When should you use a strengths based interview?

There has been a big trend in recruitment over the last 10-15 years towards competency based interviewing – a skills interview which tests how candidates have approached particular situations in the past. This is especially prevalent in IT where experience of specific software, project methodologies or data warehouses is often required.

Preparing is relatively simple for the candidate. They work out which competencies or skills are required for the role from the job description and then create mini-storyboards for each one. For example your competency interview question may be something like: “can you describe a time when you have had to use your skills of persuasion?”  The prepared candidate would answer by setting out an example situation, the specific task involved, the action the candidate personally took and the result (see STAR technique for preparing for competency based interviews).

The advantage of using this style of interview over CV or experience based interviews is that the interviewer gets a good insight into real life examples and can probe the candidate’s approach and decision-making processes.  What it assumes though is that the way a candidate approached a situation in the past will inform their future performance in your organisation. This style of interviewing is great if you want to work out whether the candidate CAN do the job but where it falls down is that it doesn’t show whether the candidate will ENJOY doing the job.

Playing to your strengths

If an employee enjoys doing the job, they are almost certainly working to their strengths. And when they are using their strengths they demonstrate:

  • a real sense of energy and engagement
  • being thoroughly engrossed in a task such that they often lose a sense of time
  • that they can rapidly learn new information and approaches
  • higher levels of performance
  • that they are drawn to do things that play to their strengths – even when tired, stressed or disengaged

Strengths are all about what you engage in, where you get your energy from and what you enjoy. So if you adopt some strengths-based questions in your interviewing, you can establish whether the candidate in front of you not only displays the skills for the job but is also going to perform well.

In the age of employee engagement and the realisation that engagement means real success and profit, (see Engage for Success) it is definitely worth testing candidates on their strengths during the recruitment process. Obviously you still need to test whether a candidate can do the job and whether they fit into the organisation culturally, but introducing a second stage of strengths based interviews could significantly impact your retention rate and the performance of the individual in the role. Strengths interviewing ultimately gives better results.

What sort of questions could you use in a strengths based interview?

  • What are you good at?
  • What comes easily to you?
  • What do you learn quickly?
  • Describe a successful day you have had.
  • When did you achieve something you were really proud of?
  • Do you prefer to start tasks or to finish them?
  • Do you find you have enough hours in the day to complete all the things you want to do?

How your recruitment process could improve

  • Strength spotting is easier at CV and first interview stage so you could end up spending less time at second interview and assessment stages.
  • It’s harder to prepare so you get fewer pre-prepared answers from candidates
  • Candidates have to reflect on the questions which gives better insight into strengths
  • Candidates enjoy the interview more, so are attracted to the organisation
  • Successful candidates will deliver results more quickly as they are built for the role rather than adapting to fit the role
  • Those who don’t succeed hopefully realise they wouldn’t be happy in the role anyway
  • Those employed are more likely to stay in the job and will perform to their strengths

Adopting a strengths based technique is very useful when you are recruiting employees who don’t have much direct work experience such as graduates or apprentices where you are looking for potential and passion for the job rather than experience of the job. Many established companies such as Standard Chartered, Barclays, Aviva, Royal Mail and EY have adopted strengths based interviews particularly for their graduate recruitment.

I’d love to hear your experiences and whether you’ve found switching to strengths based interviewing successful or not. Please get in touch today.

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Build effective teams using behavioural profiling tools

Teamworking in organisations has certainly grown in importance over the years. CIPD research into the changing workplace shows roles becoming less individually defined and much more focussed on versatility and flexibility in teams.  This is all good stuff – HR and OD professionals know that organisations which foster good teamworking enjoy improved productivity, enhanced quality of products or services, better focus on customers, quicker responses to opportunities or threats and improved flexibility.  Perhaps the most important area where great teams provide competitive advantage over average ones is in the rapid spread of ideas.  Silo mentalities and protectiveness fall by the wayside.

We know that teamworking usually works well for employees too. The CIPD cite that the most commonly-quoted positive outcomes for teamworking are greater job satisfaction and motivation, together with improved learning.

What is an effective team?

So what is an effective team and how can you use behavioural profiling to identify where you have gaps and what type of person you may want to recruit?

