Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My strange employer interview style

A Twitter conversation got me thinking about hiring staff. I joked that my main benchmark for potential staff was "put up with me" and I got told "you don't have many staff, then". 

(Oh. Sorry, Paul Wallbank, I just realised what your joke meant. Oops!)

Still: it's not in my current remit, but there was a decade when I did a lot of staff-hiring: journalists, working in three different publishers, all of them working under me.

And I am a bit difficult, really. I'll grant that my good qualities include loyalty and I'm very willing to share any information I have and support "my" people without reserve; but my bad qualities include a short temper, a loud voice even in a good mood, and I'm persnickety and demanding and opinionated. I'm not always easy to get on with at close quarters.

Nobody ever taught me how to hire staff. I had to work that one out by myself, and although my approach to interviews is probably unorthodox, it nearly always worked out well enough.

I had to know myself a little to hire staff, which meant working out the main parameters:

  1. Can this person write, or at least be taught to write? (Not so easy. Everyone thinks they can write and nearly nobody can).
  2. Is this person resilient enough to put up with me teaching them to write? (Very difficult, actually. Writing is personal. Everyone who thinks they can write hates correction, especially if they have a bit of university paper attesting to their ability to write.)
  3. Can this person take charge of an interview? (Strategy can be very personal: think of the spectrum between Andrew Ollie's killer eyebrow, John Doyle's smooth voice, and Kerry O'Brien's aggressive interruptions)
  4. Can this person cope with a weirdo like me as their boss? (Really, it's going to matter. “Seamless” or “frictionless” aren't in my character. I'll own my good points, but on a scale of one to ten, my character flaws are off the meter on the bit that says “definitely not good”).

The easy bits of the potential journalist's CV are … right there, in the CV. The hard bit is the person's agility, their responsiveness, their resilience, their adaptability. “Can this person survive a hostile situation and somehow come out with their skin intact and some kind of story?”

Which, in my personal interview style, boiled down to a very simple strategy. After the formalities and obligatory questions were over, I would say something like: “OK, you want this job. Interview me. Now. Any topic.”

The responses were always informative, and the results were sometimes unexpected.

Some people simply panicked. That's fine: I still panic in interviews, if I find myself teetering on a ledge. If you can recover, that's a point in your favour.

Some people were smooth – which only worked if they could also think of something to actually ask me as an interviewer.

Some of them reverted to a set-list of questions. They were watched closely: if they reacted to my answers and changed tack, that worked in their favour. If they stuck to a mental list of questions, no go.

Some became grim and determined. “This is scary and I'll get through it.” If they also had the good sense to respond to my answers, show a bit of mental agility, or even probe me to give proper answers to their questions, I was generally impressed with them.

Some even managed hostility. One young woman, whose CV wasn't promising, simply looked at me and said “You bastard.”

Me: “That's not a good start, but why am I a bastard?”

She: “Because I'm not a journalist. I want to be a journalist. But I don't know how to interview you.”

(She convinced me that she wanted to be a journalist and got the job. She went places and we run into each other from time to time and I always get a hug. She's no longer a journalist, but she can afford better clothes than I can, so I'll chalk down a win.)

Along the way I've hired a fairly broad range of personalities. What follows is the synopsis of a real conversation with my boss at the time, a publisher.

Jenny is wearing a plastic crab on her head today.”

I think that's her way of telling me she has a migraine.”

She's too strange. Get rid of her.”

Last week, she saved us a bucket of money, by discovering that a 3,000-word feature was plagiarised. Think about it.”

She can stay. The plastic crab goes.”

He won: the plastic crab was, next month, replaced by a plastic lobster. “Jenny” ended up specialising in money laundering, last time we met.

Apart from that, what can I say about my weirdo interview style?

There were nearly no dead ducks to emerge out of it. My alumni include people who went on to be a ministerial staffer, industry analysts, journalists, and others.

And some ended up very close friends. There is a teddy bear in this house, given to my then four-year-old son with great solemnity: “This was my bear when I was a girl. I'm going travelling now, and can't take her with me, so you take care of her.” And “Becky Bear” is still in the household sixteen years later.

Or there's one of the first journalists I interviewed, whose friendship will soon enter its third decade.

Nobody keeps the staff they hire as a boss. You get to make your judgements, teach what you can, form friendships if the world lets you, and set people loose.

And I really don't take any particular credit for what my alumni might have achieved after we parted. They impressed themselves on me because of their qualities: those qualities should have served them wherever they landed.

What I got were good journalists – because I promise if you can interview me, cold-call with no briefing, you're well on the way – and friends. Most of whom I treasure, anytime they give me the chance!

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