Becoming a Better Interviewer: Why That “First Impression” Can Be a Danger

3 key ways in which managers can become better interviewers by reserving judgment and avoiding quick hiring decisions.

Good managers by nature are decisive—they make decisions all day long, often with incomplete information. In our business of talent and organizational development, we call this “dealing with ambiguity,” and it’s a real leadership strength when facing fluid and changing situations.

As strategic as this ability is, it should not be used in one very important area: hiring the right talent. To be a good interviewer, managers must go against their grain of making snap decisions and relying on their “gut” to make choices without all the information.

First impressions are part of human nature, but they are dangerous for managers since first impressions often are based on superficial observations or unsubstantiated opinions. For example, you like someone, so you immediately assume he or she will be the best fit. Often, though, that doesn’t turn out to be the case, especially if the person you need for the job should not be like you, but rather complement the skills and leadership abilities you and your team already possess.

Only by keeping an open mind and reserving final judgment through second and third (or more) interviews can managers find the best talent. As a CEO who frequently interviews candidates for top positions in my organization, I’ve found there can be some real surprises, both positive and negative, that are only revealed with time.

Here are three key ways in which managers can become better interviewers by reserving judgment and avoiding quick decisions:

  1. Understand what you’re looking for: technical abilities, leadership, or both. Depending upon the opening you need to fill, the talent you are looking for will need either strong technical skills or proven leadership ability, or a mix of both. The more senior the position, the less success will depend on technical skills because at that level, these competencies are assumed. Rather, the secret sauce is around achievement (how did this person lead teams to reach and exceed goals?) and culture fit.

You may have some unconscious and conscious biases to confront: “Hire like me” is a challenge many managers confront. If you have an engineering background with a well-defined set of technical skills, you may favor—consciously or unconsciously—people with the same background. But the right leader for the team may be someone who comes with a different set of technical competencies and proven leadership ability in another field. For example, our study of the biopharmaceutical industry found that the challenges of creating new breakthrough products, as well as managing regulatory processes, cannot be met by technology alone. Rather, leaders in this sector must possess not only the technical expertise from various disciplines, but also strong leadership skills to motivate others. Whatever your industry, the bottom line is that you must keep an open mind, especially if the position you are trying to fill needs a proven leader who can motivate others.

  1. Gauge the person’s understanding of the company. As a manager, you’re looking for passionate, highly motivated people who are eager to contribute and exceed expectations. These are the people who get up at 4:30 in the morning without an alarm clock to get started on the day. Sounds great, but how do you find them? One important gauge I’ve found is to ascertain the candidate’s understanding of the company. This is not simply knowing what the company does, but really grasping its competitive advantages and challenges, and where it fits into the marketplace. Anyone from the mid-level on up should be able to get a working knowledge by reading analyst reports and industry publications and talking to people to the industry. If someone doesn’t come to the interview with that understanding, this person may lack true passion and motivation to take on the task and, most important, to inspire others to go above and beyond the basic expectations.

You can judge candidates’ understanding of the company (especially when looking to fill more senior positions) by giving them an assignment; for example, you might assign a business plan exercise or similar presentation. This is more than just the person’s ability to make a PowerPoint or speak in front of a room full of people; you are judging the content, and not just the cover of the book! The bottom line is that if the candidate puts in the work for the interview, he or she is likely to put in the work for the job.

  1. Reserve your judgment to the end. Candidates often go through multiple interviews, and for senior positions will meet with several people on your team. If you’re the leader, you need to reserve your judgment to the end. Voicing your opinion too soon will create a bias within your team for one candidate over the other. In addition, people who have different opinions will be less likely to express them because they don’t want to contradict you. Besides, you know what you think—what you don’t know is how your team thinks. Call a meeting of the people who interviewed the candidate, or at least get them on a phone call, and ask each person for his or her impressions of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

The second point here is the importance of keeping your mind open and avoiding a snap judgment about who should be hired. I can think of numerous examples of forming a different impression or changing my mind (both pro and con) after meeting a candidate for a second or third time. Someone I thought was a strong candidate faded as the conversation went deeper into how he or she would approach certain challenges, and conversely, someone who was quieter or less charismatic turned out to have hidden depths of abilities and passion that were not as visible on the surface. The bottom line is you want to get a sense of who people are and how they think, and that takes more than a first impression.

For busy managers, these three key steps may be a challenge in themselves because they take time. And time, as we all know, is precious! But when it comes to making the right hire, especially for a mid-level or more senior position, it cannot be “one and done.” You need to invest in the process, with multiple interviews, and have a meaningful discussion with your team about the candidate. Real dialogue, not just “thumbs up/thumbs down,” is needed to discover the talent you want and need. You need a more thoughtful and purposeful approach to dissect all that’s been said in the interview and presentations to figure out who is this person and if he or she possesses the capabilities and experience to do what we need to get done.

Gary D. Burnison is CEO of Korn/Ferry International, a worldwide leader in executive recruitment and a premier provider of talent management solutions, assisting global organizations to achieve extraordinary outcomes through talent. Korn/Ferry employs more than 7,500 people in 40 countries. He is also the author of “Lose the Resume, Land the Job,”(Wiley, February 2018).


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