The first step is to identify the characteristics of high performing teams.  Consider these in relation to the team that you lead or perhaps a senior management team or board of which you are a member.  Do you have:

  • a common sense of purpose
  • a clear understanding of the team’s objectives
  • resources to achieve those objectives
  • mutual respect among team members, both as individuals and for the contribution each makes to the team’s performance
  • appreciation of members’ strengths and respect for their weaknesses
  • mutual trust
  • willingness to share knowledge and expertise
  • willingness to speak openly
  • a range of skills among team members to deal effectively with all its tasks
  • a range of personal styles for the various roles needed to carry out the team’s tasks

All great in theory but how do we work out what we have got and how we can improve? I recommend having a look at a team audit tool which will allow your organisation to identify what the ideal team culture is, assess your organisation’s actual team culture and then show you what the gap between the two is.

The team audit tool also assesses each individual team member against the ideal team culture. This identifies their personality and preferred behaviour which means that with the right intervention you can improve the team’s performance. It might be that you need a team leader who is better able to adapt their management style or to recruit a team member with soft skills that are missing elsewhere eg communication or presentation skills. Amazing, eh?

I have successfully used the team audit tool in a variety of situations which you may recognise.  Perhaps your team is not achieving its targets, your organisation’s strategy calls for a cultural change or you’ve come through a merger or acquisition. It can also help where there is an internal conflict, someone has left the team or a new manager is in place.

The benefits of the team audit tool are considerable:

  • increased performance levels of teams from matching them to your ideal culture
  • team awareness of individual communication, sales and management styles
  • increased awareness of individuals’ and team motivators, fears and value to your organisation
  • ability to predict a team’s reaction to change which allows organisations to plan change with confidence

In relation to recruitment, the benefits include:

  • improved likelihood of making a successful hire because new team members have been identified specifically to have a behavioural and cultural fit
  • dramatic reduction in ongoing team building costs by making better hires
  • lower recruitment costs due to improved employee retention

The detailed personal knowledge you get for each team member is really powerful and means you can make a genuine difference on getting the best out of your teams.  It focuses the mind when it comes to recruitment and helps with building new culture.

For more information on building effective teams, see research by Mike Woodcock’s team model.Belbin’s team roles model is also well worth looking at.

For more information on team assessment tools see Thomas International Team Audit and for the science of behavioural profiling, have a look at Thomas International PPA.

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Rethinking HR in a changing world – a threat or opportunity for recruitment agencies?

Ian Knowlson

Ian Knowlson


We asked Ian Knowlson from Selling Success to give his thoughts on KPMG HR report.

In a recent survey by KPMG of more than 400 senior executives titled Rethinking Human Resources in a Changing World a number of key questions were raised about the effectiveness of HR to rise to the challenge posed by the  “War-for-Talent”. Read more ›

Posted in The changing role of HR

Lord Sugar vs Stella English – a poor example of employee engagement?

sugarWhatever the outcome of the Sugar vs English tribunal (which at the time of writing will be decided in the next few weeks) and the potential rights and wrongs of the matter on each side, it seems pretty clear to me that Stella English was not a great example of an employee fully engaged in what she was employed to do at Lord Sugar’s empire.

When it comes to tribunals, it’s well known that they generally start with a misunderstanding which is not dealt with; in English’s case her assertion that she was an “overpaid lackey”, which meant her role had no meaning for her.  In Lord Sugar’s case, he seems to have adopted a “what did you expect?” sort of approach along with the frustration that he has put a lot of investment into an employee who doesn’t appear to be showing any gratitude whatsoever.  Both have ended up embroiled in a media circus where English is suing him for constructive dismissal.

Famously aggressive management style aside (that’s a blog for another day), could Lord Sugar have avoided all of this public confrontation if he had adopted some key principles of employee engagement?

