The Career Story Interview

Give the best interview of your life.

I get the occasional email from former colleagues asking for advice, and one of the most popular inquiries is, "Hey, I really liked that interview thing you did. Can you send me something I can share with my new company?"

Hiring strategies are an evergreen topic, probably because it's so important, and we're so bad at it. Traditional methods haven't really evolved since Thomas Edison allegedly invented the interview, despite a preponderance of evidence that those methods don't work and are rooted more in folklore than in data.

"That interview thing" they're asking me for is a structured interview process. I've practiced this kind of interviewing for about 15 years and have taught hundreds of managers and teams how to do it. 

Many people are skeptical at first, very unwilling to give up their traditional techniques. I always tell them, "Do this interview a few times, and I'm certain you'll never want to interview any other way again." 

Instead of just giving you the interview techniques that have worked for me, I'm going to walk you through how to build an evidence-based interview from the ground up, including why it works. That way, you can adapt the technique to your team.

The Groundwork

A great interview starts way before you're in front of a candidate. You need to decide 

  • what you're listening for

  • what questions to ask

  • what a great/good/poor answer sounds like

If you don't lay the proper foundation, you're putting success in the hands of fate. Best case scenario: you get lucky. Average scenario: you are left with more questions than answers post-interview and struggle to make a decision. Worst case: You get caught up in what researchers euphemistically call "impression management." You let the candidate's charisma and story - and not your goals and requirements - run the show.

What to listen for

From the earliest startup days through acquisitions by Twitter and then by Google, the Crashlytics and Fabric teams listened for these competencies when we interviewed: 

Collaboration, Communication, Iteration, Creative Problem Solving, Competence & Impact, Ownership, Learning, and Customer Focus. 

These are very broad, so we took it a step further and specified what we meant. For example, by Communication, we meant: 

  • listens to understand

  • clear and concise in speech and writing

  • treats people with respect - disagree without being disagreeable

  • calm and laid back demeanor

You must get to a level of specificity that everyone can understand; otherwise, you'll have debates among interviewers about the definition of terms.  

Please don't copy this list of competencies to save time. Take the time to generate and refine your own, and don't worry about getting it right at first. My experience is that a good amount to aim for is 6 competencies, +/- 2.

Next, write down the answer to the following question: "This person will be a great hire if the following becomes true 90 days after they start:" We'll call that the mission of the role.

What questions to ask

Once you've decided what you care about, you need to decide on what questions to ask.

Unfortunately, you can't just ask any question that pops into your head. The questions you ask must help you understand if the candidate is a good match for the things you care about. They also need to be structured to mitigate unconscious bias. 

As anyone who has ever had a job interview can tell you, there are many bad interview questions out there. The good ones fall into two categories: past-behavior questions (PBQs) and situational behavior questions (SQs). PBQs are easy to understand - you're asking a question about something that happened in the past. SQs are a little more nuanced - you're not just asking a hypothetical question; you're asking a hypothetical dilemma. That is, you have to ask a question with a choice or choices, choose-your-own-adventure style.  

Research says PBQs are among the most reliable predictors of future performance. There's evidence that SQs can also be reliable. However, PBQs have less bias against women and underrepresented minorities and are easier to correctly design[1]. This is because, in practice, most interviewers skip the dilemma part of SQs and just ask unbounded hypothetical questions such as the perennial groaner, "Where do you see yourself in five years?". 

For PBQs, you could ask direct questions about the criteria you care about, for example: "Tell me about a time where you showed ownership in a past role." Totally valid, and you can google "behavioral interview questions" and probably never run out of ones that sound like this. 

However, the drawback is that you often only end up with one story per question. Do you want to decide if this person acts like an owner based on one story, or would you rather hear multiple stories where they demonstrated ownership?

When I interview, I want the questions to be both open-ended and to cover as much of the candidate's professional experience as possible.

Here's the list of core questions I use during an interview. Note that they are all PBQs:

  • What are you most proud of accomplishing during this time?

  • What were the trouble spots, the things you struggled with, during this time?

  • What's your most significant memory about the people you worked with during this time?

  • Who would be the person most familiar with your work during this time, and will you set up a time for us to talk with them if we both want to move forward after this interview?

  • What closed this episode of your career and opened the next one?

Once you have your questions, you're going to assemble them into a script so that you can give the same interview to every candidate.

This is good news for those of you who were spending prep time for every candidate, reading their resume to think of questions to ask. You just saved yourself a ton of time and became way less biased.

