by Steven Drozdeck

Finding great talent is vital to building great organizations. Most candidates who apply for a position feel they are the right person for the job. It is during the interview process where mistakes can be avoided. Highlighted here are some common problems with the interview process and some instant solutions for busy managers who are looking to improve their interview skills.

Case study

Please read and analyze the following dialogue between a manager and an applicant for a position of financial representative within an office.

Manager: We are looking for someone who is absolutely honest and can be trusted around important data.

Applicant: That´s me. I´ve always been known for my absolute honesty. You can ask any of my previous employers. There have been many times when confidential matters were discussed. I can assure you that I always use discretion.

Manager: You do look honest. However, the position that I´m trying to fill requires a person who can work alone, and who is a self-starter. There are times when little or no direction is offered. Our ideal candidate would also have to take the initiative to solve any unusual problems that may occur.

Applicant: I also appreciate those qualities in others because I always pride myself for having them and unfortunately find that relatively few people do. I´ve spent the majority of my time in positions where working alone was normal. If it weren´t for a high degree of self-motivation and a personal desire for excellence, some of my tasks would not have been completed. I can assure you that I am a self-starter and highly motivated to succeed.

As for the ability to take the initiative, let me respond by telling you know that I once received a company commendation for handling an unexpected problem in an expeditious manner. I know how to follow the rules, and I also know when to make exceptions.

Manager: Well, enough for now. Please send us a completed resume. You are certainly a strong candidate for this position.

Applicant: Thank you very much. It will be in the mail tomorrow. I am definitely interested in being associated with this corporation.

Manager to Regional Director: I think I found our new investment rep.

Applicant to Spouse: Honey, I think I got the job as night watchman.


While it probably brought a smile to your face, dialogues less extreme than this occur hundreds of thousands of times a year throughout the United States. There were a number of problems with this interview that could have been resolved if the “fuzzy words,” such as “excellence” and “self-starter,” were questioned, allowing the manager to have a specific understanding of the applicant’s meaning.

Warm fuzzies and other linguistic violations

Different words mean different things to different people. Making the assumption that a candidate’s definitions are identical to ours, we are setting ourselves up for failure. It’s the “I know what you mean” syndrome. Very rarely do we know precisely what another person means unless we have carefully questioned him. In our standard relationships with co-workers, friends and family, it is usually appropriate to allow such fuzzy words to remain fuzzy. We usually don’t have to know exactly what the other person means.

However, the interview process presents one of those situations in which we need specific and exact meanings. (This is also true when dealing with clients when they use fuzzies such as growth, safety, risk, etc.) So, if a candidate talks about “providing good service,” or being “supportive,” “self-motivated,” “helpful,” etc., you must ask him what he means by these words, and have him provide one or two examples of when he employed these traits. You might also ask what motivated him to exhibit that behavior. You may find, for instance, that he was actually told by the manager to help someone out. The question here is whether the applicant would have been helpful using his own initiative. Of course, most people are going to portray themselves as being the best of everything.

Always be aware of fuzzy, vague, undefined terms or unsupported claims.

Bringing it closer to home

• Do you have employees whose performance is not what you expected?

• Have you ever put the right person in the wrong job?

• Has anyone ever been hired who did not live up to your or his/her own expectations?

• Have you ever promoted someone who could not do the job?

• Have you ever spent training dollars to fix a “people problem” only to find out that it had not been fixed?

• Did you ever tell someone to do it “this way,” and every time you turned around, he did it “that way?”

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you may have a selection problem.


An unfortunate common situation

Two financial representatives are in the same office. Both work hard. Both set out to do a good job. But one builds customers for life. The other loses lifetime customers. Two individuals hired by the same people, managed by the same people, working in the same company. How can the results be so different? One misconception is to assume that the difference between the top performers and the bottom performers is that top performers are motivated and work harder. Did the bottom performers seem lazy when they were hired? Did one person look like he would lose customers for you?

To increase the probability of a good job fit, a candidate should have the appropriate experience, attitude and aptitude. Exclusively relying on a resume is asking for trouble. People paint a superb picture of themselves, and some, believe it or not, have even been known to exaggerate ever so slightly. The interview process can help weed out obvious inconsistencies.

When combined with the results of various psychological tests that may be employed by your company, you have a more complete picture of candidates and a better understanding of what makes them tick.

As the manager of your office, it is your responsibility to insure that you have the most effective team possible. Your business productivity is a direct reflection of how smoothly your team functions and how well your employees work individually and collectively so that 2 + 2 > 4. Essentially, your bottom line is positively or negatively affected by each team member.

Prerequisites for conducting effective job interviews

Effective interviewing is a developed skill, which, unfortunately, you may not have the time to develop. After all, many of you are probably also in production. (Only the readers who are full-time managers have multiple opportunities to practice their interviewing skills.) However, each of these skills can also be effectively used with prospects and clients. Therefore, virtually every reader has multiple opportunities to practice the skills in different contexts. The only question is whether you will take the time and make the effort to try these approaches until they become second-nature.

Any interview (whether with job candidates or prospective clients) has some give-and-take. You give some information; you get some information. You must obtain specific information that will suit your purposes of understanding the other person. You also want to resolve any inconsistencies. For example, with clients such inconsistencies can be the difference between an intellectual understanding of risk and an emotional acceptance of risk. Certainly, any financial advisor can relate to this one. Clients often have goal conflicts, hidden agendas, fears and facades that we must penetrate and reconcile. With clients we use our “developed intuition” and business experience to resolve such conflicts or inconsistencies. The same is true of job candidates.

Interviewing is doing what you already do well in a slightly different context.


Interview goals and objectives

You should have a clear understanding of exactly what you want in a candidate. Here is a simple, yet very useful, exercise that will help you crystallize your thinking regarding what you want in a team member/candidate. Please take some time and write out your answers.