  1. Employees need to know that organisations are committed to the long term. Call it vision, mission, story board, whatever you like but make it clear where the organisation has come from and where it’s going. This is usually achieved through strong, open and inspirational leadership.
  2. Managers need to ensure that they engage their teams as individuals with meaningful work. Stella English had an issue with this; she claims her job was just there to fulfil the The Apprentice contract and was not meaningful at all.  The scope for her to make an impact on the organisation was in her view very limited. Her manager she suggests says she was “a nice girl, but didn’t do a lot”.  She obviously did not feel the organisation valued her contribution. Her efforts in her view were worthless. Her manager did not command her respect, she thought he was less qualified and experienced than she was.
  3. In organisations where employees have a voice to challenge, reinforce and change management views, it is proven that employee commitment is higher and consequently their performance is greater.  Leaders who take the time to hear their colleagues’ views understand them better, can address worries as they happen and manage their expectations, motivations and ambitions.  My assertion here is that English did not feel she had a voice that was going to be heard and ultimately her unmet need resorted to a public fight.
  4. Finally, employees see through the company values written on the wall if they are not absolutely lived by leaders.  The lesson is that to truly lead, you must model behaviour you expect of your employees. If you aren’t committed and positive about your contribution to the organisation, why should your employees bother? Organisational integrity is absolutely key here – what we say and what we do should not have a big gap between them. Obvious really. A quote I heard recently on this sums it up, “we want to see values lived not laminated”! See (Beverley Stone).

All in all Stella English has nothing to lose by suing Lord Sugar but the case raises some interesting questions about how Lord Sugar’s empire is organised and what success looks like.

What do you think about the case? Do you have any sympathy for Lord Sugar?

For more reading on this subject, see David MacLeod and Nita Clarke’s research, Engage for Success, for more information on employee engagement and the enablers of engagement.

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Behavioural profiling – is it worth it?

I distinctly remember discussing the benefits of behavioural profiling with a sceptical person who held the purse strings to the HR and recruitment budget.  I found myself outlining why, particularly for those key leadership or senior roles, I wouldn’t want to recruit without it.  Why?

  1. People get very good at interviews, it’s not that hard to devise your own competency “storyboards” and work out what the interviewer is ultimately looking for.
  2. There are great career guidance books on the market (I recommend John Lees’ bestseller, How to Get a Job You’ll Love) and the internet is absolutely full of sound interview techniques and advice on body language – your candidates really can go in very prepared to wow you on the interview panel.
  3. The cost of recruitment is enormous – “the median recruitment cost of filling a vacancy is £8,000 for senior managers/directors and £3,000 for other employees”, CIPD Resourcing and Talent Planning Report 2012 

  4. Behavioural profiling gives the interviewer a snapshot of a candidates preferred behaviour – the subconscious preference which can be sustained over a long period of time.  It also gives the interviewer a good idea on how the candidate will respond to their environment, the job role and how they can be best developed, which means that there is more information available for picking the right person for the job.  Here I give a note of warning, whilst I am a great advocate of behavioural profiling, I do not think it is the only hurdle each candidate must jump in order to get the job, it must be used as a tool in amongst a properly devised sifting process, qualifications/experience validation and a well prepared interview.
  5. The cost of getting that key appointment wrong is even more enormous than the cost of recruitment in the first place; the CIPD estimates the average cost of recruiting the wrong person is £8,200, rising to £12,000 for senior managers or directors (EEOC figures).
  6. Once you know someone’s behavioural profile, it makes it so much easier to manage them as an individual and to understand what motivates them, causes them to want to get out of bed in the morning and come and work for you, develop their strengths, engage them in the organisation and devise ways of managing their weaknesses.
  7. For the candidate, I have never met anyone who isn’t interested in the results – self-understanding gives great satisfaction and is integral to personal development, and let’s talk about cost again, how much is wasted on training and development which is not addressing an individual’s needs or their gaps in knowledge? If we get the development targeted properly, we could spend our dwindling training budgets more effectively, help to keep our employees happy with the investment they are receiving personally and that sense of satisfaction leads to better retention.

So for all those sceptics out there – my advice is don’t underestimate the true value of behavioural profiling, give it a go – I was able to prove to my finance friend mentioned above that it had enormous benefit to our organisation and used properly can genuinely save on costs too.

For more information on the science of behavioural profiling, have a look at Thomas International PPA.

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How to get the best out of your recruitment agency

Manmel-larbalestiery MacMaster Dean HR clients work with recruiters but often don’t know what goes on ‘under the bonnet’ and how much more their recruitment agency could be doing for them.  We asked Melanie Larbalestier from specialist information management recruiters KDR Recruitment to give us her perspective on how clients can get the best out of their recruitment partners.  Here’s what she told us.

