How to Spot an ‘A-Player’ Talent in an Interview

by Rick Crossland, author

It is surprising how many executives and even HR professionals do not like or look forward to interviewing candidates.  After all, this should be the celebration of bringing on another great employee right?  Their fear is likely because many of them have historically not had very good success predictably selecting top performers through their current interview process.

Interview applicants

Here are some of the reasons hiring managers do not enjoy better success in hiring top performers:

  1. They do not follow a structured hiring process.
  2. They ask the wrong kind of questions in the interview.
  3. They are looking for the wrong attributes in candidates.
  4. They are often fooled by candidates that talk a good game, but lack results and or character.

The cost of underperformers to your organization is immense. When an interview is actually carefully and properly done—and the right questions are asked—it is very straightforward to determine if your candidate is an A-, B-, or C-Player. You only want A-Players—those employees in the top 10% of the workforce for the salary paid that you would enthusiastically rehire.

Let’s examine the factors needed to successfully and consistently spot A-Player talent in your interviews.

Use a Structured Interview Process

Usually most interview processes are flawed from the start.  In a typical interview process, HR managers, hiring managers, and other team members interview a candidate in short, back-to-back interviews.  You have the good intention to thoroughly compare notes at the conclusion of the interviews, but often this never happens.  If it does, the debrief process usually does not include enough specificity on the strengths, weaknesses, results, and skill sets of a candidate.

Instead, follow a structured behavioral-based interview process.  Instead of a series of back-to-back interviews, get your entire decision team in to interview the candidate in one 2-to-4 hour sitting.  A longer, more intensive interview like this helps you see the differences between A-, B-, and C-Players, as the latter cannot provide enough details of their accomplishments.

After the interview, immediately go through the specific results the candidate has accomplished and compare notes for inconsistencies and where the candidate exaggerated his or her capabilities. Comparing your top two or three finalists using this methodology will yield amazing clarity.

Please note, if you think you cannot afford 2-to-4 hours of your management’s time, remember the extremely high cost of a mishire given the position’s annual salary.

Managers Typically Ask the Wrong Types of Questions in an Interview

Recently some HR managers of trendy, high tech companies have espoused some seemingly cool interview questions and techniques. These include handing candidates a marker and having them sketch out the process of their favorite hobby on a whiteboard, asking if they believe in life in outer space, or the proverbial “tell me about yourself” interview question.

The problem with all of these techniques is they tell you absolutely nothing about what the candidate has actually accomplished in your industry.  Even if they happen to map out an industry-specific process, they are very well just parroting what they saw someone else do.  This is another way of saying they may just possess academic knowledge on a topic, not firsthand results.

It is important to understand that the primary determinant to a candidate’s future success is his or her actual past accomplishments. To determine these, you must use behavioral interview questions. A behavioral interview asks specific questions about the candidate’s actual accomplishments. This is far more predictive than a situational interview, which asks hypothetical questions that are actually quite easy for a candidate to fabricate answers.

Managers Often Look for the Wrong Attributes in Candidates

Oftentimes, managers are often fooled by the wrong kinds of candidates.  The candidates that tend to most often fool managers are the flashy candidates or “showdogs.”  This is because these types of candidates typically have good emotional intelligence (EI/EQ) skills and also tend to be well dressed and articulate.  In an interview, they tend to woo hiring managers with buzzwords, industry jargon, name dropping, and strategic sounding talk.  In many cases, these candidates were simply overhead at very well-known companies.

But don’t let these candidates fool you with these saccharin sweet-nothings.  These are the candidates who talk a good game, but do not produce results.  Their cooing will sound wonderful to you, but it’s just a siren’s song.  In about 18 to 24 months they will be repeating their speech at another unsuspecting company.

The key to identifying these types of candidates is to use the structured interview and behavior interview tools mentioned above.  In addition, develop a job scorecard with defined performance attribute metrics on all aspects of the role.  A sample format of this job scorecard can be obtained at here.

Ask specific behavioral-based interview questions around the scorecards.  These will sound like “When you were the marketing manager at Atlas Corp., describe a time you improved the return on investment of your marketing actions.  What were the specific results and how did you accomplish this?”  Or, “Describe a B- or C-Player you coached up to be an A-Player.  What were the specific results and how did you accomplish this?”

As you have already most likely ascertained, the flashy, showdog candidate will not be able to hold up to this level of scrutiny.  They will mostly try the “royal we” to take credit for their teammates’ results—but cut through this smoke screen by asking them “What were your specific contribution and results.”

These types of flashy, showdog candidates appear impressive, but they are really not.  They are “big hat, no cattle.”  You are doing a disservice to your organization if you hire them.  That’s a kind way of saying that your teammates will curse you if you add these imposters to the team.

The above-mentioned tools will help you spot A-Players who may or may not have great interview skills, but are able to produce real results.  While some folks have the whole package and wow you from answer one, other great candidates are a little more shy or humble.

Remember, if you want to be an A-Player manager or leader, you must have a team of A-Players. Therefore, being able to spot A-Players in an interview becomes an invaluable skill to you.

Rick Crossland Rick Crossland is author of the book, The A Player. He works with organizations across the country to transform good companies into great companies.

A-Player Book CoverMore information on being a high performer and on increasing the performance of your organization and culture can be found in the recently released book The A Player.