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Boxing is a sport that is as much about your mental game as it is your physical game. If yoy can get into your opponent’s head, understand the way they think (which translates to the way they fight) then you can gain an edge in the fight because you’ll know exactly what your opponent’s next move is before they even think of it.
Oddly, interviewing is kind of like that. If you can get into the interviewers head and understand not only the questions they’ll ask but why they’re asking, you’ll have a much better shot of proving your worth to the hiring manager.
This blog post is just about that. Getting into your interviewer’s head by understanding how interviewers think (or should think) about hiring their next superstar employee (hopefully you).
If you’re a hiring manager, this article has some great tips on how to figure out whether a candidate is a good fit by asking some very pointed questions.
If you’re not a hiring manager, you’ll still get benefit by reverse engineering what some of the best interviewers ask and what kinds of answers they’re looking for.
Ready? Let’s begin…
In my experience from interviewing and evaluating candidates with Excel talent I’ve found that most people overestimate their Excel skills, sometimes to an extreme.
I’ve been told by many candidates that they are true masters of their craft, only to be left stunned at how quickly they start looking for the exit once I ask specific questions about their master SUMIFS and VLOOKUP skills!
It’s not always the candidate’s intent to deceive the interviewer though. Sometimes people just aren’t aware of the true power that Excel has to offer and how their skills relate in the grand scheme of things. Afterall, Excel proficiency is relative, isn’t it?
As a hiring manager, my job is first to determine how the candidate views their own skills. I’ll start by asking the famous 1 – 10 question (if you were to rate your own Excel skills, what rating would you give yourself from 1 – 10?).
The answer to this question tells me, right off the bat, how likely I’ll actually end up hiring the candidate (and exactly how well they understand their own proficiency).
Let me explain…
Most people are not even close to being in the upper quadrant of the scale (7 – 10), yet most people who aren’t Excel proficient consistently rate themselves in the upper range.
Like I said earlier, Excel skills are relative to each person’s own understanding of the application’s potential (among other factors). If a candidate rates themselves a six or below it tells me that the they are aware, can properly assess their skills and, have likely taken the initiative to improve their Excel skills further but just haven’t reached their potential yet.
I am very interested in these kinds of candidates because they usually prove to be resourceful, which is an attribute that, in general, can determine whether someone advances or stalls in their careers. They also tend to seek growth and understanding, which is always a plus.
Someone who rates themselves in the upper quadrant is likely to be a poor candidate because they lack the awareness and humility to know where they stand and is less likely to possess the attributes I mentioned earlier.
It may seem counterintuitive (or maybe not) but in my experience those that actually possess better Excel skills usually rate themselves lower than those who lack the skills and, the last time the heard the word Pivot was on Friends…
Here’s the thing; even if I’m wrong about better candidates generally ranking their Excel skills lower than their peers, I don’t mind hiring someone who doesn’t know as much as long as they are willing to learn and can be resourceful (there’s that word again) enough to figure things out on their own.
Let me repeat: …be resourceful enough to figure things out on their own!
Let that marinate for a second…
Just knowing sometimes isn’t enough. Demonstrating an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge can sometimes be much more important.
Next, I’ll ask specific questions to test the candidate’s knowledge of basic to intermediate Excel functions.
What is the difference between a True and False Statement in a VLOOKUP?
Why is it a bad idea to embed TODAY() in a sheet that requires static dates?
This question gives me an idea of where I would rate their skills in the spectrum vs. where they rated themselves.
NOTE: None of these questions, in a vacuum, would properly assess a candidate’s skills. I am trying to ask probing questions that, hopefully, provide me the pieces I need to fill in a general picture.
Knowing a bunch of functions and having the drive to learn more isn’t enough. A good Excel practitioner (that should be a job title) should also be able to use Excel to solve practical problems and communicate those problems and it’s solution to others effectively.
So my next question tests the candidate for this:
Tell me about an Excel tool you built from scratch that you’re most proud of?
I’m not as concerned with the tool they built as I am with their ability to explain the problem, how they were able to build their vision, which functions or techniques they used, and how the solution made an impact.
How Hiring Managers Evaluate Excel Talent
Excel skills are relative to the job function and the candidate’s peers, so their skills are tough to evaluate in a vacuum. A candidate may legitimately feel their skills are adequate, kind of like that one aunt who is convinced that their homemade cranberry sauce is the best until…
Good hiring managers know this, and therefore adjust in order to compensate for the likely overconfidence by measuring the candidate’s skills against the job function they’re hoping to fill.
This is why it’s absolutely imperative you are crystal clear on what kinds of Excel skills you’re looking for and how it will impact the job and the organization. You would ask different questions to someone who just needs to perform data entry and a few functions versus someone who will be preparing financial presentations and analysis.
I like to make lists of attributes and specific techniques I need an ideal candidate to possess before I hire them, then try to build questions around those attributes and skills to uncover whether someone is truly knowledgeable or just BS-ing me. Being clear of the job the candidate will likely perform will lessen the chances someone you hire will waste your time and resources.
Here are a few questions hiring managers should ask themselves about a candidate to help guide the search:
Can the candidate evaluate a problem or question and properly visualize a path to solving it in their mind?
Sometimes I’ll ask a question that helps me peek into how the candidate’s mind works towards finding solutions.
How much dog food is consumed in America every year?
How many haircuts are given in American every year?
[Excluding haircuts administered by cats]
Usually the candidate won’t expect a question like this, so it will throw them off balance (unless they are a hair aficionado and actually memorized the stat). I don’t care at all whether the candidate can even give me the right answer, I am interested in knowing how they can breakdown a question into smaller parts, estimate possible solutions and work their way up to the final answer.
There are 300 Million people in the US. If 20% of them are dog owners, and on average each dog consumes 20 pounds of food per month. This must mean that about 14 Billion pounds of dog food is consumed per year.
I have no idea if this is accurate (probably not), but this is the kind of analytical thinking I am looking for in a candidate. If they just shrug their shoulders or laugh nervously while they spit out random dog facts, they’re probably not very analytical and likely not the candidate I’m looking for.
Here are some other things to consider:
Can a candidate take raw data and turn it into meaningful analysis?
Can the candidate evaluate an analysis and draw meaningful conclusions?
Can a candidate take technical data and analysis and summarize it in an organized, visual manner?
Can the candidate communicate those results effectively, especially to an audience that isn’t numbers savvy or very technical?
I like to send potential candidates a CSV file with mock sales data and ask them to generate a sales and commissions KPI report for a sales executive. I’ll send them the sales compensation plan and throw a few curveballs in there like incomplete data to see if they notice.
The candidate is expected to work on the file, put together a few reports that highlight specific metrics, and prepare an email that describes the report, how to use it and summarizes key highlights on the analysis. From this one exercise I can find out a lot about a candidate’s raw Excel skills as well as whether they can use those skills in appropriate ways.
There are many more ways to test and evaluate talent to avoid future disappointments, resources, frustrations, and wasting time. No matter what method you use, always start by asking yourself “What kinds of attributes does an ideal employee possess”. Build a profile and find ways to test those attributes.
What do you think is the best way to test candidates? What crazy questions have you gotten at job interviews? Let me know on Facebook!