In too many years to mention working in the recruitment industry I’ve heard hundreds of conversations about the relationship between HR and recruiters. It’s clear to see they often view each other negatively and I can see how that’s come about.

Agencies I’ve worked at in the past often trained recruiters to go direct to the hiring/line manager and bypass HR. They were pushed to get quick decisions on interviews and offers and to make quick placements. Unfortunately, keeping the HR team in the picture was seen to be holding things up with additional processes. Of course all this does is leave HR with a level of mistrust at recruiters going behind their back.

I can also see from a recruitment point of view the benefit of moving things along as quickly as possible. We know the best candidates are in demand and can be snapped up elsewhere in the blink of an eye.

However, good recruiters will realise the importance of building up a relationship with the HR department and will train their consultants to work with you rather than against you.  They should understand that the responsibilities within HR run much deeper than just filling the job but to ensure there’s a good cultural fit, integrate new hires into the company and manage staff retention and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

We also understand it’s you who will be held responsible if mistakes are made and want to make sure we find the right people that will fit with your organisation’s culture and long-term plans. For this to happen we need to keep you in the loop!

So how do these relationships remain successful and how have we worked best together?  I’ve put together our top tips for making the most of your recruitment agency:

Find a specialist: Using a specialist recruiter in the relevant industry means they should know the market inside out.   That means they can be a valuable source of information on what’s going on in the sector, the skills in demand and short supply, and the salary range on offer for a particular role. Make full use of their knowledge to help you to market your role in the best possible way.

Let them under your skin: To get the very best results out of your recruiter it’s wise to allocate some time upfront to give them as much information as possible about your company culture, values, growth plans, structure, recruitment issues and procedures, as well as details about the job role and package on offer.  This is particularly important when working with an agency for the first time.  By helping a recruiter to fully understand your business from the outset, you will ensure that they have all the information they need to find the right candidates first time round, saving you time in the long term and on future vacancies.

Understanding your recruitment process:  What are the timescales involved?  Who will be interviewing? What is the format for interviews?   What are your reasons for recruiting? By giving your recruiter as much information as possible about your recruitment process they can better manage the candidate’s expectations and make sure they are properly briefed for interviews, ensuring a smoother process all round.

Communication is key: It can be frustrating to not hear back from a recruiter on the progress they are making.  Ask for regular updates throughout the entire process.  To facilitate this, it’s helpful to try to make yourself available as much as possible, responding as quickly as you can to any messages – even if it is to say that you’ll get back in touch when you’re less strapped for time. If we have been unsuccessful in contacting a client for some time, we start to assume that a job has been filled and we are no longer required. Regular communication helps both parties – you will feel more in control and confident that your recruitment is being well-managed, and the recruiter will feel assured that they can continue to work on your job as well as keep their candidates informed.

Give as much feedback as possible:  Feedback on CVs and interviews, whether good or bad, is vital. Never feel that you are unable to say if a candidate is not quite what you are looking for – this feedback can really help recruiters find the right person next time.  Not just for your immediate need, but on future opportunities too.

Clear timescales:  To ensure everyone is working to the same goals, be realistic about the timescales involved and ensure your recruiter is also clear about them. Consider when you will have the time to review CVs. When you will be able to conduct interviews?  In an ideal world, when can this person start?

Encourage transparency:  We believe the best relationships are built on being open and honest in all dealings. Be as honest as you can from the outset about what you hope to achieve and when, and continue this approach throughout the process to ensure the best results and to nip any niggles in the bud quickly and painlessly.
Agree Ts&Cs:  All good recruiters will agree terms and conditions with you BEFORE they start working on a vacancy.  If this hasn’t happened, or you have your own company terms and conditions, make sure this is discussed and agreed before work starts.   Once a candidate has been interviewed or placed, it becomes much trickier to resolve if there is an issue.

Managing the offer process:  Once you’ve found a great candidate that you feel is the perfect fit for your role it can be tempting to step in and manage the offer process yourself. By leaving it to the recruiter, they will help smooth the way at what can be a stressful time for a candidate. They will also be able to spot any warning signs if there are any problems with a resignation and deal with all the salary and package negotiations.

As with any relationship, success is down to good communication and understanding the other party’s point of view.  I hope that armed with these tips, I’ve gone a small way to building bridges between HR and recruiters.


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