Interviewing Candidates to Predict If They’ll be Successful

by Jeff Hyman, Founder of Recruit Rockstars

When it comes to interviewing, remember two key things:

  1. A résumé is nothing more than a sales brochure. Use it to decide who you might want to interview—after that, its value is minimal.
  2. Executed poorly, interviews are a lousy tool for predicting who will succeed at your company.

A client of mine, the CEO of a professional services company, was struggling to hire talented people. Like most executives, her success rate was about 50/50. It seemed like a weekly task of firing the mis-hires, which was not only a disruption to business but also emotionally exhausting.

I asked her if I could sit in on a few of her interviews. She hesitated, insistent that she had interviewed countless candidates over the years. I promised not to say a word, just to observe. She obliged. I sat in on a handful of her interviews, only to discover that her interviews were unstructured, almost haphazard. She was ill-prepared, random in her approach, talking far too much, making up questions on the fly. She was making almost every interviewing mistake in the book.


Interviews must be structured and consistent from one candidate to another. Together, we created a clear sequence of standardized predictive questions, and a year later, 75 percent of her hires are keepers. In other words, she improved her success rate by 50 percent.


Interviewing is where recruiting falls apart for most people. Too many hiring managers rely only on interviews and, frankly, those interviews stink. Don’t believe me? You’ve been a candidate during your career—on the other side of the table. How many times can you remember being impressed by the discipline and forethought of the interviewer grilling you? Not often, I’ll bet.

Non-Predictive Traits

Years ago, recruiting and interviewing were black magic. The science just didn’t exist. But fast-forward to today; there are countless studies that have correlated hiring factors to candidate success. We can actually look at what is predictive and what’s not. So, why would we possibly use the latter? Simple. You’ve been too busy to find out. I’ve dug up and examined every study that’s been done.


Turns out, executives tend to focus on many characteristics that have little to no ability to forecast the success of a candidate. So, what are those traits? Some will surprise you.

Industry Experience

Experience within an industry is, of course, nice to have but isn’t sufficient by itself to predict a candidate’s success. I’ll take the right DNA any day of the week and teach the new hire my industry. It also turns out that candidates from the industry—even from a direct competitor—often bring bad habits with them, and poor assumptions about the industry. They just have a different world view. The fresh perspective of an outsider—of course, with the right competencies and DNA—is a better bet in almost every case. Not to mention, there are no hassles with non-compete agreements. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because a candidate worked in your industry, they will succeed at your company.


Nor does it matter where someone went to school or what their GPA was. Just because someone was a good test-taker doesn’t mean they’re going to be a Rockstar. Intelligence and book smarts are useful, but cognitive ability—the ability to learn, make decisions, and adjust one’s approach based on new information—is far more valuable. After going back to study the correlation, even Google no longer sets a minimum GPA for all employees, a practice it once swore by.


If you’re still asking brain teaser questions, stop. Things like, “Why is a manhole cover round?” or “How many birdcages are there in New York City?” will not help you figure out who to hire. Google was famous for these questions early on; they’ve banned them, too.

Gut Feel

Meeting a candidate for lunch and asking, “So tell me about yourself,” will not reveal whether they are a Rockstar. You may leave the interview with a comforting gut feel, but the gut misleads. 

Predictors of Success

Now you know some of the traits that are not predictive of success. So, let’s look at those that are.

Test Drive

According to a 1998 study by Schmidt and Hunter, the single best predictor of success is the Test Drive. It needs to be a mandatory part of your hiring process. We’ll delve into the Test Drive later, but, in the meantime, think of it as a dry run with the candidate to see how they perform in the real world. They take a bit of time, so you won’t be able to put all candidates through one. So, I use the interview process to determine whom I’d like to invest that time with.

Structured Interview

If you ask the same questions in the same order to each candidate, you’ll be able to do two things: 1. follow the trend line of a candidate in his career, and 2. assess the candidates against each other. The key is to be methodical and consistent. This can be boring and monotonous for the interviewer, but it’s not about keeping yourself entertained; it’s about hiring the best person. When I observed my client’s questions with candidates, they were random. She hopped around from job to job; there was no structure.


This made it impossible to tell if the candidate’s growth and track record was accelerating, decelerating, or stuck. In addition, she couldn’t compare and contrast across candidates because she asked different questions of each one. I confess. I sometimes bore myself to tears during interviews, asking the same carefully worded questions over and over and over. But by doing so, I can assess a candidate’s trendline (I think of it as analogous to a stock chart). I can compare him to other candidates. And over time, I develop a better base of interviewing knowledge because I’m asking the same questions of everyone.