The Answers

For each of your criteria, decide what you need to hear in the interview, what you'd like to hear, and what you don't want to hear. It's likely some criteria are more important than others, so think about the minimum you need to hear across all of your criteria to say yes to the hire. We'll call this your hiring bar. This will be subjective, but it will be way less subjective than interviewing candidates without any kind of anchor. 

Write down your need/like/don't examples for each of your competencies and your mission. Don't worry about it being perfect. Often, the difference between "need" and "like" is the amount and the quality of examples the candidate gives during the interview. For example, you might need to hear that a candidate is a good listener, and you'd like to hear multiple great examples of listening throughout the entire interview.

Once you've assembled your criteria, questions, and answers, you're ready to interview.

The Interview

The interview's goal is to listen for the criteria you care about in the candidate's professional experiences. The number one mistake I see interviewers make: they think that the goal of the interview is to decide whether to hire this person or not.

The Interviewer Mindset

If you’re trying to make a hire/no hire decision during the interview, you're going to be applying judgment to everything the candidate says, which will impact your ability to listen. Instead: focus on listening mindfully, and reserve making the decision for post-interview. You can then look at your notes on the candidate and your criteria in a structured way and make a better decision.

The Career Story

I've already talked about the core questions I use. Ideally, you want to hear lots of examples of the criteria, not just a few.

To do that, structure the interview not around the criteria you are looking for but around the candidate and the candidate's experience. You're going to listen to their Career Story.

Here's how I set it up with the candidate after ensuring they have everything they need and are ready to go.

"We'll be talking about your career from the beginning up until now. To start, we'll divide your career into a series of episodes. For each episode, I have a set of things I'd like to talk about. It's your story, so how many episodes there are is up to you. We'll at least talk about how you started out, what you've been doing most recently, and what happened in between."

The interview proceeds from there. You don't have to go robotically through every question like they're items on an invoice, but make sure you're not accidentally asking different candidates different questions. To do this, strive to ask only open-ended follow-up questions (Who/What/Why/Can you elaborate ...) and don’t interject your own assumptions in response to the candidate's answers. When I feel like I'm about to interject with my own thoughts, the trick I use is to ask, "what happened next?". 

Interviews are opportunities for unconscious bias to creep into the process. Structured interviews are much better than unstructured ones for reducing bias, but you still need to be mindful as an interviewer to notice and reduce your assumptions about the candidate.

Take notes throughout the interview. I prefer to get the advantages[3] of writing in a notebook, however during the pandemic, I've gone back to taking notes in another window while interviewing via Zoom. Taking notes helps you stay focused on the interview and keeps you in "inquiring mode" instead of "evaluating mode." 

Timing

For a successful interview, you need to budget enough time to set it up, hear their career story, answer their questions, and sell the position. 

Many people I coach want this to take practically no time at all. They're busy, they're stressed, they have a lot of interviews to do.  

Interviewing someone to join the team is almost certainly the most important thing they'll do that day. Why do they want it to race through it? My theory is that they view interviewing as a painful and boring chore - something to get through.  

Give yourself enough time to do a good job. How much time? It depends.

I have historically been a proponent of fewer, longer (90+ minute) interviews. This gets substantial pushback from people, and there's no evidence (that I'm aware of) that longer interviews yield more successful outcomes.

Now, I recommend spending 60 minutes interviewing each candidate, bringing that down to 45 minutes for early-career candidates. This is roughly double the amount of time people seem to want to spend. 

These are just guidelines; you'll need to find the amount of time that works best for you. Practice giving the interview first with a team member to get a sense of if you can learn everything you need and still create a great candidate experience with the time you've allotted. If not, add time. It's worth it to get it right.

All Kinds of Career Stories

Sometimes, you'll interview someone whose career is just beginning or someone who has changed careers or left the workforce and returned, or many other different scenarios.

One of the advantages of this interview is it focuses on what people did in their past jobs and how they did it. Even if that job was school. Even if they have what Farai Chideya calls "episodic careers" or "slash careers"[4]. I heard a story about a tough decision a candidate had to make as part of the Greek system at their college that told me everything I needed to know about their honesty and integrity. I learned everything I needed to know about a software engineer's persistence and drive from the story they told me about their previous career as a personal trainer.

Most interviewers don't ever get to hear this stuff because they don't ask. That's good news for you because you can use it to make outstanding hires that aren't even on the radar for your competition.

