Structure Is the Way to Hire Excellent: A Bulletproof 5-Step Plan for Interviewing Success

Hiring new talent can be time-consuming, not to mention costly: according to Geoff Smart, author of the bestselling book Who: The A Method for Hiring, a poor hiring decision can cost a business up to 15 times the hire’s base salary in expenses and shortfalls.

It’s not difficult to see why companies are beginning to take much more care over who and how they’re hiring because they can’t afford to make hiring mistakes. Research from Bersin by Deloitte found that companies were spending close to $4K per hire because they’re investing in finding the right talent.

But even when you’ve got plenty of resumes and cover letters to read over—and you will get plenty (Glassdoor reports that one corporate job opening attracts an average of 250 resumes, of which only 4 to 6 people are interviewed), it doesn’t always guarantee great candidates. Case in point: you need a bulletproof hiring process.

Your 5-step plan for interviewing success

At Kayako, we’ve experimented with many hiring techniques, from casual coffees, to whole team interviews, and completely remote interviews. Throughout our experience, we’ve found that hiring for excellence (every time) is most likely when you focus on your company’s core values in conjunction with an interview structure to sift out the “A” players from the rest.

Follow this 5-step structure and you’ll have the best chance of finding “A” players to fill your vacancy with the least effort:

1. The phone screen

At this stage, you’ve normally just reviewed a few resumes and cover letters, and you’re just about to offer some in-person interview. But wait—before you potentially waste time interviewing inappropriate candidates, you have the opportunity to learn more about the candidates to find out if it’s worth inviting them in for an interview with a simple phone call.

Try to keep phone screening calls to under 30 minutes, to respect both your time. Allocate the first 5 minutes to introduce yourself and set the call agenda, then spend 20 minutes learning more about them and their previous work with questions like these:

  • What attracted you to this job?

  • What are you really good at professionally?

  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally?

  • Who were your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1-10 scale when we talk to them?

Use your final 5 minutes to sell them on your company and answer any questions they might have.

The goal of the phone screen is to get a sense of who they might be as a professional, and scope their competency for the role you’re offering. Once you’ve done this and they’ve passed you first round of screening, now it’s time to invite them in for their first in person interview.

2. The first round interview

After you’ve refined your list of potential candidates based on the phone screening sessions, it’s time to invite the candidates into your office to meet you face-to-face (or Skype, if they’re remote).

When interviewing, it’s crucial to ask questions that will reveal both their current ability and their potential to thrive in the role you are recruiting for. Use this time wisely to uncover some element of the competencies you identified in your job description.

We recommend the Topgrading approach to interviewing. Topgrading is a chronological walk through a person’s career from beginning to end. For every job in a person’s career history, ask the following questions:

  • What were you hired to do?

  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?

  • What were some low points during that job?

  • Who were the people you worked with?

  • Why did you leave that job?

The idea is to find out how their career path has progressed, what led them to certain opportunities, and why they are looking to move on.

Remember—you’re not trying to grill the candidate into submission; the aim is to get a complete picture of their career history. Depending on your company’s culture and interviewing style, this can be as casual or formal as you like—just try to explore more about the candidate.

This first interview is important. You’re trying to learn and understand a lot about the candidate, so the time you set aside should reflect that. For instance Geoff Smart recommends spending anywhere from 1-3 hours on this interview. Putting in the effort now will save a lot more time further down the line, which is why you give them a take home test.

3. The take-home test

A take-home test is one of the best ways you can have your candidate demonstrate their on-the-job skill once they have passed your phone and in-person interviews.

You’ll want to create a test that is concise but will help you evaluate core competencies that are most important for the position. It’s also an opportunity for the candidate to be familiar with a common job or duty that will happen in their future role.

You might want to consider two assignments to evaluate the different skill sets you are screening for.

For example, when hiring for our customer service team at Kayako, we task potential employees with a skills test to assess their ability to answer a common question that our support team deals with—but we are also evaluating their communication and problem-solving skills.

Advise the candidate to spend no more than 60 minutes on their test. This will act as a great screening filter, and you’ll be able to invite successful candidates in for a second interview.

4. The “focus” interview

This is an interview where you’ll see if the candidate fits into your team. Have at least three team members conduct separate, one-on-one interviews lasting between 45 and 60 minutes.

Give your team members a scorecard to focus their attention and questions around. You need a candidate who can do the job to your specifications. You do not need a candidate who is good at everything. Kayako’s second round interview, for instance, focuses on interview questions to uncover specific items on our scorecard within these themes:

  • Technical skills

  • Personality traits

  • Essential skills

  • Nice-to-haves

During the interviews, ask your team to press for details about experience, mistakes, and behavioral and cultural competencies.

Finally, clarify the goals you want new hires to meet and the timeframe available for accomplishing them. Here you’ll find non-fit candidates may decide to opt out of your line-up.

Now, you should find yourself ready to either make an offer or let candidates know they have been unsuccessful. If you’re unsure whether a candidate is suited, this is when you need an executive or Founder interview.

5. The founder fit/executive interview

This is a technique borrowed from ex-Google CEO, Eric Schmidt in How Google Works, and this interview is for companies who care deeply about their company culture. Google founders managed to meet every new hire for a one-on-one interview before they got too large with over 650+ employees. Now, it’s quite common for smaller startups to have potential candidates meet the founders before they get the job.

The purpose of this interview isn’t to delegate the final decision to them, but it is to aid the information and background you have collected on your candidate.

You might have a potential candidate who has the right skillset, but if they’re not going to fit into your office culture, it’s probably not going to work out. Your founding or executive team is in an excellent position to make the decision if they’re suited to the company or not. They know the values of the company, and they will be able to immediately see if a candidate can (or cannot) fit into their organization.

This interview should take as long as the founder or executive needs. The outcome of this interview will give you the thumbs up or thumbs down for extending a job offer.

Closing thoughts

Don’t let the cost of a potential wrong hire let you lose confidence in hiring the right person. Focus your interview around a structure that will guarantee you to hire for excellence every time.

Use phone screening as the first filter, along with a detailed in-person interview. Use a take home test to separate stand-out candidates, then invite your team into interviews to see how well they’d work as part of your department. If you’re stuck on the final decision, invite your founder or executive to spend some time with candidate to see how they fit the company’s culture and mission.

When you use these 5 steps to screen, test, and interview candidates, it will bring structure and mastery to your hiring and make sure you get that ideal candidate every time.


To implement your own structured interview process, check out Greenhouse's interactive workbook, Designing a Structured Interview Process. Simply click the button below!

Designing a Structured Interview Process

Jamie Edwards

Jamie Edwards is Co-Founder and COO of Kayako, the unified customer service platform. He is an advocate for hiring structure and is a strong believer that the best customer support comes from hiring the right people. You can find Jamie helping customers deliver customer service so good it becomes their competitive advantage. Connect with Jamie on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Interview Planning