Checkers vs. Chess: Why Candidates Play The Wrong Interview Game

May 4, 2010

I often join my clients when they conduct candidate interviews. I moderate, participate, listen and learn. They are fascinating glimpses into how candidates and companies alike play the complex game of talent acquisition and movement. Each time, without exception, I observe competent candidates eliminated from contention, not because they are less qualified than the others, but because they misunderstand the very nature of the contest itself. As a result, they come unequipped to win. 

If they prepare at all, most candidates approach a first interview as a personal training exercise. They read self-help, career development or interviewing books, consult friends, perhaps hire a coach and practice their approach to answering questions in front of a mirror. They focus on getting into shape for the interview contest to follow. In essence, they train to become lean, mean answering machines. But rather than being simple question and answer tests, interviews are actually games of strategy and skill with multiple players including the other candidates and the hiring company itself. All play critical roles, and each can profoundly affect the outcome of the contest itself. Preparing for an interview without considering all of the pieces on the board is tantamount to mastering checkers in preparation for a game of chess. It is a nice try, a limited approximation, but one certain to lose to the player who has prepared for the right game.

To illustrate, I recently conducted a search for the CEO of a small electronics manufacturer. I presented the client with three short-listed candidates, each well-qualified and interested in the role. The client interviewed all three over the course of a single day. The first two candidates answered all of the questions, lobbed one or two clarifying inquiries of their own, and before wrapping up reiterated their interest in further discussions. When I debriefed with each candidate afterwards, both said they remained intrigued, and indicated that if selected for further interviews, would have many more questions to ask as part of their own due diligence.

The third candidate answered all of the questions and then pulled-out a document from his briefcase which he handed to the client. The document was an analysis of the client organization, its markets, competitors, culture, people and reputation. Building on his assessment of the firm’s current state, the candidate then provided an overview of how he might move the firm forward, if entrusted with its leadership. He even went so far as to make suggestions to improve several minor aspects of the business, including the firm’s branding and logo. It was a gutsy move for if his analysis was shoddy or his conclusions misguided he would jeopardize his entire candidacy. But if he was right, it was game over for the other candidates. He eventually got the job.

If I have done my job as a headhunter, the hiring organization will have a slate of equally competent candidates. Selecting the ‘right’ one from that mix should be difficult for my client. In such a context, it is naïve for candidates to believe that victory will go to the contestant who does the best job answering questions. In fact, it is often the candidate who asks the best, most insightful questions who wins the day. It is the candidate who shows the most interest and who takes the time to do their homework that sticks out from the crowd. Not incidentally, it is also these well-prepared candidates who are least likely to select the wrong company and job for themselves in the process.

One final thing….. in the above illustration, the winning candidate called me a week before his interview and asked if I would be willing to handicap his chances of success relative to the other candidates. Without divulging specifics, I described my read on the relative strengths of the three candidates. I also let him know that given my understanding of the client’s weighting of the various requirements that he might be in for a tough fight given his relative lack of specific industry experience. Thus forewarned about his competition, the candidate was able to forearm himself. By preparing a veritable business plan, the candidate cleverly removed any question of his ability to understand and adapt to the industry in question, while giving evidence of his analytical capabilities, data-gathering abilities, detail-orientation, judgment, pro-activity and hunger for the position.  He impressively snatched victory from the jaws of a likely third place finish.

If you really want to improve the odds of doing well in that upcoming interview, think chess not checkers. Do your homework, do it well and do it sooner rather than later. 

About Author

Robert Hebert, PhD is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group Inc. He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777