Cognitive Ability

This is so much more valuable than raw intellect or IQ. Can the candidate ask questions, consume information, and adjust their approach accordingly? Are they open-minded enough to take information that conflicts with their pre-existing mindset? Can they separate the signal from the noise? These characteristics aren’t easy to assess, but they’re vital in today’s ever-changing business environment. A head of marketing, for example, can’t know every single thing about every single marketing tactic. But if she has a high cognitive ability, she will know what questions to ask, where to get the answers, how to understand the data, and adapt her approach.


We devoted an entire chapter to DNA earlier because without a DNA match, the individual will be unable to succeed within your enterprise. Are the candidate’s ingrained characteristics a fit with the culture, the manager, and the team? No matter how good the candidate is, if they don’t work well with the hiring manager, the body’s going to reject the organ. Some studies reveal that this accounts for nearly half of a candidate’s success in the organization.


Of course, the interview will separate candidates who possess the essential characteristics needed for success in the role from those who don’t.

Strong Backdoor References

These are references that I’ve found on my own, rather than people the candidate provided as references. We’ll discuss reference checking later on.

Interviewing Pitfalls

I recently added up the interviews I’ve conducted over the years. I’m not proud to admit that it’s over 10,000. I’m sure this doesn’t make me the most exciting guy at cocktail parties. But you can benefit from this, as well as the countless mistakes I’ve seen my clients and staff make over the years. Here are blunders that hiring managers make during interviews

Being Unprepared

Many interviewers don’t prepare ahead of time, which is a huge mistake. Often, when I observe an interview, my client hasn’t even glanced at the résumé before walking in the room. That’s unfortunate because you want to pay attention to the markers we outlined earlier—career movement, gaps in employment, quantified achievements, and the like. I make notes on the résumé ahead of time about questions I want to ask. What do I really need to drill into? The preparation doesn’t take long, but it makes all the difference versus doing it on the fly.

Starting at the Beginning

If you’re like most executives, you’ve been told to start at the beginning of the candidate’s story—perhaps when they were accepted to college or their first job. In a perfect world, I would agree with this wholeheartedly. I want to understand the entirety of their professional career. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this isn’t always possible because the interview becomes a race against the clock.


If the candidate seated before me is forty years old, he and/or I simply may not have time for that. Instead, I focus first on the past ten years of experience (I identify before the interview precisely where I want to start). I tell the candidate that I may want to circle back to their earlier career but for now we’re going to start with such-and-such role. If they haven’t impressed me with their career trajectory over the past ten years, then the prior ten isn’t going to make the difference. Of course, if the candidate is only twenty-five years old, we’ll start at the beginning.

Overreliance on the Interview

It’s a common mistake to assume a great interviewee will be a great employee. I’ve hired people who gave mediocre interviews and turned out to be my best employees. On the other hand, some people who gave great interviews were let go after three months. This is especially common with sales candidates, many of whom are great talkers. Turns out there’s not a strong correlation between great interviewers and great employees, so I’ve learned to use the interview as one input into the hiring decision as opposed to the end-all, be-all factor.

Confirmation Bias

It’s human nature. We tend to prefer people like ourselves and hire people like ourselves. This is the danger of bias. As a result, we tend to form a quick opinion about people and then spend the remaining time looking for data that confirms our original hypothesis. Thus, we hire people who look, talk, and act like we do. We’re drawn toward people who went to the same school or belong to the same clubs.


When you first meet a candidate, you’ll likely decide whether you like them or not in the first twenty seconds. The brain does this automatically as a survival mechanism. Confirmation bias leads to the information we seek in order to reinforce the decision we’ve already made, even a snap decision. In other words, you quickly decide “She’s a winner” or “He’d make a lousy sales rep,” then you subconsciously spend the remainder of the interview seeking information to reinforce your original hypothesis.

Rather than fight that gut instinct, I listen to it and use it to my advantage. After twenty seconds, I’ll ask my brain what its initial feeling is. It tells me, yet I will assume that it’s wrong. In fact, I’ll spend the next hour seeking information to overturn my original conclusion. It keeps me sharp and makes the laborious process of interviewing a whole lot more interesting. I think of it like a detective TV show—you know the one with twists and turns, and the murderer isn’t who you thought it would be, and the guilty-faced person was nothing more than a bystander. Often, by the end of the interview, I’ve changed my mind. It happens in a significant percentage of my interviews, and I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years. Candidates surprise me; they’ll surprise you, too, (in both directions) if you just give them the chance.

