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Reading the mind of a hiring manager

A job seeker on the bridge of the Enterprise
A job seeker on the bridge of the Enterprise
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As a recruiter I often get asked what a hiring manager really looks for when they hire someone. To that I reply, I am a recruiter dammit, not a mind reader. (A Star Trek reference in the second sentence, surely that’s got to be a record!)

With all due respect to Bones McCoy, I do feel like a Doctor when I work with hiring managers and candidates. I ask questions to try and tease out bits of information that I later stitch together to form a more complete picture of the position or the candidate.

And after having done this awhile, I have come to see companies assess candidates along these areas – Capacity, Character, Experience, and Education.

Let’s start with capacity. The term measures a candidate’s ability to handle work both in volume and complexity. A candidate should be prepared to describe specific examples that would demonstrate the amount of work they can manage as well the degree of difficulty it took to complete the task(s).

Capacity Questions –

What was the hardest project you had to complete? Obviously this question is fairly on the nose and is asking to be answered with a specific situation, the action you performed, and the result it yielded.

How big was your work group? Now that may not seem a capacity question, but it is. If you were part of a small group, a logical conclusion is that you likely had broader responsibilities. This speaks to the volume part of capacity. This question is also perfect for a return question along the lines of “tell me about the size of the group that this position is in.”

The goal of interview is for it to be an exchange of information that feels like a conversation. Pick and choose your spots throughout the interview to ask return questions like the one above. It will help reduce the feeling of formality that often pervades an interview.

The next area is character. There is a quote I often see on various social media sites, “Hire Character, Train Skill.” And I agree. Ultimately the on-site interview is less about the technical side of whether a person can do the job, but rather how they communicate.

While communication is important, the other aspect of character is your integrity. Of course that is hard to measure during the course of an interview. So how on earth do you show integrity during an interview? Well it’s hard. But you can demonstrate your integrity at the start of the job search process.

The first thing is to not put a work email or phone number on your resume. The idea that you are so blatant with your search tells me that you have already checked out. Of course there is the opposite end.

I recall quite a few years ago, a candidate that I contacted about a marketing role was happy to talk, but only after hours. In her mind, she rationalized that while she wanted to make a change, she did not want it to come at the expense of her current employer.

Now that is unusual, and while we did ultimately hire her, it was not her integrity alone that made us bring her on board. So with that said, I would encourage you to find a happy medium that works for you. Talking to a recruiter on a lunch hour, in a conference room, or even in your car, is perfectly fine. I did have a candidate once call me from the bathroom. While the acoustics were perfect and I could hear the candidate just fine, I also heard a great deal many other things I can’t erase.

Character Questions –

Tell me about a time when you had a run in with a co-worker over a missed deadline. It is all about the example. Most people remember things better when they are framed in a story. And every good story has a beginning, middle and an end. (This is another restatement of Situation, Action, and Result.)

Share with the interviewer how you respond to setbacks when they involve the people you work with. It is okay to share that you were frustrated. Passion tempered with maturity is a powerful combination. Employers want to hire people who care about the job they do.

What type of manager do you work with the best? This might not immediately seem like a character question, but it is. The key element to remember here is not what you answer, but rather what you don’t. Say what?

Think about it. If you say that you like a manager that focuses on the big picture and holds you accountable for reaching the goals. You are also saying that you don’t like a micro-manager.

The example above is fairly benign. After all who likes a micro manager, but nevertheless you should still be mindful of the answers you give and realize that an interviewer will also listen for what you don’t say.

Now the last two areas – experience and education are the most tangible. Questions here will be specific and look to measure the level of competence with a specific skill or ability. And in some respects these two are the most binary. You either have the required experience or education or you don’t.

In general employers will look for logical career and academic progression. Do you have reasonable explanations about why you did what you did? Think of the career choices you make like a game of chess. Sometimes you do push a pawn to push a pawn, but you still need to have an overall strategy.

All of us today are our own companies. And like any company we have a brand name – a reputation. You are responsible for managing your brand and will be held accountable in the hiring process for the how well you explain the choices you have made.

Finally each of these four areas will be weighted differently based on their importance to the hiring manager. So part of the interviewing process is for you to determine how each area is being weighted. But again the interview is a binary process. Does the company/hiring manager want the best available person? Well, duh! However you should ask questions that demonstrate your own interviewing skills. After all you need to figure out if this is the right role, at the right time, with a manager that you truly connect with.

Now that you have a framework to help you navigate the hiring process, you finally have a good chance of reading that hiring manager’s mind. And then you can say, I’m not a candidate dammit, I'm your next employee.”