Staffing for Success – How to Interview

I am really getting lots of questions about staffing and it is seems to be really hot topic on the web these days.  I wrote a white paper on the subject a few years ago (you are welcome to download a copy of Cognitive Technologies’ whitepaper, “Staffing for Success – Back to Basics” by registering in the library).  I also gave some simple tips on interviewing back in May 2009 (Interviewing tips for PMs) but I am not really an expert on that subject, so I’ve asked a well know practitioner, Dr. Karen McGraw, to give us all tips on how to interview candidates in order to make sure we hire the right people.

Using the Interview to Find and Select the Right Candidate

Guest Post by Dr. Karen L. McGraw, CEO, Silver Bear Group

The “how to get a job” industry is booming! Go into your neighborhood bookstore and count the number of books that tell people how to interview to get the job. For people who find the job interview a very nerve-wracking experience, these advice books certainly have a place. Of course you want to make the best impression you possibly can as you vie for your dream job and hope to stand out from the crowd of other applicants.

But what does this mean for the project or program manager who is hiring to staff an upcoming project, or for the operational manager who needs staff with special skills in order to successfully implement a new process? I think it means that it can become even more difficult to select the best candidates, because they are likely to be well-prepared for the interview.  Similarly, we need better preparation to ensure that the time we spend with an interviewee produces the data we need to make the right decision.

Much has been written about the use of behavioral interview questions to help discern the interviewee’s role in a particular achievement.  The typical behavioral interview consists of using the following kinds of questions, followed by secondary questions that enable you to drill down and reveal what the interviewee really did and what their role really was:

  • Tell me about a time when you …
  • Give me an example of how you …
  • How did that turn out?
  • What did you do next?
  • What would you have done differently?

The answers summarize how the individual approached the situation, what they did to address and resolve it, and the outcomes or results produced. These types of questions give you more insight into the candidate’s capabilities. In addition, the interviewer gets a better feel for how the candidate communicates and presents ideas, confronts problems, makes decisions, and learns from events. But the data you gather is only as good as the questions you ask and how you respond to the answers. But the real secret to effective behavioral interviews is preparation before the interview, followed by appropriate use of the response data and revelations after the interview is over.

Before the Interview

Behavioral interview questions are all about what the person did—the actions they took, the decisions they made—and the results produced.  But if you are asking about minimally important tasks and ignoring others, you won’t have good data to help you determine if this candidate is a good fit. To improve the questions you ask, conduct a planning meeting with a small team of key performers either in the job role for which you are hiring, or who interact with that job role in a team setting.  Discuss topics such as, “What are the most important outcomes this role must produce?” “What facilitates success in this job role?”  “What competencies or capabilities are essential to avoid failure?”

Use the information discussed to produce a prioritized list of the key position requirements and the special qualifications, traits, and experience the ideal candidate would have. Work from the list of key position requirements to construct 5-7 critical behavioral interview questions. Then review the special qualifications (e.g., certifications, training, etc.) and traits (e.g., results-oriented, collaborative decision maker, etc.) to develop other questions that will help you judge the candidate’s appropriateness for the job. Finally, use the information discussed and the list of behavioral questions to construct a Job Evaluation Form for the position. Provide interviewers with a form like this and ask them to rate each candidate against the factors and provide comments to capture examples or other information that should be considered.

After the Interview

How many times have you called an interviewer to get their feedback after they interviewed a candidate only to hear “I really liked him (or her).” For many jobs it is important that an individual is likeable. But now is not the time to be swayed by “likeability.” It should be but one factor in the equation you use to determine the best candidate for the job.

To improve your odds of success, gather the Job Evaluation Forms completed by your interviewers. Compile the ratings and comments for each candidate and compare the findings across candidates to help you make your final decision. Combine the rating information and comments with other data you have, such as personality test results, to help you make the optimal decision.

In the end, there is no perfect technique—we’re all human and are affected by a candidate’s likability and preparedness. But careful planning can help you ask the questions that matter most and will enable you to use the data from each interview to choose the candidate most capable of producing the results required by the job.

Do you have special tips to help you successfully fill job roles? Please share them!

Job Title Inflation Continues

What title would you put on your business card if you could pick any one you liked? I’d pick “Project Janitor,” for myself because my job so often involves helping clients clean up problems and get projects back on track. Project manager job titles (and many other roles!) have been co-opted to new heights. Go to any PMI meeting and gather a few business cards. You’ll see quite a range of titles, some of which don’t quite seem to fit the maturity level of the holder.

Some folks may inflate their job title to appear more skilled or valuable. Companies have been known to offer fancy job titles in lieu of pay raises or real promotions. Whatever the reason, hiring organizations cannot rely on a previous job title to screen applicants. Last year, I offered a guest post, “What’s in a name—job title inflation hits project management,” that received many supportive comments. The trend continues….

It is not just in the world of project management, either. I recently saw this post from Sharlyn Lauby, suggesting that creative bartenders using farmer’s market ingredients should call themselves, “bar chefs.” Hmmm. “The Economist” in their Too Many Chiefs article reports that America’s International Association of Administrative Professionals—formerly the National Secretaries Association—has more than 500 approved job-titles, ranging from front-office coordinator to electronic-document specialist. Paperboys have become “media distribution officers.” There are even terms to describe the process of job title inflation:  “uptitling” and “title-fluffing!”

I have seen many people asking for help on titles – as the question posed on Toolbox.com that asks:  what the “typical job titles were for those who manage projects.” In reviewing recent employment applications to Cognitive Technologies, we have seen:

  • Project Associate
  • Associate Project Manager
  • Project Manager
  • Project Coordinator
  • Sr. Project Manager
  • Sr. Schedule Manager
  • Sr. Project Scheduler
  • Project Lead
  • PMO Project Lead
  • PMO Director
  • PMO Project Manager
  • Portfolio Manager
  • Chief Project Manager (CPM) – my favorite!
  • VP, Project Management
  • Client Servicing PM
  • Technical Project Manager
  • Technical Project Lead
  • Business Project Manager
  • Business Project Lead
  • Program Manager
  • Sr. Program Manager

And the list goes on!!!

The Lesson: Screen Resumes for Experience, not Titles
Project management requires a range of skills from technical proficiency to leadership. Project managers must be capable of understanding a broad vision and supervising detail-specific execution. In a world of self-managing teams, skills as a coach and mentor are also important. When I review a resume on candidates for a project management position, I look for several key indicators:

  1. Demonstrated commitment to the profession of project management through training, certifications, and memberships.
  2. Willingness to work hard, as reflected in selecting a tough university (and graduating), holding multiple jobs to make ends meet early in a career  or during school – what Harvard Business Review calls pay-to-play skills, and gradually increasing responsibility within previous companies.
  3. Leadership experience in organizations that demonstrate a willingness to step up and be counted.
  4. Project management or team leadership that requires more involvement than just tracking the work of others.
  5. Demonstrated knowledge of PM tools beyond Gantt charts and PowerPoint slides.
  6. Previous experience working directly with customers.
  7. Understanding of why projects and process decisions were made, not just what or how.
  8. Also, consider the size of the projects previously managed, their complexity and the individual’s budget responsibility.

Sometimes it is just looking for basic skills and talents that people have and can apply to the job – beyond the titles, training, and certifications on the resume.  I wrote a post about staffing and finding the best staff last September (2010) which speaks to finding resumes and people – but did not address how to scrutinize their background.  However, you may want to read my thoughts in, “Staffing Projects for Success: Back to The Basics” by Cognitive Technologies – (free registration required).

So what are your thoughts on Job Titles?  Are you looking for the “Project Janitor” or something else?

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