Overreliance on the Résumé

Another mistake is treating the résumé as factual. On many occasions, there are things a candidate didn’t include on the résumé that I’ll uncover, which dissuade me from hiring the person. I also dig for crucial data omitted from the document that makes the individual particularly well-suited for the role. Remember, the résumé is simply a sales brochure, regardless of how sexy their chosen font.

No Scorecard

A lack of clarity about the position’s needs is a fatal flaw. Understand up front what you’re looking for, so that you know if you find it during the interview. If you don’t have a Scorecard, there’s no way to gauge the interview, and if that’s the case, you’re wasting a lot of people’s time, including your own. I keep my Scorecard right in front of me as I interview. It’s a constant reminder of what I’m hunting for. Also, it’s very easy to forget which candidate is which, who did what, and what impression they made on me. Additionally, how do I compare my observations with the other interviewers if I haven’t promptly captured my impressions? Don’t leave this to chance or to a quick text message. This decision is far too important.

Too Few or Too Many Interviews

I’ve had clients make offers based on one interview. And I’ve had others put candidates through nearly twenty (yes, decisions took forever because you can’t get twenty people to agree on anything). I knew the answer had to be in between, and finally there’s proof. According to a study by Google of its own recruiting history, four interviews is the optimal number. Four interviews reveal substantially more information than three, while a fifth adds barely any new value. Only one interviewer is necessary at a time. You’ll get four different perspectives on each candidate. But don’t have each ask the same questions—get additional information to make a well-informed decision. More on this shortly.

Too Chatty

Another mistake is for the interviewer to speak more than 20 percent of the time. The candidate should be doing most of the talking. Once you choose candidates to move forward in the process, of course, you’ll invest time selling your company and the role. But in the initial interview, save your talking for the beginning and the end.

Being Impressed by Titles and Employers

Just because a candidate has worked at Facebook, Microsoft, or Apple doesn’t mean they’re a Rockstar. Yes, there’s a good chance, but we’re trying to remove chance from your recruiting process. The same applies to titles. Job titles don’t represent the person’s capacity, seniority, or scope of responsibility. A vice president at one company is not a vice president at another. Instead, focus on accomplishments and what the candidate has learned along the way. 

Wrong Interview Location

Interviews should take place in an office or conference room, or a hotel lobby if you’re in from out of town. It shouldn’t be over a meal or at a coffee shop; while I like to observe their table manners, those places are too loud and busy. If you can’t meet in person, FaceTime or Skype video will suffice. They reveal far more than phone, since 90 percent of communication is non-verbal.

Types of Interviews

Three types of interviews are part of a winning recruitment process: phone screen, career deep dive, and DNA match.

Phone Screen

The phone screen is a fifteen- to twenty-minute phone call. The goal is simple: Do I want to advance this person to the next stage of the process, during which I’ll invest a substantial amount of time? Out of the twenty people who make it this far, I will typically advance five. This round is an efficient way to filter out candidates who appear to be a high-risk hire, based on the competencies (or lack thereof).


There is a rhyme and reason to everything I do in the call, so here are the steps chronologically.


I begin the call with a brief introduction of who I am and a short description of the company and the vacancy we’re filling.


If they haven’t applied, I explain humbly, “I’m not here to sell you anything. We are doing some fantastic things. It’s a really exciting time for the business. The role may or may not be of interest to you and if not that’s totally fine. It may be a great fit for someone you know, and I welcome your thoughts on that. If it’s of interest to you, I’m happy to have that discussion as well.”


This reduces the pressure of the call, just as a great sales professional does during a sales call.

Just the First Date

The second thing I say is that I don’t need an answer at the end of the call. Let them know there’s no pressure. They can think about whether they’d like to have another conversation, and if so, we’ll find time to do that around their schedule.


You are looking for enough information in these twenty minutes to decide if you want to invest another two hours with this person. I consider it a first date.


I try to get them talking a bit about themselves, during which I can assess communications, the scope of their current role, and areas of dissatisfaction. To do that, I say, “I’ve taken a look at your LinkedIn profile and it’s impressive. Unfortunately, they’re not always up to date. Perhaps you could take sixty seconds and give me a sense of what you’re working on these days.” The vast majority of people won’t hesitate to provide a synopsis of their company and role. This tells me whether I’ve found a potential candidate, or someone who is clearly too junior or senior for the role.


During the call, I’m assessing their competencies; I want to substantiate their résumé or LinkedIn profile. I’m also taking copious notes to use the information in future interviews and for the purpose of selling later. I find out in what ways they may be dissatisfied with their current situation (too long a commute, under-market compensation, a micromanaging boss, and the like). And I write that down, as it’ll come in handy later when I can remind them of greener pastures. I also ask if there’s anything they would change about their current role. I’m gauging their satisfaction level. I write down their answers, so I can use that information later to persuade them to join my organization. It will form the basis of how I sell them on the position.


