How to Do Effective Promotion Interviews

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May 13, 2020

I’ve conducted executive assessments for 3,000-plus leaders. Many for hiring, development, and coaching purposes, but over half were to evaluate individuals for promotion.

Organizations use promotion assessments not only to get input on whether or not they should promote someone but to guide the individual’s future development. Much is at stake, particularly in the case of talented leaders who, if passed up for a promotion, may be less motivated or even decide to leave the company.

Assessors have test results and other input to assist them in evaluating candidates, but I’ve found—although many might debate me on this—that the interview is the most important part of the process. And I have some thoughts regarding best practices, including key lessons I’ve learned as an interviewer.

When part of an executive assessment battery, interviews are often limited to a single 90-minute to two-hour session, and this is the opportunity for the interviewer to get an in-depth look at the candidate’s key strengths or limitations with regard to the new position.

Sometimes it’s not easy. There may be savvy candidates who present a well-scripted persona, with all the “right” answers and without showing any obvious resistance, and yet interviewers still sense that they aren’t getting the complete picture. Also difficult are candidates who are open and sincere but not accustomed to describing their own behaviors, motivations, approaches to decision making, and manner of interacting with co-workers.

On top of this, other factors can influence the flow of the interview. For example, some candidates may find it difficult to let go and allow the interviewer to guide the experience. Others will work to maintain a positive front at all costs and will only be comfortable talking about their strengths. The most challenging candidates I ever interviewed were higher-ranking police and military leaders who were being selected for demanding overseas assignments. Generally tight-lipped to begin with, they were also used to being in a position of authority, and they were uncomfortable being on the other side of the table.

The structured behavioral interview

Structured behavioral interviews are considered by many to be the most effective interview technique because they are more standardized, reliable, and easier to defend against actions alleging bias, which is particularly important when more than one assessor is involved.

Typically the interviewer asks a series of behaviorally oriented questions focused on each of the organization’s core competencies (e.g., “Tell me about a time when you took a broad perspective on the organization and applied it to the way you managed your team.”). Answers to these questions, along with other data such as test results, help the assessor arrive at observations and ratings for each competency and an overall rating for the candidate, which the organization can use as it sees fit.

Although the structured behavioral interview provides solid information and insights regarding the candidate, it can yield even more value via the thoughtful and flexible facilitation of a skilled interviewer.

To get a fuller picture as an interviewer, you need to:

Be willing to go off-script

Questions that focus on the organization’s list of core competencies, even as revised to apply to the specific position the candidate is being considered for, may not always uncover important information about a candidate.

Some individuals, for example, are good at coming up with impressive anecdotes for any competency, which makes them look like ideal candidates if the interviewer is asking only behavioral questions.

This means that, as the interview proceeds, if you sense that something seems “off” or you see a potentially rich vein to explore, take time to briefly pursue it.

Some may argue that this is not only time consuming but also introduces too much subjectivity into the process. I believe you are only committing to asking a few new questions, which may take very little time and can yield critical insights. Sometimes I simply tell the candidate what I’m thinking and see if they confirm it.

I’ve also often found that chance remarks by candidates at different points in the interview have uncovered significant job-relevant behavior patterns or the narratives that underlie them.

Try to develop a relationship

The time allowed in structured interviews for developing rapport and going over biographical details may be relatively brief, but it’s vitally important.

If candidates feel they are being “processed” by an impersonal inquisitor, they’re less relaxed and forthcoming. As a short-cut to building rapport and trust, I sometimes start the interview by giving candidates a 30-second formative anecdote from my own upbringing, and then say, “This short story gives you some sense of me, correct?” And when they agree, I say, “So what can you tell me about yourself that will help me to get a better sense for who you are?”

Often candidates will open up and, in a few short minutes, share something extremely formative from their life that set the stage for the person they’ve become. This really helps in a time-limited interview because it may provide important context that would not otherwise surface in the competency-focused part of the interview.

Ideally, this reciprocal and “background-focused” sharing at the beginning of the interview grounds both you and the candidate in the mutual objective, which is uncovering the candidate’s strengths and development areas, as well as seeing how good a fit they are for the new position.

That objective may seem idealistic. We commonly assume that in promotion interviews, the candidate’s sole focus is to be recommended for the new position. But I’ve found that most genuinely want to be the right person for the position. If it’s a bad fit and they get promoted anyway, not only will it not feel right, but it could end up derailing their careers.

When candidates come to trust that you are willing to meet them where they are and recognize that they are unique individuals, they feel in a safe place and respond more openly.

