Mindful Interviewing – How to be a great interviewer

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I work as an agile coach and a coach interview can be a very interesting experience, irrespective of which side of the table you are. This is primarily due to the unique experiences that can influence the interview experience. Not to mention, an interviewer has an upper hand given that s/he is the decision maker. I have been an interviewer for about 50+ candidates in the last 1+ year and recently went through the experience of being interviewed.

The experience of being interviewed presented me with an opportunity to introspect and assess the experience of being on either side of the table. Rather the interview gave me insight into what I should NOT be doing as an interviewer. At the end, I came up with the following key aspects of the interview process. Note that suggestions below focus on the behavioral and soft skills aspects of the interviewer and by no means are limited to the Agile Coach interview only.

Have a conversation and never take over – Great interviews are about great conversations. Interviewers can get tempted to ask questions in areas that they are most comfortable in, and in the process take over the conversation. This can easily turn into a self-boasting speech leaving the candidate high and dry with no opportunity to express self.

Be conscious about presenting the candidate with the opportunity to share stories and ideas in order to gauge his/her experience and job fit.

Listen – Listening can be the simplest but trickiest part of a conversation. The use of words, the body language, the tone can go a long way in conveying a whole lot about the interviewee. Flexible listening can help judge the need for cross-questioning, further probing or moving to a different topic.

Additionally, the ability to inject an unexpected pause can be a powerful tool in extracting more information on a topic being discussed.

As described by journalist Jim Lehrer:

“If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.”

Refrain from creating a perception too soon – Looking at a candidate’s profile on LinkedIn, reading through the recommendations etc is a common way to know about the candidate ahead of time. While this is a great approach to gauge his/her experience and standing, one should not create a perception of the candidate on the basis of this information.

The beauty of perception is that you can adjust it based on your needs. Since perceptions can be a result of someone else’s opinion, it can limit the flexibility your mind can offer in assessing the candidate. So, focus on findings and leave perceptions aside.

Beware of how what book you are reading influences the interview – People like me who are avid readers constantly come across new ideas and opinions on topics. While these ideas and opinions are not ours, we can easily make them our own and throw it across to the interview to assess what they think. However; if you feel the topic is relevant and there is value in having a conversation, be transparent and mention the book and invite their opinion.

Refrain from selling the idea as your’s with an intention of demeaning the candidate. Be conscious of why you are bringing up the point and clarify expectations.

Be Curious – Curiosity is one of the most simple and most important attributes of a great interviewer. Curiosity influences how people are perceived and changes the mindset from that of someone looking at the negative aspects versus someone who is always curious and looking for opportunities and experiences to learn and grow.

As Dale Carnegie famously explains in his book titled “How to win friends and influence people”, the beauty of curiosity is that it makes you nearly irresistible to everyone around you.

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Understand personality and style – One of the first things I do at the start of the interview is to ask the candidate to share his/her style of coaching and anything else that tells me about the personality that they carry. This helps set the stage for the questions and scenarios that follow. It also provides an opportunity to assess gaps in the style and personality explained and what emerges from the conversations to follow. While there can be commonalities in styles and personalities enforced through processes in technical or engineering roles when it comes to consulting, every individual has a unique style that typically works in alignment with the personality and in their unique circumstances.

I consider myself an introvert and have my own style which is based on empathy, relationships and ultimately a strong partnership which might be interpreted differently by an extrovert interviewer or someone with a strong personality.

Understand the personality up front for a more engaged conversation later.

Don’t forget your role as an interviewer – It can be quite easy for an interviewer to get on to a self-boasting ride and in the process loose opportunity to listen and assess the candidate. It is critical to remind yourself that you are the interviewer and the purpose of being together is to assess the person in front of you.

Throwing across your opinions, your style, and your solutions will lead to a one-way conversation. This might give you a temporary feeling of a winner but the core objective of the interview would have been lost.

Suspend your ego – Ego suspension is essential in cultivating the kind of curiosity that helps you connect with the person in front of you. Creating the opportunity for the interviewee to disagree with you is critical for a constructive conversation.

