Understanding the Context in Interview Responses!

posted by Dilip on August 25, 2019

Recently, some of my senior clients—VP levels and above—had interesting encounters with interviewers in their targeted companies and they were surprised by how their interviews resulted in negative outcomes despite recommendations from the very top executives which had resulted in their interview line-ups.

Here’s what happened: since my clients had already worked with these senior executives now at my clients’ target companies they had “pulled” them in when the right positions opened. These senior executives had no concerns about these candidates since they had worked with them before and had known the track record of their successes in their previous roles at those companies. In view of this, these senior executives did not need to put my clients through formal interviews to qualify them as worthy candidates. So, they asked the team members who would be reporting to them at skip levels down to interview them, instead.

So, during these “low-level” interviews the topics were focused on their everyday problems encountered by team members who code, participate in scrum teams, write user stories, and run sprints. Their scope and view of their challenges was very transactional, often limited to their own area of work. So, when my clients started discussing the projects on which they were currently working, which were in the context of their business and customers, the interviewers were not able to connect the dots and had failed to grasp what they could do for these teams as their new leaders. In some cases, my clients came across as totally divorced from their hiring teams’ everyday reality and were judged as unsuitable to technically lead them; in other cases, even managerially, because each party was framing their discussions in the contexts that were misaligned.  

My clients were surprised by this outcome, despite being pulled in from high-level contacts they personally had known in a working environment. So, when we had our debrief meeting as to how this could have happened, I suddenly realized that that both sides were speaking different languages in different contexts and no one—especially my clients—had not taken the trouble to synch up the contexts.

This aberration is not limited to situations where a candidate is pulled in from the top and sent down the chain of command to appraise their suitability to lead those teams. This exact same situation can also happen when a regularly scheduled interview set up through the normal recruiting process ends up with senior executives having to face the team members a few rungs below their levels of responsibilities.   

So, what is the lesson from this episode, which I am sure is commonplace? Here is my perspective:

  1. When you get pulled into an interview circuit prompted by senior executives in your target company do not assume that you have an automatic “clearance to land.” In some cases, my clients mistakenly assumed that the team interviews were a mere formality and went about them in a cavalier way in how they dealt with the lower-level team members, who were interviewing them. In some cases, their ersatz confidence may have rubbed the interviewing teams the wrong way.
  2. When you are  asked to discuss the details of your current projects or examples of the work that your team under you is doing for you do not just jump in with the in-depth knowledge you have about your projects, but start with comparing what you are going to present in your discussion with what the team is already working on. You can uncover this by asking some critical questions to the team members and then presenting your project in the context of that reference.

    For example, if you are working on a Supply-chain application, first state what that does in functional terms and then tell them its scope in ways that allows them to put that in a context they understand. Say, the project your team is currently developing is about one third the size of this project I am describing on the Supply-chain application and the main difference between what you are working on and this project is how some of its features are more secure than what you are currently developing, primarily because that is what the customer wants.
  3.  Be curious about their challenges and how the team is dealing with them. Next, show them that as a leader of your team back where you work you encountered a similar problem and then tell them how you solved it. Then ask them if such a solution would work in their context equally well. Now the team will open-up and tell you what is right and what is not with your solution as it applies to their situation; do not assume that it would. If there are major differences of opinion, do not argue or try to foist that solution on them; remember they do not know what they do not know.
  4. When it comes to the discussion on your leadership style try to focus on the problems that they are likely to face that require seasoned leadership. In one such discussion my client was facing the interview with a team of young (Gen-Y) crowd. When talking about her management style she gave an example of an older person, near his retirement age, who was unable to keep up with the pace of work and changes that were happening. Then she went on to tell them how she dealt with that problem. I think that this example was perhaps totally off-target for this crowd.
  5. When the discussion came to the topic of changes she would make to improve the team, instead of first asking what challenges that team faced, she went on to discuss what she changed at her place when her team was growing. That, too, did not resonate with the team as this team was not in a high-growth mode from what they knew.

As you thread through this encounter you can clearly see the many disconnects between my client and the team at each step and the assumption each side made as the interview progressed. My client was sure that the team interview was a mere formality and the team assumed that my client was not experienced in matters that were their everyday challenges. The outcome was that the executives felt that if the team is not willing to buy into her leadership, they did not want to foist that on them. So, the deal did not go anywhere despite high hopes from both sides. This experience was not limited to just one client; it happened to others during similar situations.

So, what is the lesson here?

If you come into selection interview rounds from high-level recommendations do not assume that you’re going through these rounds as mere formalities at the team levels. You must earn their approval just as you would from anyone else in the decision-making process. Even in cases where your interview is set up without any pull from the top the same principles apply there as well.

Good luck!