How to use the power of silence during a job interview

Mark Settle, CIO of BMC Software, doesn’t mince words when he explains what a hiring manager is ultimately trying to learn about a candidate during a job interview: “Do I want to come in to work and go to meetings with this person every day, and do I think this person can cover my back and get done what I need them to get done to make me look good? I know that sounds Machiavellian,” he admits. “But subliminally, that is exactly what is going on[in the interviewer’s mind].”

To get answers to those pointed questions, Settle’s approach is oblique. He prefers to establish a dialogue with the candidate he’s interviewing, rather than ask the stock questions that so many other hiring managers rely on to determine a candidate’s fit, such as ‘What brings you here today’ and ‘What’s your biggest flaw’. A conversation about the candidate’s background or approach to solving a particular problem helps Settle understand the candidate’s thought process.

Another technique Settle uses in job interviews is silence. In the 1980s, while working for gasoline company Arco, Settle learned to leverage the power of silence in job interviews.

He had seen a training video on how to interview people for jobs and was shocked by how much time interviewers spent talking when the purpose of the interview was to get the job seeker talking. He realized that if he could hold his tongue and not fill breaks in the conversation with his own voice, the job seeker-uncomfortable with the silence-would fill in those pauses with more candid, unrehearsed information about themselves.

For all of his specific interview techniques, Settle doesn’t exhaust himself trying to determine a job seeker’s fit. He says trying to assess whether a candidates is a 98 percent fit with an IT organization is unrealistic.

“The best you should hope for is about a 75 to 80 percent fit,” he says. “A good manager can take somebody who fits the position 80 percent and get them up to speed faster than it would take to find the person who fits the job 98 percent. That could take a year and costs time and money.”

In this Q&A, Settle shares the first-hand lessons he’s learned about talking too much during job interviews, the importance for job seekers of connecting with hiring managers on a personal level, and he advises IT professionals on how they can advance their careers with their current employers.

Next: How Settle gives candidates the silent treatment.

Jane Howze: When you first started hiring people, did you receive training on how to interview job seekers?

Mark Settle: Yes, in fact, some of it I remember very distinctly. My first hiring experience took place at ARCO in the 1980s. I was the head of an R&D tech services group of 60 to 80 people. I remember a “real world” video tape of people interviewing. One of the things that made a big impression on me was how much of the time the interviewer spent talking to the interviewee. That was a learning experience for me because at that stage of my career, I had a certain ego need to fill part of the time with my own voice. I learned to listen a little more closely.

The video also, quite shockingly, revealed the power of silence. People, when left with a bit of a pause, would actually supply information about themselves that in some instances was not positive. Without being prompted, candidates would actually continue to talk and share bits of information that would disqualify them for the job. For example, if somebody was talking about a project, first it would be about the great marketing side of their experience. Then they would go off on a tangent about why it did not really contribute any business value and how frustrating that was. I learned that silence is one of the best interviewing tools.

Is hiring instinctive, or can you teach people how to make good hires?

I think hiring is somewhat instinctive. There is a fascinating line of research in psychology that says we size up other people in an extremely short period of time. I have heard this described many different ways, but basically, our senses are overwhelmed by all the sensory inputs that we experience. Long ago in our evolution, we had to develop these frames of reference to be able to process all the inputs. I believe this to be true because if you find yourself in a situation that you did not anticipate, your heart rate will go up.

For example, I was in a hotel lobby in London when a co-worker (who I did not know was staying at the same hotel) came up to me, and I almost had a heart attack because I was trying to figure out what the heck he was doing there! So you have these frames of reference and accumulate life experiences, and we do a lot of instinctive sizing up of people by the way they dress, their body language and the way they think out loud.

If somebody walks in your office for an interview, what should they expect?

I want to establish a dialogue. I will search for a topic-whether it is getting the candidate to reflect on a past experience or how they would approach one of my problems-that will allow me to see how the person thinks.

I do not ask canned questions. I have been on the other side of that technique, and I do not like it at all. I compare that style of interviewing to a 1955 IBM guy from Poughkeepsie. If the person interviewing me is going to be my boss, I do not believe it will work because I am not that kind of person. We are not going to be a good match.

The other thing that stock questions communicate to me is that this person is not very serious about filling the job. They have not thought about the key factors that will make the person successful in the job. It is a “bring-me-a-rock-I-will-know-the-right-kind-of-rock-when-I-see-it” kind of syndrome.

What advice would you give to someone who is interviewing with a CIO?

Connect with that individual’s experience, either business-related or personal. I think people underestimate the power of doing their homework. If you are interviewing with a chief information officer, take the time to find out what schools he/she went to, what companies he/she worked for in the past, and maybe do a little networking to see if there is some kind of common experience that the two of you have had.

How can you tell if someone has not done their homework?

Most candidates do their homework on the job they are interviewing for, but not on the chief information officer as a person. You cannot necessarily tell if a candidate has not done their homework, but you can definitely tell when they have. Even if it comes across as sucking up, it still shows they took the initiative and made the effort.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

The worst ones are when I only ask a couple of questions, and I get paragraphs back by way of an answer. It feels like a sales pitch. I never connect on any intellectual, personal or emotional level with the candidate. They have their answer and they are going to give them. And regardless of who the audience is, the answer is the same.

