensive picture.
AMIRAH: Do you have any advice for a founder who wants to set up a process like the one that you have, but they don’t feel like they have the time to do it?
JAN: Remember that if you’re running and building a business, your strategy, your structure, your culture, your execution, it all ultimately gets done by people. You probably want to make sure you have treated this as a strategic initiative and apply the same effort and rigour.
AMIRAH: Thanks so much to Nora, Aline and Jan for joining us. To accompany this podcast, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to developing a structured and inclusive interview process. Find it at mailchimp.com/courier. For now, here’s Duncan to summarise the key takeaways from today’s show.
DUNCAN: 1) No matter how small your business, there is value in having an established interview process that you’ve prepared and thought through in advance.
2) Start by making sure you have a clear role profile and know exactly what you’re looking to hire for.
3) You structure interviews where you ask everyone the same questions, and incorporate questions that focus on the work they’ll do in the role.
4) Your interview process plays an important part in how you’re perceived as a brand. It can help you win talent, even when you’re up against large companies offering more compensation.
That’s it for today. If you have any questions or feedback for us, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AMIRAH: We’ll be back with more Workshop in two weeks. See you then.
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