Sometimes I learn of a relevant experience that indicates a strength, and at other times it may point to a weakness. In one instance, a striking anecdote shared by a candidate hadn’t come up in any previous screenings and drew my interest. This individual had been involved in an unusual number of extreme situations in her work, and although she had handled these effectively, questions remained regarding what her part was in creating the problems, as well as how she felt about these issues afterward. I asked two follow-up questions, and the answers indicated that this otherwise highly qualified individual would be unlikely to succeed in the prospective new position.

Look at narratives to help indicate if behavior can be changed

It’s often important to learn the narrative underlying candidates’ behavior. Just because candidates can share good behavioral anecdotes doesn’t mean that these automatically translate to new environments, which may present an entirely different set of challenges. And, whether candidates end up being promoted or not, organizations want to know if their limitations are deeply ingrained or something they can be expected to overcome.

Candidates’ narratives may spring from their formative years, interactions with other individuals at work, experiences in other companies or industries, and cultural attitudes toward hierarchy and authority. For example, if the candidate worked for an extremely difficult boss, he or she may find it hard to trust any superior.

Of course, in some cases, the source of the behavior is buried too deep or is too sensitive to be uncovered in a time-limited interview, but it’s surprising how open a candidate can be if a sufficient degree of trust has been established.

Be alert to your own biases

We all have our ingrained preferences, and assessors are no exception. So it’s important to notice if you have a negative reaction to the candidate in front of you. It can involve gender, age, or cultural bias. Or the candidate reminds you of an acquaintance, co-worker, friend, or sibling. You can also be biased on the positive side if you find the person very articulate, attractive, or humorous. Or they demonstrate other traits you admire. It means you’ll need to make a special effort to remain objective.

Encourage prospective bosses and HR to communicate their concerns

There are different schools of thought regarding whether or not the client organization (e.g., prospective new boss, HR) should “weigh in” on the candidate as part of the process. If there is a pre-interview discussion, you may find that people are reluctant to identify any areas of concern about the candidate because they want you to approach the individual with a blank slate. In my view executive assessment is a team effort, so I encourage the client to be forthcoming in the spirit of helping me know where to look. If they’re concerned that the candidate may be weak in collaboration, for example, I want to spend enough time digging into that to see if there are any narratives from his or her life and work history that may bear on the behavior or indicate whether or not the limitation is something the candidate can overcome.

When I know the area of concern in advance, I may also end up with a different definition of what it involves. For example, the prospective superior worries that the candidate has difficulty delegating authority, but I find that it is, in fact, a larger issue with control.

It’s also the case that the client will, often with good intentions, try to influence the assessment. For example, sometimes, if there is a slate of candidates for one specific role, managers may describe their favorite candidate in the most positive light because it’s the person they really want. Or current managers may remain neutral on an underperforming candidate because they want the person off their team.

As an assessor, you want to be responsive to your clients’ needs, but you need to avoid getting caught up in second-guessing their intentions and do your best to read candidates objectively. Ultimately, it will be up to your clients to make their own decisions.

How personality tests support the interview

Although I find the interview to be a critical part of the assessment process, personality tests are also essential. Good personality tools are typically developed using solid science, and these days they are mostly administered online. Personality tests are extremely useful for measuring candidate attributes such as openness, assertiveness, sociability, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and they can help the assessor to estimate how these might influence a candidate’s behavior.

When effectively mapped to the role in question, these results can corroborate and strengthen your observations.

The value and limitations of cognitive tests

For many jobs, general mental ability is a significant predictor of job performance, and you’ll usually be able to get a decent sense of candidates’ intelligence from the interview. In some cases, however, candidates who are well prepared and verbally skilled may impress you as being more intelligent than they really are. Others who are equally or more intelligent may not communicate as easily and be slower and more hesitant in their responses.

Cognitive tests help you confirm or calibrate your impressions. Still, you need to take into account the fact that, although these tests have proven to be generally accurate, some people with high intelligence test poorly. They may have test anxiety, or they may be challenged by the speed requirement, even if the test is untimed. Other candidates may be good critical thinkers, for example, but have trouble dealing with test questions in narrative form.

Remember, too, that, although personality and cognitive tests are extremely useful, most are not tailored to the company using them, much less to the unique profile of the individual being assessed.

Optimal value

While both tests and interviews are effective tools to assess candidates for promotion, a skillful interview enables a unique look at mindsets and behavior patterns, providing clear directions for future development and generating valuable feedback, regardless of whether the individual is chosen for the new position.

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