Last year I interviewed a gentleman who brought with him a PowerPoint presentation that summarized his accomplishments and experiences with his current employer.

It was commendable for the role that we were trying fill, but he was hell bent on getting through the entire presentation! I had an hour with him, and by the 30 minute mark, I was totally turned off. He was not the guy for me.

He finally let me get some questions in during the last 20 minutes, and when we got around to what I was interested in, he actually really impressed me, but he still managed to lose me altogether by not reading me. He interviewed with other people here, and when we compared notes, he had put all of us through the presentation.

Next: Settle’s worst interview continued and his biggest hiring mistake.

Using a PowerPoint presentation as a pretext for something of interest to the interviewer is a great idea as long as the candidate stops on slide two if it is a ten-page pitch. The candidate should use it only as a springboard to go off into what the interviewer wants to discuss. Not getting to the other eight pages is not a big deal.

I have another funny story that involves a lesson I learned about interviewing: I was one of two finalists for a job at a small company. There were two board members that the executive team wanted to include in the final interview, one of whom worked at a consulting firm. I was told by the executive search firm that she wanted to spend a half a day with me, which stunned me. I met her for the interview, and she announced as she came in the door that there had been a change in her schedule and she would not be able to spend four hours with me.

There were four things that she wanted to cover, and one was for me to walk her through my background. The interview turned out to be about three hours. When she was wrapping things up, I asked for some feedback. She said she was concerned about my thinking process because the person in this job was going to need to make some very crisp, concise presentations to the board of directors. She said that even though she had shortened the time, she had made it clear that there were four topics that she wanted to cover, and we spent too much time on my background, and that I did not manage the time that she had given me.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake happened many years ago: I hired internally when I should have hired externally. I started an enterprise architecture team, and I recruited from my existing ranks some of the more technically brilliant people we had in the company. They were all highly motivated and aspired to become enterprise architects, but I did not provide them with a very effective role model to show them how an enterprise architect would operate.

Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter, résumé or phone call sent directly to you?

I will look at any résumé that comes in. I get an influx of résumés from human resources because we post a fair number of jobs on the Internet.

I might take a chance on a résumé that I have seen come through and set up a video conference. I may also come to the conclusion that there is no fit at this organization, but I might know another chief information officer or recruiter to recommend the person to.

What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?

If you have a personal connection with the interviewer, I would tone down the patronizing thank-you side of it and play up the connection. That is key. You have to gauge this, however, because it can backfire on you. If you interviewed with six people, I think it would come across as manipulative if all six got different thank-you notes. You have to be shrewd about how you do it and make sure it does not seem cheesy. You can figure out fairly quickly who the power brokers are in an interview situation – who is part of the crew and who is the captain.

Personally, I do not usually send thank-you notes because at the level that I am interviewing at a company, I do not think people do that. The only time I would do that is if we connected on a personal level-for example, if that person and I knew people in common or had some experience in common.

What do you consider a successful hire?

I have a very good litmus test for that. After a person has been on the job for 60 days, if I can say that I cannot believe that person has only been working here for 60 days because he/she is so plugged in to what is going on and has already contributed, that is a successful hire. The flip side is when somebody is still using the “honeymoon” excuse after 120 days on the job. That’s not a good sign.

Do you have any advice for people climbing the career ladder internally?

There is always tremendous whining that occurs in IT organizations about lack of career development. It is really ironic because IT groups tend to be very project-based relative to other corporate functions and because projects in of themselves are tremendous career development opportunities. Unfortunately, they are largely squandered because nobody “tees up” the opportunity from a management or coaching point of view by saying that a particular project is an opportunity for an IT professional to get a large cross-section of stakeholders on board with a project. Within each project, there are career “pegs,” if you will. If you can get a project done and satisfy your stakeholders, you will have advanced your career or have added something new to your “tool box.”

Next: Settle’s worst interview experience as a job seeker.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

I would encourage a candidate to call the assistant and ask how they should dress. That way, if a candidate for a job in my IT department shows up in khakis and a polo shirt or a nice dress shirt, I know that they checked ahead of time and they were making an extra effort to fit in culturally. If any aspect of the job that they’re interviewing for is going to require external exposure, I think they should go with the full business suit.

Have you ever had a candidate show up in an inappropriate outfit?

No, but I will tell you about a personal experience. I spent five years at NASA headquarters after graduate school. I interviewed for this job with NASA in Washington, D.C. I took the subway and got off at the wrong stop, so I was several blocks away. It was summertime, incredibly humid, and I had a suit on, so I took off the suit jacket. By the time I got to NASA headquarters, I was late and I had sweated through the shirt, so I was not off to a good start. I got inside the building and put the jacket back on to cover up my wet shirt, and I had to interview while I was drying out underneath my jacket. I got the job, but it was a horrible experience.

Jane Howze is Managing Director at The Alexander Group. She is based in the executive search firm’s Houston office.


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