As author Tom Wolfe puts it, “the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.”

Feedback – Not providing feedback or discussing next steps can be both rude and unprofessional. Getting feedback from the interviewer presents the opportunity for the interviewee to ask clarifying questions and in some cases remove any miscommunication that might have occurred during the discussion. In fact getting feedback about the interview from the candidate is easily important to enhance the experience for the next candidate.

To close out, while you read all the above points about the interview; wearing an interviewee’s hat will help assess the importance in a much better way.

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How value drives behavior

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Being a coach, the term value has become an integral part of my vocabulary, so much so that I feel it drops of my mouth a couple thousand times each day. As I watch people around me do stuff each day, my mind would subconsciously want to know the value of their action. However, thankfully I have managed to somehow keep the question limited to my actions and limit all the data my mind needs to process each day.

As much as this has been helpful, the value conversation keeps coming up as part of my engagement with my clients and people. The more I question the value of something, the more I realize that what we value defines how people act.

As a consultant, I do a lot of travel. Coming home at the end of the week, carrying the baggage of all the good and bad that has occurred during the week, one thing that used to impact me the most was the condition of my house. If my family room was a mess or the game room had stuff lying all around, I know and my family knows that I won’t be very happy. So on the day of my arrival home, some effort is spent on ensuring that the house is in order. This does not mean that the house was that way all week long. It is a weekend phenomenon. What is worth noticing is that something that I value has changed how my kids reach on the day I come home but it has not necessarily influenced them to keep the house in order all week long. They want to keep the noise away when I am around.

There are similar observations that I have from the companies and teams I have coached. If the leader values is a good looking power point (green) status report, that is what the everyone spends all the time creating. What is worst is how it impacts how managers apply control on their teams to make sure things stay green. They don’t want to be exposed and vulnerability is not an option. Additionally, this causes decision making to happen not where the skills are because value is not based on trust but the force that is exerted to produce what the leader cares about.

So if you are a leader (not a manager), what is valuable to you or maybe a better question is, what is it like working for you? When your teams talk about value, do they talk about power points or the product we are trying to build or the service that your customer cares about. Think about it because what you say will impact how people think, behave, eat, drink and sleep.

BTW, my weekends are now spent cleaning up the house. If that is valuable for me, I got to make it happen and hopefully will inspire them.

Why the idea of a scrum team is so powerful..

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The idea of a team has evolved over the last decade. What started off with a group of people working together to achieve a vague goal under the control of a manager/leader, has in some cases matured where teams are gradually getting more engaged and are aware of the business objectives and are being trusted to get to the finish line.

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The idea of a scrum team presented a new twist to the definition of a team, obviously with its share of discomforts. The thought of a team without a manager, attributes of self organization and self management and emphasis to build trust sounded great but had many heads shaking.

While some organizations have introduced structural changes to embrace 3 scrum roles (Scrum Master, Product Owner, Development team), most organizations are trying to fit the new roles in the context of their current organizational structure or are making a effort to somehow align existing roles to the new ones.

The thought that some existing roles may become redundant can be discomforting and lead to resistance. Some common questions/opinions are highlighted:

  • What about the “other” roles like business analysts, architects, project managers etc..?
  • These people have been with the organization for ever. We can’t let them go.
  • Our product owners are customer facing and have other responsibilities. They cannot be available to the team.
  • A Scrum Master? Who is going to manage the team?
  • Our teams are not mature enough to self organize.

The above questions are clearly indicative of the lack of understanding of the roles and the fact that the organization is focussed on individual roles and not the overarching impact of the roles.

The intent behind the idea of a scrum team was to bring all aspects of product development (business/product, engineering and process) together in order to realize the end goal. While the simplicity of the framework makes it acceptable, the roles continue to operate in isolation and be looked as “speciality driven”. To simplify, Product Managers assume that the responsibility of development team is to implement their ideas only.