This call is short, so I focus on their current role and, if it’s a brief tenure, the one before it. This isn’t a full career history; there’s no time for that. I ask about each of the last two jobs: What is your single biggest accomplishment? How did you achieve it? What problems did you have to overcome? I’m seeking evidence of any quantifiable, demonstrable results that would be correlative to the competencies required in the role I’m looking to fill. If their “biggest accomplishments” leave me underwhelmed, the person’s probably not right for the job.


These questions will tell me what they consider an accomplishment and shine some light on their cognitive ability. I’ll also get a sense of their passion, grit, and persistence.


If the candidate happens to be from within the industry, I take a moment to ask them if they’re bound by any non-compete agreement with their employer (or, if they recently left the employer, whether there’s one still in effect—often they’re one or two years in duration). Why? Because I’ve fallen in love with far too many candidates only to find out late in the game that they were unhirable (or at least not without a lawsuit). So, ask early. The answer may surprise you.


While it may be premature, I explain that I’d like to understand who—if we get to an endpoint in the process—their references would be. I focus on the past three to five employers, asking who would be the reference for each situation. If they can’t provide a reference for virtually every role they’ve held for the past ten years—or if most of those references aren’t their direct managers—it raises at least a yellow flag. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person isn’t a Rockstar, but I’m not in the business of taking risks. If they give me a reference that isn’t a manager, I try to understand why.


Often, hiring managers invest a lot of time in a candidate only to find out toward the end of the process that the person doesn’t have solid references. At that point, most people find it difficult to let the person go, so they hire them anyway, only to find out later there was a good reason they didn’t have references. Most Rockstars are able to get nearly every past manager on the phone and that person will say, “If you don’t hire this person, you’re a bozo. Best employee I ever had.” So, I’ve learned to move this question from the end of the hiring process to the beginning. This one step alone will save you hours and hours of pointless interviews.

Answer Their Burning Questions

During the phone screen, I give the individual five minutes to ask questions and learn about our business. I use everything they say as a marker of their motivations, passions, intelligence, and preparation. Their questions help me understand what’s important to them, their reasoning skills, and whether they’ve done any research.


Often, I can tell their interest level from their questions. Rockstars might ask about our biggest challenges or where I think we’ll be in a couple of years. They might ask about the most compelling or interesting aspect of this role and whether it will offer a challenge. They’ll probably want to know if it will allow them to have ownership over something. If a candidate asks me about hours, vacation policy, or travel, that’s a yellow flag. It sends the message that they’re more interested in maximizing their free time than anything else.


It’s a potentially huge waste of time to not discuss money early on. I’ve found that when I’m talking to someone who makes far less than the role I’m hiring for, they’re typically too light for the position. Similarly, I don’t want to waste time with candidates who are unlikely to take this position because they already earn more.


Years ago, compensation was often not at parity. In other words, I often found candidates who were dramatically underpaid or overpaid. With the advent of the Internet and countless compensation websites and studies, that range has narrowed. Just as with product pricing, compensation has become far more transparent and consistent.


I have our budget clearly established in my mind before I even ask the question. I’m typically seeking someone for whom this job would represent a 25 percent increase in compensation (salary, equity, bonuses, etc.). If my budget for this role is $100,000, for example, I’ll ideally find someone who’s currently earning $80,000.


I almost never pursue people for whom the compensation that I can afford would represent a reduction for them, unless it’s also accompanied by equity participation in the company that could prove to be meaningful. Why? I’ve learned that few people—despite what they might say in the first interview—will accept a decrease. I’ll invest a lot of time and they’ll turn me down because they decide they can’t or won’t take the pay cut. In fact, I rarely invest time with candidates for whom this role doesn’t represent at least a 10 percent increase. For the same reason, I’ve learned that few Rockstars make a move without having a compelling reason to do so. Time and again, 25 percent has been that number for me.


A good number of clients tell me that I’m overpaying or asking them to overpay—that they want to pay $85,000 to a candidate who’s currently earning $80,000. Rockstar candidates simply don’t move for a lateral or marginal increase.


Ask about current compensation toward the end of the phone call after you’ve built some rapport. I say: “Before we wrap up, would it be okay if we talked about compensation for a moment?” Invariably, they say yes—candidates don’t want to waste their time either. Then I say: “Great. How is your compensation currently structured in terms of fixed versus variable versus equity? What is the total scope of it?” Then I’m silent. About 70 percent of the time, they provide the numbers. The rest provide an outline of the mix, but not the actual numbers. A simple follow-up question takes care of that: “And what was the total last year?”


