The Biggest Mistake Employers Make Interviewing Candidates

by Gary A. DePaul, PhD, CPT

The biggest mistake employers make when hiring is not fully vetting candidates for their leadership skills. Leadership isn’t needed just for executives and supervisory roles. Leadership is needed at all levels. Fortunately, this mistake can be avoided by reprioritizing the interview objectives.

What Most Employers Interview Candidates For

Whether hiring for positions on a faculty, executive team, or administrative department, you want to hire the best candidate for the job. To help make that decision, you typically have an onsite interview. During the selection process, interviewers try to discover key things that help indicate if a candidate is right for the job. These include:

• Subject-matter expertise (technical/functional)

• Proven experience (including publications, contributions to the field, and experience)

• Meaningful references

• Use of soft skills

• Fit with the culture

While all five are important, employers tend to be effective at discovering the first three but aren’t so great with discovering about the last two. Interestingly, leadership rarely makes this list. Even with some executive searches, interviewers may not probe enough to discover how effective candidates are at leadership.

Why Hiring Candidates Who Practice Leadership Makes a Difference

When hiring, you want technically competent candidates, but you also need candidates who contribute to improving the culture – not maintaining it or making the culture worse. To hire candidates who can operate at this level, you need to look beyond the required technical/functional capabilities and search for candidates who seriously practice leadership.

If you want to improve productivity, improve customer/student/employee experiences, decrease safety incidents, and improve morale and the culture, hire candidates who practice leadership effectively – regardless of their career level or role.

What You Need to Know About How Leadership Has Changed

As I discussed in a previous article, leadership is evolving from the traditional approach and is applicable to all roles. Instead of the Leader-Follower Structure or getting people to achieve a vision, leadership is more about helping people around you to think – specifically to build character (mentally and morally). It’s also about helping people become better at collaboration, creativity, and innovation. This leads to more engagement and accomplishing the extraordinary.

The focus of leadership has shifted from what the “leader” wants to what others need to be successful. As the Ken Blanchard Companies describe in their People Centered Leadershipleadership is not about what you can get from people but about what you can do for people.

Interviewing for Leadership

With candidates you invite for an onsite visit, you already know that they have an acceptable level of subject-matter expertise. Therefore, use these three objectives to drive the structure of your candidates’ onsite interviews:

Most important

1. Determine candidate’s leadership capabilities

2. Determine candidate’s culture fit (team, department, and institute levels)

Least Important

3. Verify candidate’s subject-matter expertise

To achieve the first two objectives, you need to do two things:

1. Set up informal dialogues

2. Script formal questions

Informal dialogues could occur during lunch or in a more casual setting such as a campus coffee shop – anything other than someone’s office, meeting room, or conference room. The idea is to put the candidate at ease to engage in an informal dialogue about the leadership topic.

For formal questions, you can assign specific questions or identify leadership topics to get candidates to talk about their approach and learn about the depth of their leadership experience. For a list of leadership topics, you can use the ones from my infographic that can be found here.

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