“Unpacking A Mess”: Dealing With Long, Complex Candidate Stories


If you’ve done even a modest amount of interviewing, you’ve certainly heard your share of long-winded (and sometimes aimless) stories about big, complex projects or engagements.

You ask a simple question about a key highlight in their last role, and before you know it, you’re 15 minutes into a story with seemingly no way to “get to the point.”

There are certain kinds of candidates where this happens most frequently:

> Consultants or project managers who lead massive projects with lots of steps and stakeholders.

> Enterprise salespeople, who face long, complex sales cycles (and may only sell a few deals a year).

> Technical leaders overseeing a small number of large-scale product development efforts.

> CEOs or other leaders who have led complex organizational turnarounds.

In these situations, it is essential to be an ACTIVE interviewer, GUIDING the candidate to the most important content. 

It is also critical to get comfortable COMPLETELY SKIPPING unimportant details—i.e., elements that don’t involve the candidate’s own skills, performance and competencies.

Here are some specific techniques to get the essence of these stories without burning precious time:

(1) If you are hearing a lot about other people, focus the candidate on THEIR OWN contribution to the effort: “Sounds like there were a lot of people involved here. What was the biggest mark YOU made on this effort?” 

(2) If the candidate is talking about a wide variety of problems, challenges or levers they pulled, cut to the one that mattered most: “What was the single hardest thing about making this [deal/project/turnaround] happen?” 

(3) If the candidate is walking you through a long series of chronological steps, amp up your enthusiasm—your I-just-can’t-help-myself energy—and ask: “What was the end result?!?!” Get the conclusion FIRST, and then decide what details (if any) make sense to pick up.

(4) If the candidate seems mired in tactics, ask them to put on the hat of a very senior-level stakeholder. “If I asked the CTO for your biggest impact on that product launch, what would she tell me?” This approach forces the person to give the 50K foot view.

There are rare occasions when you may want to spend 5+ minutes on a single story. But the vast majority of the time, you hit diminishing returns well before that point—i.e., the value of the NEXT story outweighs depth in the current one. 

Time management (and candidate rapport) are essential skills to build. If you’d like to build this (and many other) data-gathering skills, try The Interviewer bundle on Talgo On Demand!

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