Whatever their answer, be sure to understand their cash versus long-term equity compensation. You want to write down their salary, their bonus, and their equity.


I rarely provide them with the compensation package I have in mind, but I’ll reassure them and let them know we’re in the same range. I want them to know they’re not wasting their time. Conversely, I will tell them if our budget is nowhere close to what they currently earn. Sometimes, I follow up with a question asking them to reflect on their salary. “How does where you are compare to where you’d like to be?” I’ll ask. The way they answer gives me some context clues as to what will be required to entice them to make a move.


Overall, this provides invaluable information that can save you a ton of time later. I’ve fallen in love with countless candidates only to discover later that they were out of my range. Don’t make this mistake.

Ask for Other Candidates

If the phone screen conversation reveals that this isn’t a fit, I shift into sourcing mode. I ask them to think about who they know who might be a great fit for the role. I tell them I’ll email them tomorrow to see if any names came to mind (and I do).

The Up-and-Comer

Your hiring decision will often come down to two types of candidates: the person who’s doing the same job for the same amount of money at a different company, or the person for whom this would be an upward move—more money, more responsibility, and a broader title.


In general, I find that most executives choose to hire the first type. It feels safer somehow; there’s an assumption that the person will hit the ground running. That the individual is a heavyweight and there’s some ego associated with “snagging” a sitting VP of marketing for our VP of marketing role. That logic makes sense, but ask yourself: Why would a Rockstar make a lateral move like this? On occasion, there are good reasons—an intolerable commute, financial troubles for the company, a title that isn’t accompanied by a broad amount of responsibility, a micromanaging boss.


But more often than not, the lateral candidate is not the best choice.


Instead, I look for the up-and-comer. When I start a search for a VP of marketing, for example, I look first for Rockstar directors and senior directors of marketing. I look for them because this job will get their attention; this would be an upward move, and that’s going to be exciting for them. I want someone who’s going to be excited to be on my team. They have something to prove—remember the old Avis Rental Car adage, “Number two tries harder.”

Set Expectations

To wrap up the call, I share next steps with the candidate. I tell them I’m having many of these short discussions over the next week or two, and that I will have some feedback on where things stand after that. I try to provide them with an actual date if I can. I set appropriate expectations and tell them that the next step would be to meet in person (or by video). I also ask them to think about their interest level and tell them to email or call with their questions.


Even if this candidate has blown me away, I resist promising the next step of an in-person meeting during this phone call. I don’t give them the nod to advance to the next step, because I don’t know what I’ll find with my other nineteen calls. Remember, batch process so that you can compare and contrast.


I compare only once I’ve completed the batch. Twenty conversations typically result in five people worthy of substantial time investment. When in doubt, throw them out. You may be throwing away a Rockstar, but you must decide how to spend your precious time. You have five chips and you need to place your bets wisely.


After ending the call, I send the candidate a short email, something to restate my interest, often a short video or recent news release about the company.


Congratulations! We started with 150, picked the twenty to invest time with, and now have it to a group of approximately five to meet in person. To get them to the table, educate them on the role, the company, and the market. Don’t just take the first five that are willing to come regardless. Recruiting involves salesmanship—not just picking from the hand-raisers. And if you’re lousy at selling—be honest with yourself—have the best person in your organization execute this step.


It’s time to get those five in for meetings. And speaking of time, this is a great opportunity to remind you that—since you committed up front in this book to investing 30 percent to 50 percent of your time on your talent—getting the meetings in the books shouldn’t take three weeks. This is a priority—your biggest priority. So, act like it. Bear in mind that currently engaged Rockstars may need to meet evenings or weekends. I work around their schedule, and I never regret it. They’re my first customers. Surprisingly, some of my clients will keep a candidate waiting for a month. In the war for talent, it doesn’t work that way.


There are two types of in-person interviews: the career deep dive and the DNA match. The former examines competency qualifications by exploring the candidate’s career; the latter attempts to identify a personality fit, or lack thereof. A total of four interviews are conducted with each candidate, preferably during the same visit: one deep dive and three DNA match interviews, each by a different interviewer. All five of your candidates should be put through the half-day sessions in the same manner, and from them, you’ll select one (or preferably two) to advance to the next step, which is a Test Drive.


Career Deep Dive

This is the big one: the extensive career review. Don’t leave it to chance. Don’t wing it. There is an optimal structure to the interview and, again, we’ll step through it in order.


