Job Interviews and the Power of Silence

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 dialog 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 per cent fit with an IT organization is unrealistic.

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

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

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