Maintaining Control

Written By: Brad Smart

Throughout my career, interviewees have tried again and again to take control of the interview. I’ve experimented with lots of ways to maintain control and have some techniques that are sure to work.

In this little ol’ thumb drive I’m holding there are 6,500 reports I’ve written on candidates for hire or promotion to the C-suite, following 5-hour Topgrading Interviews. So if anyone should be able to advise you how to maintain control of an interview, it should be me.

Just about every book on how to get a job says that interviewers are so bad at interviewing (that’s generally true) that to get a job offer, interviewees must take control of the interview to tell interviewers how good they are. And the books advise candidates to prepare self-promoting sound bites. Those books advise that, just like a politician on TV, candidates should answer the questions they want to be asked, which will not necessarily be the ones interviewers ask.

Fortunately, most candidates preparing for a Topgrading interview go to, learn about the chronological interview, read that they will be able to talk about all their successes and see that they will have to arrange calls with former bosses as a final step in hiring. So, sharp candidates realize that if they grab control and avoid answering questions, they know I’ll recommend that they not be hired – because my client will no doubt have the same frustration of their not answering questions.

But even ‘A Player‘ candidates usually have some failures they’d prefer not to talk about and instinctively try to manipulate their interviewers at least a bit.

There are three key ways to take back control if the interviewee either tries to take over or just wanders off on topics not of interest to you:

1. The first time you need to regain control, be gentle, but interrupt and restate your question. If you asked, “and what were mistakes in that job?” and the response is something like, “A tornado wiped out one of my plants and it was the worst summer of my career,” the interviewee told you of a disappointment, not a mistake. So a gentle restatement might be:

Chris, we all make mistakes – in that job what were some mistakes you made? If you could wind back the clock what are a couple of things you would do differently?

2. The next time the interviewee tries to take control, interrupt and explain, “Pat, sorry to interrupt, but I’m struggling a bit to get answers to questions. Our Topgrading process involves asking a lot of questions about all your jobs, and I’d really appreciate it if you focus on the question asked, because I won’t go on to the next question without an answer.”  Or, if your interviewee keeps telling you how to build a watch when you asked the time, you might say something like:

Jan, you are providing a lot of context and color commentary when responding to my questions, so I’m going to ask you to give me shorter, direct answers. So, when I asked for your sales results last year, you could have just given me the results, but spent almost 5 minutes explaining how world events, the economy, and competitive pressures were challenges. I’ll ask follow-up questions if I need to, but frankly this interview will take all day with the longer answers.

3. And the third time the interviewee avoids your questions or goes off on a tangent say something like:

Joe, I’m wondering if you’ve read some books that say you have to take control of the interview. Please don’t because I’m thinking that if you come to work for me, I will have difficulty getting you to answer my questions.

The gentle approach is almost always sufficient to regain control. If you are the hiring manager, can you imagine what it would be like working with someone who would try to avoid your questions, obfuscate, or flat-out change your agenda in a conversation? The third rather blunt approach is taken when you are about to reject the candidate and call off the interview. It is very fair to be this blunt, however, because it gives the candidate one last chance to “pass” the interview.

I do this in interviews, essentially speaking for my client:

“Susan, we’ve been together a couple of hours and I’ve found that sometimes I have to ask a question twice or three times before I get an answer. I know you want to put your best foot forward, but I’m thinking that if Jan hires you, she would be frustrated because she really insists that people on her team listen carefully to her questions and answer them directly.”

If interviewees permit you to retake control and answer your questions, fine, they passed the test!  But if you continue having to re-ask questions you’re bound to reject a candidate – also great, because you’ve avoided a costly mis-hire.

I hope this tip is helpful! Until next time, Topgrade your team and you will Topgrade your career.

To learn more about Topgrading, please download our free eGuide.

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