The hiring manager himself or herself should conduct the deep dive. If it’s important enough to fill this vacancy, it’s important enough to invest this time with five semi-finalists. To be clear, HR, talent, and people organizations add immense value to the recruitment process, particularly in assessing DNA match. Yet, only the hiring manager knows the job needs inside out; the subtleties of what’s comparable, leverageable experience and what’s not.


This means being prepared before ever setting foot into the room. Review the résumé ahead of time, note any questions you want to ask; be sure to note gaps in employment. You’ll ask the same questions for each position, so that you can track the trajectory of their career and easily compare them to other candidates. The outcome of the interview will be a score on the agreed-upon Scorecard. And that is based in part upon the trajectory of their career. Is it heading up, down, or is it flat? By asking the same questions of each role, we can determine a pattern.


Allow an hour and a half to two hours for the interview, depending on the person’s number of years of experience (the more senior, the more time), and the profile of the job.

First Impressions

We talked about confirmation bias earlier. It’s okay to form your initial hypothesis about the candidate, write it down in your notes, and then spend the rest of the interview trying to overturn that hypothesis.

Last Things First

After I introduce myself and refresh the candidate on the scope of the opportunity, I let them ask questions first, rather than at the end of the meeting. I’ve always hated the cliché “last few minutes for your questions.” Putting it first, right up front, has a host of advantages. The candidate has hopefully done some research at this point and should be somewhat prepared to ask questions. The questions they ask are indicative of their level of interest, engagement, and preparation—or not.


Their questions speak volumes—are they already sold, or do I have a lot of convincing to do? Those questions will also shine light on their cognitive ability. Finally, it helps put them at ease. I want to interview the authentic person, not the nervous candidate. Giving them a few minutes to cover at least their burning questions gives them time to get comfortable and turn a high-pressure interview into a relaxed conversation.


We spend fifteen minutes or so on their questions, and then I take over. I say, “I’m glad we got through some of your questions. And it won’t be your last chance to ask. Now, I’d love to learn more about your background and experience. I don’t have any trick questions. I’m not here to stump you. I just want to understand the context and scope of each role over the past ten years.” I’ll ask the same questions for each role.


I spend about twenty minutes on each position they’ve held, starting ten years ago and working my way to the present. As much as I dislike it, I take notes using pen and paper; a laptop or tablet placed between me and the candidate negatively affects the dynamic. I type far faster than I handwrite, but I find that the device just creates a barrier.

The Questions

Here are the questions that I ask each candidate of each role. It’s important to stick to the program and conduct the interviews the same way each time, so that you can measure them against each other accurately.

What Were the Start and End Date of the Role?

This is important because dates on résumés are often incorrect or out of date. Sometimes, they’re misleading. If someone joined a company in December and left after six weeks, that might read as two years of employment if the résumé only lists the dates by year. In fact, I largely discount roles that were shorter than twenty-four months in duration. In my career, both as an executive and as a recruiter, I’ve learned that it takes two years to learn a business, lay out a plan, execute that plan, see the results, and adjust accordingly.


In some roles, this can be twelve months, but particularly for mid-level to senior roles, it’s two years. You need to eat your own cooking, to live with the decisions you made in the business last year. So, six weeks, six months, even twelve months just do not tell me much. Were you good or were you lucky? I have no way of knowing. Since I’m trying to de-risk the hire, I largely discount short-tenure roles.

Why Did You Choose to Join the Company?

This helps me understand their decision-making process, their passions, and their true motivators.

What Was the Charter of the Role?

This tells me why they were hired and what they were asked to do in the role.

What Did You Inherit?

I want to know if it was a turnaround situation or if they inherited a winning hand, a Rockstar team, etc. What was the size of their team, their budget, and/or resources they began with?

What Was the Organizational Context?

I need to understand how they fit in. Titles are often misleading. So, who were their peers? Their manager? Their team? How did that group fit in with the broader context of the company? Did they lead a geography or a product or a team? Was it an individual contributor role?

What Were Your Quantifiable Accomplishments in This Role?

I’m looking for candidates who are data-driven and eager to tell me about their accomplishments. They leave a mark. You know they were there. That’s where we’re more likely to find Rockstars.

How Did You Achieve Those Results?

The killer question that many interviewers don’t ask is “How?” It’s great that they achieved results, but we need to know how. This is where the story will start to either make sense or fall apart. I need to know if they were lucky or talented. Were they a solo hero, or did they lead a team effort? Was there a plan, or was it chaotic? I’m not interrogating them or suggesting that I don’t believe them. I’m simply trying to understand how they did what they did. And I’ll dig for details: “How?” “How?” “How?” I sound like an owl, but after a few minutes, I learn if it was the real thing or if the story begins to unravel.