Teambuilding: team member selection

1. What are the duties and responsibilities that the team member is expected to perform?

2. What skills or leadership characteristics should this person possess?

3. What experience is required?

4. What rewards (other than monetary) will this team member receive for successfully performing this job?

Write a “Want Ad” for this team-member position in 50 words or less.


If the candidate will work with multiple groups, as is the case for many sales associates, have the leaders of those other groups also assess their needs. It would probably also be wise to ask your other team members to complete the same exercise. The collective effort will be important to the discovery and selection of a strong candidate.

Now that you’re ready

Having decided specifically what you want in a candidate, you should conduct an interview to determine if he or she possesses most of the critical characteristics you’ve identified. No one will match all criteria. Expect to do some compromising. However, without knowledge of exactly what you want, you may not know what is truly important to you. Important note: Also determine what you don’t want in a candidate. This written or mental checklist (for desired and undesired attributes) will help you sort for them during the interview process and increase your probability of success.

Key questionsThe questions provided below are not magical. There are no absolutely imperative questions that you must ask. The main idea is to get the candidates talking about themselves as much as possible, and you do the vast majority of the listening. There has to be some give-and-take in the interviews, but you should be learning about them. Avoid leading them to the answer that you want to hear. For example, if you ask “Do you have good organizational skills?” the applicant is almost undoubtedly going to say “Yes, I have wonderful organizational skills.” However, if you ask him to tell you about his organizational system, you might get entirely different — and much more useful — information.

Generally ask open-ended questions that will get candidates talking. You can get more specific with closed-ended (requiring a yes/no or short answer) questions to clarify a key point.

Ask questions specific to the needs of the job position. General chitchat is nice, but you want to make sure you learn what will be important to you. You already know the type of personality necessary for the position. You also have a pretty good understanding of the skills necessary for the job.


There are a few questions that you may wish to consider to supplement those you would normally ask. They are designed to elicit specific characteristics that would probably be important for your office. There is no such thing as a good or bad answer, except as dictated by the requirements of the position. The questions are designed to help you more completely understand what makes a person tick and how he or she ticks.

People and activities

After asking applicants to describe their work experiences you could ask, “What were some of the challenges or difficulties in your current/previous job?” Their answers may fall into the common categories of people and activities. You can generally assume that the same challenges or difficulties will occur again in the future unless the new position is substantially different from the previous positions.

“People” challenges could include: managing and coordinating the activities of many individuals; having a difficult boss/co-worker/subordinate; dealing with too many people; etc. Use some of the approaches suggested in the “How To, Want To, Chance To Model” to gain additional clarity. [See Drozdeck article in the Fall 2004 issue of Broker Dealer.] People’s answers frequently offer significant insight into their personalities and abilities.

“Activities” includes anything that a candidate did or did not find challenging. Lack of challenge is a major cause of job dissatisfaction and, subsequently, “moving on.” Someone who gets bored entering data should not be given a position that emphasizes such activities. The person may have loved or hated working with computers.

Proactive and reactive

“How did/do you handle those difficulties?” The responses often indicate if a person is proactive or reactive. When analyzing the job, ask yourself about the levels of initiative needed. If high, then a proactive person may be appropriate. If the job consists of analyzing and responding to the needs of others, then a reactive person may be more suitable.

Proactive people anticipate problems and take steps to deal with them before they become issues. While being proactive sounds good, many highly proactive people also disdain stringent (often unwieldy) rules and regulations. This may not be good from a compliance point of view. They want to go for it, get it done, and be done with it, and are often impatient with others. If you are advertising for a proactive person, ask candidates to phone rather than send a resume. (Reactive people likely won’t call.)

Reactive people tend to be more responsive to the needs initiated by others or by the situation. They make great customer-service people.


Personal motivations and key criteria

You want to discover what candidates’ job “hot buttons” are, what motivates them, what they are searching for. Some questions that you can ask are:

• What do you want in a … (job, career, friend, etc.)

• What’s important to you?

• What has to be better?

• What would you like to have, be or do?

Many times you will hear vague or fuzzy words in response to this question, which you may wish to further explore. However, there is a second question that further defines what motivates an individual. That is, “And what would having X do for you?” or “How would that help you?” etc.

Internal versus external motivation and validation

Some people know they did a good or bad job based upon some internal criteria that they have established for themselves. They don’t need (and sometimes don’t even like) to be told they did a good job. They know it and are the primary source of their own validation. There are others who rely on outside sources (other people or pre-established standards) to know whether they performed adequately or not. They may require pats on the back from you on a regular basis, i.e., you will be required to give them “atta boys” or “atta girls.”

“How do you know that you have done a good job?” is the question here. A candidate’s answers should give you the insight you need. “I just know,” or “When I meet my goals” would indicate an internal motivation. Whereas a person saying “When my boss compliments me” is indicating that his or her validation comes from an external source.

Other questions that you could ask that would give you the same information are: “Whom do you involve when you make a decision?” or “If someone criticized your work, how would you react?” If they remain self-assured and would either not involve anyone or challenge the criticism, they are probably internally motivated.

Internally motivated/validating people are often effective when the job requires working alone with little or no supervision, and judging for themselves the quality of their own work. Externally motivated/validating people adapt what they are doing based on outside feedback.

The job interview is an extremely important factor in candidate selection. If you know precisely what you are looking for, as well as what you don’t want, you can ask your questions and lead the discussion more effectively. Your entire goal is to maximize the probability of finding the right person for the right job. Relying on all the tools available will maximize your probability of success. The cost of not doing your due diligence may be loss of productivity, higher turnover, employee dissatisfaction and low efficiency. Your business is too important to leave something as important as employee selection to chance.