Get the Right Butts in Your Seats

Some Tips for Interviewing

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Jennifer Patterson Jennifer Patterson
I was talking to my brother the other day, and he was dreading having to hire someone for an open position.

"I hate interviewing. I never know what to ask," he grumbled. He's in Treasury, but it's really not so different in advertising (wardrobe aside). A lot of people don't enjoy or feel effective at interviewing. Despite this, it's a hugely important skill to a small company.

We all know that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch and never is this more true than at a small agency. At big agencies in big cities, the two-year revolving door is more manageable. There's always someone exiting another agency and wanting to enter yours. But small agencies are often not in the ad meccas. For us, it's less a revolving door than a mini floodgate that opens. There's a quick one-way rush out and then the riverbed is dry. And you're often left with a substantial hole not just in your workforce, but in your culture.

So I wanted to share a quick list of a few things we've learned along the way about hiring:
  1. Meet people all the time. In an ideal world, all these meetings would insure you a roster of potential new players just in that moment of need. But timing is generally not so easy. The real value of meeting people all the time is to keep your interviewer game up. One of my best friends from college told me once how her parents had met and married after only four months. Her mother had said, in defense of her hastiness: "You spend your whole life figuring out who NOT to marry." This is like interviewing. Meet people to know who's not for you. Trust me, there are plenty of them out there.

  2. Know your strengths and weaknesses as an interviewer. When I first started at the agency there were a couple people already working there who I wondered about, as in, "Really? This guy?" Later, I happened to overhear one of our people interviewing a candidate. It was less an interview than a promotional brochure about the agency. After musing on the agency's dreams and road to the future, the interviewer asked the candidate what she thought. She enthusiastically agreed and even spit back some key agency phrases. As interviewers, we all have are own imperfect techniques. You need to know yours, but it also helps to know everyone else's as well. In those cases of split decisions, it makes a difference when you know that people put emphasis in different places.

  3. Give room for people to be themselves. Let's face it. Some people are just good at being interviewed. It's a gift to be able to relax and be witty and charming and smart in the face of someone who is comparing your wit and charm to ten other people they've met in the last month. But there are plenty of great people who improve upon acquaintance. The onus is on the interviewer to provide those moments where people can shine. Personally, I'm not a big fan of any interview question that starts out with a disclaimer (like "So I know this is going to be a bit of a hard question to answer, but ..."). An interview is like a friendly tennis match, not mortal combat. The objective is to see if the two of you can keep the game going. To do this, you need to hit the ball back in interesting ways and see if the two of you can rally.

  4. Make sure people are a culture fit. Culture fit is about more than hiring people you'd want to have a beer with. It's about work styles, drive, belief in the agency vision. We've all worked with that one person who didn't pull his weight. In a big agency, there's (arguably) room for this -- there are enough people rowing so that one non-committed rower won't sink the ship. But we're not talking about those Viking long ships at a small agency. We're talking about two to three people in a dinghy.

  5. Take your time. We've all had those moments of desperation when we've hired someone who seemed "good enough." In our case, those people have always turned out to be a mistake. (I guess a sub-point to this would be find great freelance. These go-to people can help you squeeze a little more time out of the process.) It's hard to resist the temptation to fill that empty desk with a much-needed body. But hold on, just that bit longer -- the right person is around the corner.
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