For example, consider Sales Rep A and Sales Rep B. Their résumés are similar. Both made Presidents Club last year. Sales Rep A found success because he landed one killer account that fell into his lap. In fact, the previous sales rep in the territory sourced that account. He got lucky. Sales Rep B built a pipeline and systematically pursued and prosecuted the leads. Her sales were not tied to one account. Her close-rate was exceptional. She landed twelve accounts. Who would you rather hire?

What Was Your Biggest Failure in the Role?

I’m looking for humility, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to learn from their mistakes. Can they identify what they might have done differently?

What Challenges Did You Face and How Did You Overcome Them?

I’m looking for resiliency in the face of conflict and their ability to adjust their approach as situations evolve.

What Was Your Manager’s Style and How Did You Work Together?

I’m trying to assess if this candidate will enjoy and mesh with my style (or the style of the hiring manager). Does she prefer a hands-off manager? Or does she appreciate the attention to detail of a micromanager? What does she expect of a manager? Will they drive each other crazy?

What Did You Enjoy Most and Least about the Role?

This will tell me whether they’re likely to enjoy the role we’re discussing. It shows me what tasks they consider to be interesting, what their passions are, and things they don’t enjoy doing. If they say, for example, that they hated travel, and I know that this role may have 80 percent travel, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

How Was the Compensation Structured?

We asked this same question on the phone screen, but now we’re asking it for each role going back ten years. I’m looking for the trajectory of their compensation increasing over time. I don’t expect them to have a perfect mastery of the numbers (although sales candidates typically do), but I do want to understand the trend, as well as the mix of fixed versus variable, and short-term versus long-term compensation. This reveals much about their risk profile.

If We Get to the Reference Stage, What Should I Expect to Hear When I Speak with Your Manager?

A Rockstar will say, “He’s going to rave about me.” I’m looking for whether this candidate can get their manager on the phone to be a reference, and if they have a clear understanding of what the manager will say about them. Rockstars want me to speak with their references and they can promptly arrange the discussion. B-Players hem and haw. “I can’t find him,” “I lost track of her,” “She left the company.” Thanks to LinkedIn, I can track down virtually anyone. I assure the candidate that I can—and will—track down their former manager, so I’d prefer to hear it from them first. At this point, candidates spill their guts.

Why Did You Choose to Move on from This Role?

I ask the question this way to lower their guard. They may say, “Well, I didn’t choose to move on. They asked me to leave.” Were they terminated? Did they fail? Did they get a promotion and move on? Were they recruited to work elsewhere? I don’t dismiss a candidate who was terminated—as long as I can validate in referencing that it wasn’t for an ethics violation. Some of the best Rockstars joined a company in which they didn’t fit (i.e., lousy recruiting) and were shown the door. But if it’s more than one for each ten years of work history, I dig for explanations.


I know there’s a lot here, but when you’re thorough and consistent, you’ll find that the stories of a Rockstar remain intact, while those of wannabes just fall apart. To save you time, I’ve created a template that you can print out and use during interviews. Grab it free at

Time Allocation

Again, ask these questions for each of the candidate’s roles over the last ten years. And write down the answers. I know that sounds silly, but if you’re going to invest 30 to 50 percent of your time scouting talent, you’re going to thank yourself for doing so. Aim to interview all five candidates within a one-week period. This will help you keep them straight in your mind. It also keeps the process moving along. But this is hard work, so don’t do more than two in a day. Schedule at least an hour and a half (twenty minutes per role x four roles = eighty minutes).

Scorecard Time

After you’ve escorted the candidate out, complete your Scorecard within thirty minutes. Review your notes and rate the candidate from 1 to 10 on the competencies you previously determined were essential for success in the role. If someone is an 8, 9, or 10, they’re a great candidate. By the definition stated earlier, only 5 percent of people are Rockstars—those are the ones receiving 8s, 9s, and 10s on the Scorecard. So, most of your candidates are likely 5s, 6s, and 7s. Anything below an 8, I simply will not hire. The more you interview, the more comfortable you’ll become at scoring.

The DNA Match      

Okay, we’ve assessed and probed their work history, their accomplishments, their referenceability. If your company is like most, you’ll now have the candidate meet with three or five or eighteen more interviewers who essentially ask the same questions. What a lost opportunity! We’ve already covered the work history, and nobody is more qualified than the hiring manager to assess that degree of fit. But we’re not done.