As I went around coaching many organizations, I have always made a focussed effort to communicate the attributes of a successful and high performing scrum team, and the attributes that make the idea of a scrum team so powerful. Here are some key attributes that distinguish the great scrum teams from the good ones:

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 3.01.06 PMInclusiveness – Scrum teams works best in a inclusive environment. This means that while every individual might have a set of responsibilities that come with his/her role, what creates a big impact is how these roles come together and contribute to the overall success of the product. The idea that only Product Managers are responsible for product strategy, analysis and business decisions and development team implements the decisions made the manager defeats the purpose of a scrum team. In my experience, teams that have been able to achieve the highest level of productivity and created seriously innovative and disruptive products are the ones where these roles collaborate and engage on a day to day basis.

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive

Mahatma Gandhi

 For example; the complexity and the time taken to implement a functionality can negate the value of the feature. This information from the development team can impact the priority of the items in the backlog and help the Product Manager make better decisions. So, the idea of a collaborative team that embraces the scrum practices as intended can have a positive impact on the business value produced and accelerate the time take to do so.

For a patient at a hospital going through a surgical procedure involving doctors from a variety of specializations, each doctor constantly provides inputs to others to make sure that every aspect of the patient’s health is known to reduce risks and keep focus on patient’s recovery. Each one is included to achieve the end goal.

Alignment – can go a long way in defining the interest of scrum team members. Often, team members have a very narrow focus on the immediate tasks at hand and lack clarity of the business goals and objectives. Creating alignment is a critical aspect for a scrum team.

Alignment is a practice, not a state.

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Alignment is critical both at the business and process level and the scrum framework provides practices to help create the alignment through the empirical process control. The scrum team exists so that product, engineering and process can tweak things to stay on course to achieve desired outcome.

Talking about alignment, US and India launched their respective missions to Mars about a year ago. A very big part of the journey to Mars that lasts about a year to complete is to adjust the trajectory of the space vehicle to aligned with the ultimate goal (red planet). This requires various teams handling a multitude of functions to work in complete collaboration and constantly align the vehicle to ensure that the vehicle does not go off course. Any kind of misalignment can have catastrophic results.

Passion  – Alignment creates passion. Once every member of the team is aligned with the end goal of the product with clarity about what defines product success, they contribute in their unique way using their skills to make it big and successful.

Unfortunately, team members work in silos either unaware of the end goal to be achieved or are just not allowed to create impact outside their territory.  There is no focused intent to leverage the team’s creativity, skills or knowledge to drive decisions.

A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.”

John Maxwell

Time and again companies like Amazon and Google have shared instances where teams were able to come up with innovative solutions just by understanding a problem, doing some experimentation and adapting to feedback and these are the people who feel passionate about what they do. The intent of a scrum team is to create this combined passion for what is expected to be achieved.

Delight – The term delight is often associated with customers but it holds equal importance when it comes to the team we work with. The question one may ask “so how do we delight the team?”. As humans we get a sense of delight from small gestures from people around us. These can include writing a note of gratitude for all they do for the team and the project, engaging in activities to familiarize with the ups and downs of their lives or by just acknowledging what they do as a member of the team.

There is no delight in owning anything unshared

Seneca the younger

When a team comes together to achieve a common purpose and hold each other accountable for the collective success, delight happens. Acts of support, trust, belief, respect, openness result in a overall delightful environment and experience.

Click here to read about an experiment conducted by Thalia Wheatley called impact design to evaluate a delightful experience.

Celebrate – A unique attribute of scrum teams is their ability to celebrate success and failure. The cause of a success or failure is never attributed an individual but the whole team.

“Each day offers a reason to celebrate. Find it and experience true bliss.”

Amy Leigh Mercree

The important aspect of celebration in this case is that the celebration should become part of the team culture. Celebrations should happen frequently, for the whole team and in a way such that it leaves a lasting impact of the team members.

Conclusion: As organizations embrace the scrum team idea, the thought process needs to go beyond the need, skills and title of a role. Instead the focus needs to be towards creating an environment where unique skills are coming together to achieve a common goal in a inclusive environment where there is passion, alignment and celebrations and delight is not just for customer but for every member of the team.