The behavioral interview may be the most effective way to bring talented, can-do people into your middle market company. This kind of interview is based on the concept that the way a candidate acted in the past is the single best indicator of future behavior. Behavioral interview questions ask a candidate to describe, in specific detail and by using concrete examples from real-life experience, how they've demonstrated the specific skills required for the job they'll be doing at your middle market company. Your goal as an interviewer is to surface behavioral patterns so you can evaluate whether the candidate is a good fit.

Conducting a Behavioral Interview

If, for example, you're hiring a sales manager, then you want a leader who can support your salespeople during good and bad times. Asking the candidate about a time they had to motivate an underperforming sales team can give you a better idea of how they overcame important challenges, and therefore how they might approach a similar situation at your company. Listen for a success story: that the candidate quickly identified the problem, came up with a plan to improve the situation (with the sales team's input), implemented that plan and showed positive results.

Here are the three simple steps you'll need to take in order to conduct an effective behavioral interview:

1. Identify the skills and experiences required for success. This goes far beyond just reading the job description. Start by speaking with people who have been successful in the role. What skills and traits benefited them most? After that, talk to the department head to learn what success looks like in this role and what characteristics are needed to achieve it. Collaborate internally to come up with a specific list of traits so everyone involved knows what kind of candidate would work out best.

2. Use that list to develop your behavioral interview questions. Ask the candidate how they've demonstrated each skill in prior jobs. If, for example, communicating with customers is an important part of the position's necessary skill set, ask the candidate to describe a time when they successfully managed an important customer with significant demands. Here are a few other common skill areas and some suggested behavioral-type questions:

  • Communication: "Can you tell me about a time you spoke with an angry customer or colleague? What was the problem and what did you do about it?"
  • Problem-solving: "Can you describe a time when you anticipated a problem and took action to prevent it?"
  • Taking initiative: "Tell me about a time you took initiative and did something you were not expected to do to help your team or company."
  • Leadership: "Please discuss a time when you needed to influence someone who didn't agree with you. How did you persuade them to see your point of view?"
  • Working under pressure: "Describe a point when you faced a difficult deadline and were juggling multiple priorities. What did you do to meet the deadline?"

3. Carefully evaluate the candidate's answers, looking for concrete details and a disciplined, professional approach to solving problems. After each question, candidates should describe a challenging situation, what actions they took to improve it and the successful end result. If they don't, you'll need to follow up with more questions. Keep in mind the acronym SAR when evaluating the candidate's answers:

  • What was the Situation (S) the candidate faced?
  • What Actions (A) did the candidate take?
  • What Result (R) came about because of the candidate's actions?

The Takeaway

A candidate's past performance in a similar situation, during which they used the same skills needed in the job they're applying for, is the best predictor of future success at your middle market company. By adopting the three-step approach to behavioral interviewing recommended above, you'll be better prepared to make great hires who can help your middle market company thrive.

How has your middle market company fared when conducting behavioral interviews? What things can you improve upon? Let us know in the comments below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.