The next three interviews (for a total of four) are all about the candidate’s DNA. You’re looking to assess if they will be a good match for your company. Find three employees who are outstanding representatives of your company’s DNA to conduct the interviews for all five candidates. The hiring manager should not conduct any of these, assuming they did the career exploration interview. You’re looking for three perspectives, gleaned from three different interviewers. And it must be the same interviewers for all five candidates, so that they can compare apples to apples. Having some interviewers meet only some of the candidates defeats the intention of a fact-based process.’


Each DNA interview should last approximately one hour. As before, give the candidate a chance to ask questions for the first five to ten minutes and then tell them you’d like to talk about some examples from their life. There are fewer questions in these interviews; you’re just asking them over and over to get past the rehearsed examples to the authentic individual.


Each interviewer will focus on one or two DNA characteristics that you’ve decided are intrinsic to your organization, like resilience, optimism, or creativity. We’re looking for anecdotal evidence of their DNA traits.

The DNA Questions

Tell Me about a Time When You Had to Exhibit…(the DNA Characteristic That the Interviewer Is Focusing On)

After they answer, ask for two or three more examples. If the candidate can give you credible, engaging examples that are consistent with your definition of that characteristic, chances are good that they share your DNA and will be a good fit at your company. This person may have bombed the career exploration interview, however; in that case, try to find him a different spot in the organization because it’s difficult to find someone who shares your DNA.

Tell Me about Your Favorite Job Ever

Tell Me about Your Least Favorite Job Ever

Look for whether what they describe is consistent with the job you’re looking to fill. If they tell you, for example, that they disliked a job because it lacked variety, and I happen to be looking for the DNA of creativity, that’s a promising sign.

Tell Me about Your Best Boss Ever

Tell Me about Your Worst Manager Ever

Again, I’m looking for consistency between their preferences and the manager for this role.

Tell Me about the Work Environment You Thrived in Most

Tell Me about the Work Environment You Found the Most Difficult

Here, I’m also looking for whether it’s consistent with our environment. The idea, again, is to drill and keep on drilling to get past the rehearsed answers and find authentic ones.

Each interviewer completes their Scorecard within thirty minutes, rating the candidate and jotting down any notes to debrief with the rest of the interview team.

Assessing the Candidates

Within twenty-four hours of all five candidates completing all four interviews, gather as an interview team. It’s best to do this in person, but video will suffice. Debate, discuss, argue, and go into the fine points. Don’t accept statements such as, “I really like this guy.” You’re only focusing on things that are measurable and predictive.


Your job is to narrow the five candidates down to a first choice and a second choice. If only one has the requisite competencies and DNA, that’s fine. Don’t settle for number two just to have a second choice. If the scores are such that one of your candidates is a 9 and the other is a 7.5, keep the 7.5 in the running because you may not land the 9. If one is a 9 and the other is a 4, only one advances in the process.


The team should also talk about any concerns they want to dig into, plus begin discussing how to convince their top choice to join the organization.

Remember the Candidate Experience

When highly structured, the interview process can be far more useful in predicting the success of a candidate. However, you can’t simply force candidates through the process. It takes some handling and fine-tuning. So, consider it from the candidate’s perspective.


The experience that candidates have at your company matters—even the candidates who don’t receive the offer (which will be the vast majority). Their experience during the interview is the first and only representation they’ll have of your company. You’ll damage your employer brand with a bad candidate experience, just as you damage your consumer brand with a bad customer experience. It doesn’t take much. And you’ll read about it on Glassdoor.


After the interview team has met, the hiring manager or an HR representative should provide prompt, direct feedback to the candidates. Feedback should include what you saw that makes them a great fit and concerns you’d like to discuss further.


Candidate experience also includes how compelling the Job Invitation was, how easy it was to apply, and whether they were asked the same questions in multiple interviews. Did the interviewers begin the interview on time? Did someone offer the candidate coffee or water? Were they warmly welcomed?


Pay attention to all the touchpoints—from the Job Invitation to the offer letter to the welcome basket and everything in between. Make sure that every interaction is a first-class experience for candidates. Rockstars deserve and expect that, and it will help you dramatically when it’s time to get the “Yes.”

About the Author

Author Profile pic

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. 

Today, he’s CEO of Chicago-based Recruit Rockstars. Along the way, Jeff has created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. 

Based on his 25 years in recruiting, he authored the bestselling book Recruit Rockstars.

Jeff also hosts the five-star Recruit Rockstars Podcast and is featured frequently by CNBC, Inc, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. 

He holds degrees from Kellogg School of Management and The Wharton School. 

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