Selecting Winners – Part 2

Six Steps to Selecting a High Performance Employee

This article is the second in a two-part series by Barry Shamis.  If you would like to see the first installment, please click here.

Step 4: Gathering Data – An Effective Interview

The real key to making an effective decision is to gather enough data so you can make a quality evaluation. The majority of the information you gather comes from the face-to-face interview. As such, the effectiveness of your face-to-face interview is totally dependent upon the types and quality of questions you ask. High-quality questions should have four characteristics:

They should be easy to answer. The questions you ask ought to be focused and direct.

They should have only one answer. Instead of asking a general question like, “How do you deal with deadlines?” ask, “What was the biggest deadline you had in writing your last book? Step me through how you dealt with that deadline.” The second question gives you specific information you can use to evaluate the candidate.

They should have a specific, planned purpose. The purpose of every interview question is the same: to gather a piece of data. So, if you want to know if someone stays current on the latest technology, a good question would be, “What technical journals do you read?” as opposed to, “What’s the last book you read?”

They should be job-related. We all like to delve into personal issues, but you’re always better off if you stay with topics that are very specific to the job.

While all good questions should have these characteristics, there are still several types of highly effective questions to use when interviewing. For the most part, they can be categorized into the following six types:

Factual questions

A factual question is one that provides a factual answer:

How many people report to you?

By what percentage did you increase sales last year?

What financial software package do you use?

The answers to these questions are very simple and straightforward, but they give you good information to build a case for whether or not the candidate will be successful.

Action questions

These require the candidate to respond with examples of actions they have taken:

How did you handle the last customer problem elevated to your level?

Step me through how you debugged that particular program.

How did you build your business plan for the roll-out of that division?

In every case, the person has to respond with a specific action they have taken. Remember, you’re most interested in the candidate’s behavior and how they deal with situations that are the same or similar to what they will face in the job. So ask them to describe that behavior.

Candidate-specific questions

These questions are tailored to the specific candidate and the specific situation:

What was the last deal you closed?

What was the biggest objection you got in that sales cycle?

Step me through how you overcame that objection.

These questions elicit very specific behavioral information. And most importantly, it’s behavioral information that helps predict whether or not a candidate will be successful.

Specific questions work for two reasons. First, they provide more accurate information than general questions. Second, they are easier for the candidate to answer than generic questions. If you ask a candidate how she overcomes objections, she may not really know how to answer because it is such a broad question.

But if you ask her about a specific opportunity and about how she overcame objections on that deal, she doesn’t really have to think about the answer. She’s just sharing information about what she did, and you end up getting much higher quality information.

To re-cap, these candidate-specific questions are good because they require specific examples of behaviors, not just “sound good” theories. If your candidate can provide specific examples of past behaviors, chances are she’ll exhibit those same behaviors in the position you have available.

Probing questions

These are follow-up, clarification and detail questions:

Tell me more about that.

Could you please be specific?

What do you mean by that?

Probing questions help you get the complete information you need, as opposed to just the information the candidate wants to tell you.


Ask for examples of things that are the same or similar to what the candidate will need to do on your job. For example, if you have a job that involves solving customers’ technical problems, ask candidates for examples of how they’ve solved customer’s technical problems in the past. If you are hiring for sales positions that require calls on Fortune 500 MIS directors, ask candidates for examples of how they’ve called on corporate executives in the past.

More Examples

Don’t ever stop at one example – get two or three or four in addition. If a candidate can provide you with several examples, it will help you confirm the candidate’s behavioral pattern. Then you can be fairly certain that’s how they will behave when they come to work for you. Remember, past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.

Step 5: Data Verification

Conducting a thorough reference check is critical to a successful hire. This step is not optional. But, the nice thing about focusing on behavioral information in the interview – the things a candidate has worked on, projects she’s done and how she’s done it – is that this type of information is relatively easy to verify.

If you have a hard time getting references because nobody will talk to you, there is an easy solution: make it the candidate’s problem. If you have a qualified candidate you want to pursue after you’ve conducted the interview, ask her for references. If you call those references and they won’t speak to you, or if they say that all they can do is confirm the employment dates, go back to the candidate and say, “You need to find some people who will speak to me about the quality and quantity of work you’ve done.” Put the burden of getting people to talk to you back on the candidate. Don’t make it your problem.

To avoid fluffy responses during reference checks, ask pointed, specific questions like, “How many people has George hired? How many did he interview? How did he train his people? What recruiting techniques did he use?” These very specific questions allow you to confirm and verify the data you gathered during the interview.

Step 6: Evaluating the Candidate

Evaluating candidates should be the easiest part of the selection process. If you’ve done a good job up to this point, you will have gathered so much data and so much quality information that the decision will really be pretty easy.

When you are finished with the previous five steps, use a simple matrix to evaluate your candidates. Along one axis list all of the requirements you generated when you created your profile: the knowledge, the skills, and the abilities the person must possess to be successful. Once you have created your matrix, evaluate each candidate against the requirements – one at a time.

At this stage, you may be tempted to make an overall evaluation of a candidate such as, “Will this person be a good sales manager?” or, “Will this person be a good customer support representative?” These are hard determinations to make, because they’re so vague and encompasses so many variables.

But answering a series of specific questions about each candidate, such as, “Does this person have good knowledge of Unix?” or, “Does this person have effective writing skills?” eliminates the need for broad evaluations. Instead, it forces you to think of the candidate in terms of the individual requirements that will lead to success. You developed your success profile for this position one step at a time; you should conduct your candidate evaluations the same way.

To substantiate your evaluation, you should be able to back-up your conclusions with the data you gathered in the interview. For instance, if your determination is, “George has very effective writing skills,” you should be able to back that up with real data. Review your interview notes to see if George has written any brochures, ad copy, newsletters or anything similar. If he has, that’s pretty good supporting data for your evaluation of his writing skills.

If you break your evaluation job into small requirements and then substantiate each evaluation with the data you’ve gathered in the interview, you’ll find that hiring decisions become much easier.


An old proverb says that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. The same holds true in selecting winners. The process outlined here is designed to serve as your “road map” for hiring a candidate who will be successful within your organization.

Six Steps to Selecting a High Performance Employee

Developing a Profile

Determine what the candidate must do to be considered a success in the position

Determine the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to meet your expectations


Ask for referrals from each new employee you hire

Recruit 365 days a year


Read resumes in chronological order

Conduct a brief phone screen before inviting any candidate in for an interview

Gathering Data – An Effective Interview

Ask specific questions with a planned purpose

Always ask for examples of behaviors, and use follow-up questions to clarify

Data Verifications

Put the responsibility for getting references on the candidate’s shoulders

Ask pointed, specific questions to confirm and verify data

Evaluating the Candidate

Use a simple matrix to evaluate candidates

Back-up your evaluation with data you gathered in the interview

Hire Your Winner

Following these steps will make your final hiring decision much easier

Barry Shamis is the Managing Partner of Selecting Winners, a Port Angeles, Washington based consulting firm that teaches companies how to hire people. Hiring top-performing employees is the most important thing that we can do as business managers to ensure our success.  And Barry has a tremendous amount of insight into exactly how to go about doing that.  Some of his clients over the years have included AT&T, SAP, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Cadence Design, NetApp, SmithKline Beecham, the St. Paul Companies, ABB, Dow Jones and Company, Ministry Health, and many others.  He has been intimately involved in teaching some of the best companies how to go into the market and select winners for their businesses.  You can learn more at

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