Woman at whiteboard

Hire Better With a Show, Not Tell Interview Process

Get past the rehearsed answers to common interview questions

Do a search on the Internet and you’ll find many lists of the top interview questions and tips on how to answer them. Relying on many of these questions when conducting interviews will provide you with well-rehearsed answers that sound nice, but aren’t necessarily helpful in hiring the best candidates.

I remember a time when I was asked questions like,
“If you were a dog, which type of dog would you be and why?”
“What magazines would I find on your living room table?”
“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Tell me about a time when you failed.”

I was prepared for these questions, was well-rehearsed, and nailed them.

It’s not that these lists of common questions are necessarily bad questions to ask, but they are so common that the answers you hear will sound similar from one candidate to the next. How is that valuable?

Anyone can rehearse great answers to common questions. Ask yourself, why are you asking that question? What do you hope it reveals? Can you uncover that intent in another unexpected way so that the response is more genuine?


Show, Not Tell Questions

Questions that require candidates to show, not tell, will reveal more about their capabilities because you get to see them in action, without being rehearsed, which reveals who they really are and what they can do. Let’s explore a few ideas.

How do you criticize people?

Alternatively, you can ask how they provide constructive feedback, but there’s something about the word ‘criticize’ that’s more revealing.

Nobody likes to be criticized. Constructive feedback will still feel like criticism, but it’s necessary to help your team and peers grow. Great leaders are able to do this in a way that the receiver doesn’t feel criticized.

They will ask “what” and “what else” questions in a way that guides the person toward uncovering their own mistakes. They ask “how” questions to drive action. They ask “when” questions to introduce accountability for action. Like any good coach, they help the person uncover their own faults and path forward without feeling attacked or put on the defensive.

After listening for their approach and examples of how they effectively criticized others in the past, then go for the show, not tell part of the question. Ask them to criticize you or your interview style/process. This will be unexpected so you’ll see how they respond on the spot to what may seem like a difficult situation. You’ll see if they can actually do what they just told you.

Teach me something I don’t know.

Much can be learned from this interview challenge. The candidate will likely be caught off guard. How will they respond? What is the process they go through as they decide what to teach you? How do they go about teaching it to you?

The candidate likely doesn’t know you, so they don’t know what you don’t know. But their process of uncovering a topic is very telling. Do they proceed to teach you something basic, at an overview level, with the presumption that you don’t know it? Do they ask questions of you to learn more about your understanding of a topic and then look for the golden nugget to enhance your existing understanding of the topic?

Any good candidate is going to first try to uncover a gap to fill. What’s the need? It’s a waste of time and condescending to start teaching something presumptively that the person already knows. Value comes from identifying and filling needs. This situation is no different.

Sell me this pencil.

It doesn’t have to be a sales job you’re interviewing for. Many roles need the ability to help others see the value in something.

Ask many candidates to sell the value of agile, a software tool, or pitch the latest business paradigm, and they can likely run through the list of talking points. Ask them to sell you the pencil you place before them and they won’t be rehearsed.

What you don’t want to see is someone fumble over all the features of the pencil and stagger through a list of benefits.

A great candidate will fall back on their instinct of first identifying a problem to solve. They will ask you what jobs you’re trying to get done that you can’t, and why. They will seek out the gaps you have that a pencil might fill. Only then will they explain how the pencil is a viable option to those problems. Better yet, they’ll have you use the pencil for the task it’s intended to solve to verify it’s a good solution.

It’s not just salesmanship, it’s consulting 101.

Using the whiteboard, walk me through how you [something they claimed to have done].

It’s easy for a candidate to tell you a story. You ask the candidate to describe a time when they did something specific and what the results were. The candidate tells a story of how they completely transformed an organization and the results were amazing. Just because they can tell the story, because they witnessed it, doesn’t mean they did it, or can do it for you now.

More than once I’ve read the online professional profile of people I used to work with at past clients and their account of what they accomplished sounded a lot like what I would say I accomplished there.

As an interviewer, you’ll hire them and learn a hard lesson. The candidate can tell you the story of what happened and what the results were because they were there, but they may not be able to lead your effort because they don’t actually have that experience to bring forward. They weren’t the lead in the story they sold you.

In my last interview, after I explained the transformational approach and results of my previous engagement, the interviewer asked me to teach them using the whiteboard how I went about that transformational effort. She said I could take 10 minutes to prepare. I said no need to prepare. I got right up and demonstrated it. Why? Because I did the work and knew exactly how to describe it.


Final Thoughts

Many interviews are about preparing canned responses to common questions. Candidates prepare for and tell the story they want to convey. As the interviewer, you don’t know if what they said they did was really done by them or in that manner. You need a better way to find out.

Questions and situations that require the candidate to show, not tell, reveal so much more about their ability to engage in the moment as well as to expose the phonies.

This article covered just four examples to get you thinking in that direction. You will likely come up with more and better interview questions and situations as you think about what you’re really trying to know from the interview and how you can extract that in more meaningful ways.

Feel free to share your ideas and experiences as comments.


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