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From the question-and-answer to job simulations, the range of interview techniques can make your head spin, say Gil...
From the question-and-answer to job simulations, the range of interview techniques can make your head spin, say Gill Lucas and Bob Edenborough

Consultant Mel Usher recently sent out a cri de coeur, asking for 'ideas on how to improve on the traditional interview' when recruiting senior staff (LGC, 2 July).

It is true that few councils take a highly systematic approach to their interview strategy, but there are several options available to identify the best candidates for senior posts.

As with any major investment, it is essential to be clear about what kind of person you want in the position. Do you need a change agent, a consolidator, a strategist, a 'people person'? Make sure your specification is clear and precise. Capture the sense of what is needed in the role, making use of explicit or vivid expressions to do so. The need for 'grace under pressure' was a telling and evocative requirement of a recent senior Greater London Authority post.

What do you want your new post-holder to achieve in their first nine months, or next two years? What are the absolute 'must be dones'? Distinguish these from the 'would be nices'.

Armed with this template, your next task is to consider the interview approaches available. There is a bewildering array of structured interviews: criteria-based, reference-based, behavioural description interviews, patterned behavioural interviews, behavioural event, situational interviews, approaches which integrate several of these, and many more.

It is tempting to make our own judgments in an untrammelled way, and go with gut instinct. Tempting, but potentially expensive. Reviews of interview practice almost invariably demonstrate the unreliable nature of a subjective approach to selection.

To avoid this temptation, panels should adopt a more rigid approach. Structured interviews, using largely predetermined questions, have been favoured for the past 60 years. One of Mr Usher's examples, 'reading out the same question to each candidate during the interview with no follow-up and scoring every answer against ideal ones', is the essence of methods to assess talent pioneered by Gallup Organisation consultants Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

The trick with these types of structured interviews is not to devise answers arbitrarily, but to find out what the best people in the job or role actually say. Such research is widely available for jobs in the commercial sector, and studies have demonstrated it can distinguish between top and average performers.

Where scope for this research is not possible - and this is largely the case for most senior local government posts - using a mix of other techniques tends to produce the best results.

Finding out how candidates have in the past addressed key elements of the role is important, and throw in probing questions to distinguish the candidate's contribution from that of others. The good interviewer leavens these with 'situational questions', posing realistic situations the candidate may not have experienced before, but which are likely to crop up in the new role. For example, ask about the implications of the Gershon report into public sector efficiency, and how they would address it.

This type of question helps to assess the candidate's capacity for thinking on their feet, as well as their understanding of the issue and sensitivity to staff member and stakeholder concerns.

Well-structured interviews based on a clear understanding of the skills, experiences and competencies required for the role will help you make the right decision. Other tools can supplement your knowledge and provide other pieces of the jigsaw - personality questionnaires and ability tests have been part of the diet here for many years. There are also job simulation exercises such as role-plays, specially designed

in-tray exercises and observed discussion (LGC, 24 January 2003).

By choosing wisely from this array of tools, there are methods that can be applied over a wide range of council service disciplines. These offer real scope for improving current methods and for finding the very best candidates.

Gill Lucas, head of public sector, Executive Search & Selection, and Bob Edenborough, director, management review & assessment, KPMG

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