Transcript by Giovanna Combatti from an article published on Harvard Business School Publishing Conferences feb. 2006

On this paper Marcus Buckinham, the author of The One Thing You Need to Know, starts by saying that “great companies hire the right people”, that is only possible if they are able to identify talents. And again he describes talent as a recurring pattern of behavior, thought or feeling. And while skills and knowledge can be taught, enduring talents cannot.

So, he says, the process of interviewing and selecting candidates should be focused on the identification of talents. Discovering the talents of an individual does not have to be difficult. It requires that an interviewer asks simple, sensible open-ended questions which force the candidate to reveal his or her talents. Since people reveal themselves through their words, it is important that the interviewer makes the candidate do 90% of the talking in an interview. The interviewer must also be aware of his or her own biases and any biases within the organization.

When looking for talents, interviewer should look for four particular signs. Talents can be found by investigating candidate’s Successes, Instincts, Growth and Needs. This focus on talent, with use of the right interviewing techniques, leads to a higher probability of hiring the right person for the job.

Marcus Buckingham shares some insights on how to interview and select the right candidates.
  1.  Select candidates for their enduring talents
Employers often believe they can teach employees what they need. But while skills and knowledge can be taught, talent cannot. A talent is a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be applied productively. Talents are often formed early in life, are deeply embedded and enduring and are resistant to change. Examples of talents include traits such empathy, competitiveness, responsibility and focus. Employers need to keep in mind that they are hiring fully formed adults who have already enduring talents. Their key is not to try to develop a person’s talents – this is impossible – it is to identify these talents.
In contrast to a talent, a skills is teachable and transferable. A deficiency in skill or knowledge can be changed, and people continuously learn new skills and develop new knowledge. Skills are transferable across people but not from situation to situation. A talent, on the other hand, does transfer across situations (a nurse can be taught to give an injection – a skill, but cannot be taught empathy, a talent).
The wonderful thing about talent is that it applies across situations
– Markus Buckingham –
In many organizations those who are most successful at a certain activity are studied to understand which talents led to their success. The employer develops a profile and seeks to hire individuals whose talents match the profile. This can work, but more important is simply to identify each person’s particular talents. Even if those talents differ from the “profile”, the person may be able to use his or her talents to get the job done.
  1. Be aware of your personal and organizational biases when evaluating the talents of a prospect

A critical obstacle in the hiring process occurs when the interviewer allows his or her biases to get in the way of evaluating candidates. An individual might be drawn to people with a certain educational pedigree or with certain experiences, or people who smile, have a sense of humour, or are attractive. An interviewer with a talent for analysis may be biased in favour of candidates with the same talent. Conversely, a competition-oriented interviewer might be unwittingly biased against prospects showing the same trait.

You can’t shut biases off. But you need to be aware of them and try to set them aside.
– Marcus Buckingham –

Because of the presence of bias, Mr. Buckingham strongly discourages group interviews. All people have to work hard to diminish the impact that their own biases have on their evaluation. Having multiple interviewers introduces multiple biases, any or all of which might cue the interviewee or distract or influence another member of the interview panel.
There are also cases of organizational biases. A statement of corporate purpose of one company exhibits a strong commitment to spiritual values. Home Depot has openly stated that it is recruiting from the ranks of the military. Organizational biases create the possibility of a candidate playing to those biases in an effort to maximize his or her chances of being hired.
  1. People reveal their talents if asked open-ended questions

Simple, sensible, open-ended questions that force people to make choices, tell stories and provide examples will reveal their true talents and patterns of behaviour. Productive open-ended questions do not have “right” answers, but do provide revealing ones.

For example, the question “How closely should employees be supervised?” has numerous answers. An answer of “I don’t think they should be supervised closely” might reveal that the interviewee has talents for independence and self-assurance. An answer of “that depends on the person” shows that individualization might be a talent.

If you ask simple, open-ended questions people will reveal their talents to you.
– Marcus Buckingham –
It has become in vogue to ask trick questions in interviews. Trying to trap someome with a trick does little to reveal their talent.
There is no set of perfect open-ended questions. Interviewers should take the time before the process begins to prepare 12-15 questions so that during the interview they do not stop listening to think up the next question.
To ensure that candidates have a level playing field, interviewers want to be careful to always ask a given question the same way each time. Small changes in phrasing can lead to sending different cues to the interviewees.
  1. As an interviewer, you learn more when you talk less
In his research, Mr. Buckingham has seen that the usual interview is split 60/40 with the interviewer doing most of the talking. Surveys show that interviewers are more likely to say an interview went well when they spoke for the majority of the time. Within any interview process there should be a portion of at least 40-50 minutes in which the interviewer speaks for only 10% of the time.
Savvy candidates will often try to engage in a conversation (a normal human behaviour) and will ask questions to engage the interviewer. For example, candidates may ask for clarification of questions. Interviewers must have a neutral, non-confrontational way of avoiding a dialogue so the interview can focus on identifying the candidate’s talents.

When listening to a candidate’s answers there are two critical points to keep in mind.

  1. Frequent past behaviour is a good predictor of frequent future behaviour
The notion that past behaviour is a good predictor is a myth. What matters is the frequency of past behaviour. Understanding the frequency of past behaviour is lost when an interviewer continuously probes for specific examples of past behaviour. Such probing only shows that the candidates didn’t immediately have a response.
People reveal how common certain behaviours are by how quickly they can arrive at a specific example, without continued probing. Interviewers should ask a question one time, listen to immediate response and move on. Don’t probe.
  1. Cognitive dissonance is your friend. People find it difficult to lie
When we try to answer a question and we know it is not truly representative of ourselves, we use “excape hatch” words that allow us to state something positively without lying. These words are conditionals, such as “but”, “so long as”, and “if”. When hearing those words, the interviewer knows that the revealing part of the answer is the part that follows the conditional word(s).
  1. Following the signs ( Successes, Instincts, Growth and Needs) helps identify a candidates talent.
There are four specific areas to explore in the interview to help the process of identifying talent. The open-ended questions that are asked should be built around these areas of s.i.g.n.s. While nothing guarantees that an interviewer will male a perfect hiring pick, looking for these signs improves the odds that you will select wisely.
  1. Successes. Often people cannot recognize their own strenghts. They are too close to them. Find their talents by asking them about their successes and awards. Ask what they’ve been recognized for, and what “gifts” others have cited.
  2. Instincts. Talents are those things that come naturally to people and which are usually enjoyable to them. Uncover there areas by asking a candidate something like, “What activities last week did you look forward to?” or “What are your hobbies or interests?” to learn what the candidate does when he or she has no specific tasks that must be done.
  3. Growth. When you have a talent for something you learn it quickly. An activity that leverages a person’s talent is often one where the person loses track of time when engaged in it, or where a person actively seeks to learn more. Ask candidates about particular activities where they find it easy to stay focused or where time passes quickly.
  4. Needs. Talents carry emotional component. Do not be afraid to use emotional words when questioning candidates. Ask them what activities they love to do. What excites and thrills them? Ask what they love about their work.
Other important Points
  • Always be recruiting. It is difficult to become a good interviewer and to refine your open-ended questions when you only interview a handful of people each year. By always recruiting not only do you hone your interviewing skills but you build up your “talent bank” of good people.
  • Use tools correctly. Widely used personality tests such as the Clifton Strenghtsfinder and Myers Briggs are often misused. These tools are not for selection. They are tools to help individuals identify their strenghts. They do not tell a firm whether or not an individual has a greater degree of a particular strength than another individual.