We’ve conducted over 4,000 reference interviews as part of high-touch, in-depth executive assessments. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. The quality of the interviews and the robustness of the interview notes will make or break the executive sponsor debrief, the assessment report, and the debrief with the assessed executive.
Interviewing effectively is both an art and a science. It takes lots and lots of practice to learn how to do it well. While “carrying the bags” of an experienced consultant is still a great way to apprentice, there are tips and traps that can be described and learned.
In this blog post, we’ll look at the tips and traps for conducting reference interviews.
- Create an interview template. It sounds simple but building and using an interview template makes a world of difference. I’ve worked with colleagues who have a relational approach and just wing it. This results in interview notes that lack the rigor that comes from a structured approach. It also makes it hard to look for trends across the reference group. Put key information like the person’s name, date, and role relationship at the top so you can categorize your notes. List your questions and then place placeholder bullets for the notes you will take.
- Tailor your approach for the role relationship. To get the most out of each interview, it is important to ask questions specific to the role of the person with whom you are speaking. Asking direct reports about how effectively their manager works with peers makes little sense. Instead have questions in your interview guide tailored for supervisors, peers, and direct reports. Some questions, like those about communicating or behavior under stress and pressure, can be asked of everyone.
- Learn how to interview and take notes at the same time. One of the most important skills to master is the ability to conduct the interview while capturing the information. While it is easy to conduct an interview or take notes, doing them both at the same time takes practice and there is a learning curve. When training junior consultants to conduct reference calls, we would start them off just listening and taking notes while a senior consultant led the interview. Once they took great notes, then we let them conduct the interview while the senior consultant took the notes. Only after they were able to master interviewing and note taking did we set them loose to conduct solo interviews.
- Focus on the highest priority questions. Good interviewing is a game of time management. You have to make choices about what to focus on. When training junior consultants, we emphasize the importance of the strengths and development drill down. The best interviews leave the interviewee tapped out of strengths and development areas. It may feel uncomfortable for the interviewer to keep asking “what else?” and holding the silence while the person thinks, but that is how you elicit the most important information. When writing assessment reports, debriefing executive sponsors, and providing feedback to executives, the strengths and development areas is most crucial.
- Ask for clarification. One of the most important questions an interviewer can ask is “what did you mean by that”. It can be hard for experienced consultants to be vulnerable during an interview and suggest that they missed something or did not understand what the person meant. The key is to push past that discomfort and focus on your mission, which is to interview skillfully to ascertain the information needed to provide high quality feedback.
- Ask for examples. One of the hardest things an assessor must do is to determine the credibility of each referee and the veracity of each salient point. Asking the interviewee for an example of the strength or development area is useful to better understand the point and to elicit behavioral evidence supporting the point.
- Practice active listening. One of the most useful tricks to effective interviewing is to summarize and reflect back to the person what you heard. This paraphrasing helps you catch up on your notetaking, slows down the interview, and makes the other person feel heard.
- Ask questions about leadership competencies. In most interviews, strengths and development areas will only take you so far. Once the person is tapped out, it is important to ask follow-up questions about competency areas. We recommend asking about communication skills, leadership style, team effectiveness, navigating change, and how the person does under stress and pressure.
- Adapt as you go. It is important to adapt your approach based on what you learn in the interview. If they interviewee spent a lot of time talking about communicating skills weaknesses, don’t ask an open-ended question about communication skills. Instead, you could ask about listening skills if that was not previously mentioned. In order to adapt as you go, you need the next-level mastery about each of the leadership competency areas you plan to explore.
- Type your notes. If you know how to type, it is always best to type your notes. Some consultants worry that the other person can hear the clickety clackety sound of fast typing, but I can say from decades of experience that nobody cares. If you are on a video, the other person knows they are being interviewed and it is your job to take notes and they do not care if they are looking at the top of your head a lot.
- Save your work. This is crucial. Be very, very careful when saving your notes, moving them around, or deleting anything. We’ve known of cases were a consultant lost one or more interview notes, creating a major crisis. You’ve worked hard to build your reference notes. Don’t put your project at risk by losing your notes!
Developing mastery of executive assessment 360-feedback reference interviews takes practice but building into your approach these skills will ensure that you have high quality reference notes that will enable you to write insightful assessment reports, have defensible positions for supervisor debriefs, and the material needed to really help the assessed individual.