After the interview

Post-interview, review your notes against all of the criteria you set before you first started interviewing. The way I like to do this is to use a partner to read out the criteria and then find the supporting evidence in my notes. For example, have your partner ask, "Do they listen to understand?", and then you can say "Yes" or "No", and here's why... 

Using a partner this way can help you keep the bar fair, so encourage them to ask you tough questions if they disagree with your assessment. It's also a good way to train team members on what you value in teammates, what you're looking for in this role specifically, and why.

This interview is almost always part of a larger recruiting process. The last step for the interview is to assemble your data and bring it to whatever process you use to make decisions, generally a hiring decision meeting. 

If everything goes as planned, you'll be able to take the data you've gathered, combine it with that of the other interviewers, and make a decision you can feel confident in.

It's my experience that things rarely go as planned, so treat this as an iterative process. Post-interview, decide what went well, what didn't go well, and what you'll try next time.

Good luck!

References

[1] Levashina, J., Hartwell, C. J., Morgeson, F. P., & Campion, M. A. (2014). The structured employment interview: Narrative and quantitative review of the research literature.

[2] M.R. Wade, M. Parent (2002). Relationships between job skills and performance: a study of webmasters

[3] Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168.

[4] Chideya, Farai. (2016) The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption

Addenda

Prepping candidates for the interview

I think you should give candidates a heads up about what the interview process will be like, including who they'll be meeting and what kinds of questions you'll have for them.

Interviewing is already stressful enough for everyone, so letting people know what to expect is beneficial for both them and you. 

Candidates are frequently nervous. This can cause them to become too quiet or too verbose. Both of which are things that get in the way of you understanding if there's a good match. You can spend your time coaching the candidate through the interview, or you can give them a primer in advance to help you both. You might think that how the candidate shows up in the interview is indicative of how they'll be as an employee - I don't know of any evidence for that. Remember that it's the past behaviors that we're interested in, so anything that helps us hear them is advantageous.

My email to them pre-interview includes something like: 

"When you're telling the story of each episode of your career, it can be helpful to structure the story using the acronym STAR:

Situation: Set the context for the story.

Task: Describe what your responsibility was in that situation.

Action: Explain in detail what you did in the story.

Result: Share what outcomes your actions achieved."

Isn't this just Topgrading?

I'm indebted to the authors of Who: The A Method For Hiring for opening the door of structured interviewing to me 15 years ago. The questions and structure I use now are inspired by ones from the Topgrading interview. I was a practitioner and teacher of the techniques in that book for many years. 

I've stopped recommending that method because I disagree with some of its precepts. I don't believe that assuming candidate dishonesty, implied threats, and sorting people into castes of A, B, and C players leads to better hires or better teams.

I've also found that it's hard to get it to "stick." Who might be the most frequently-recommended yet rarely implemented leadership book there is. Hiring managers tend to balk at certain aspects, such as interview length, and trying to change your entire hiring process can be daunting if you're a mid-level manager. I care more that people use evidence-based methods than any particular methodology. I've attempted to simplify structured interviewing practices into something any manager can pick up and use with very little training.

What about skills?

Much of what I've covered has been about the criteria that makes someone a great contributor, a great teammate, someone who can successfully help your team achieve its goals. 

What about the functional skills? Can this software engineer write code? Can this product manager bring the donuts?, Can this salesperson close a deal? 

These skills matter, and you should interview for them.

However, there's an over-focus on these kinds of skills in recruiting. One study[2] that split skills into technical vs. organizational found that technical skills superseded organizational ones by a six-to-one ratio in job descriptions. This follows through to interviews as well.

The primary kind of recruiting I've done in my career is for software engineers, where this is an industry-wide nightmare. A company I interviewed in 2019 had a recruiting process that consisted of no fewer than four separate hour-long, in-person technical skills interviews. I asked if there were any other types of interviews in their process. The response was that there were two: both 30-minute unstructured "chats" with a hiring manager and a product manager "if they were available." 

My belief is that hiring managers focus on assessing skills because they feel assessable. It feels easier to tell if someone can close a sale, write a program, or perform any particular job function than tell if someone is a great teammate, is comfortable with ambiguity, or will go the extra mile for a customer. 

I've just spent many words convincing you that you can use structured interviewing like the Career Story framework to build an interview that lets you assess those kinds of things. You also can and should use structured interviewing to assess skills. If you're curious about this, send me a note. I'll write more about it if there's interest.