The 3 Things Hiring Managers Really Care About

interviewing Jan 05, 2021
Manager Interviewing Candidate

At the end of the day, there are really only a few things that matter to a hiring manager.  

As someone who has been involved in the hiring process for well over a thousand employees, I always get a good chuckle when I read articles or books aimed at teaching candidates how to ace an interview.  While the intent is good (and sometimes the advice is, too), it’s difficult to prepare for some of the most important questions, because they are never asked.

Read on to see a management veteran’s perspective on what hiring managers really want to know.

The only 3 things that matter

The list is short and sweet:

  1. Can you do the job?
  2. Do you want to do the job?
  3. Are you a good cultural fit?

Oh, is that all?  

These questions are just common sense, right?  Perhaps, but this simple list is deceptively complex and nuanced.  

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why these three questions (and the answers they are trying to uncover) aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

The elephant in the room

The problem is that although the above list contains the real questions, they are rarely (if ever) asked.  The questions you hear as a candidate are rarely this direct.  Instead, the interviewer tries to ascertain the answers by asking a series of smaller questions instead.

Interviews are essentially a game that none of the players want to play, but all parties desperately need to win.  The stakes are incredibly high for both the candidate and the manager.

They are also adversarial by their very nature. The interviewer wants to know the “real” answer, and remains firmly convinced that the candidate will stretch the truth to their advantage.  The candidate has rehearsed responses and makes every effort to appear as attractive, competent, and desirable as possible.

As a candidate, you will have tremendous advantage if you can keep these three unasked questions in mind. Attempt to answer the question behind the question with each response.  Let’s take a look at each of the three things hiring managers care about in more detail.

Can you do the job?

This is what most candidates (and many inexperienced interviewers) see as the most important of the three questions.  A novice manager will try to determine if you are capable of doing the job immediately so that you can hit the ground running. They want the shortest possible learning curve.  A seasoned leader will likely try to figure out how well you will be able to grow in the job and execute the responsibilities going forward. In other words, how productive and valuable will you be after the learning curve.  

This is also the question where your résumé provides the most support, so make sure it’s up to the task.  It provides the backdrop for your experience, and the interviewer has likely already reviewed it.  To use an example from volleyball, your resume is the “setter”, and it’s your job to spike the answer to this question over the net.

Make sure that your answers to this unspoken question are good, because without checking the “Can you do the job” box, none of your other answers count.

Do you want to do the job?

Your interest and engagement in the role and the work itself is extremely important.  Every hiring manager has made the mistake of hiring someone extremely capable, only to lose them six months later. That’s what happens when the candidate doesn’t really want to do the work, they just need a paycheck. 

Onboarding and training is a huge investment in time, dollars, and productivity. The company wants to make sure you’re going to stick around for a while.

Your level of desire to do the job also will have an effect on others.  Customers, other employees, and management are all impacted indirectly by your job satisfaction.  Even the most naturally happy person doesn’t deliver at 100% if they don’t like what they do. A passion for the work will eventually transform a mediocre employee into a star, and a star into a legend.

Engaged employees also produce more.  Discretionary effort – your willingness to go above and beyond what is required – only comes from people that are connected to what they are doing.  It is a productivity multiplier that experienced managers understand and want to harness in anyone that joins their team.

Are you a good cultural fit?

This is the most important question, and it is the most likely to be glossed over in an interview.  The morale graveyard is littered with the bones of great teams who were eaten alive by a single toxic employee.

During the interview process, what people want to know is:

  • Will I like this person?
  • Will they adapt to my leadership style?
  • Can I trust them?
  • Will the rest of the team accept them?
  • Will they be willing to work with the rest of the team?

You’ll notice some of these questions are about you, but some are not.  In fact, you have very little control over what the team thinks of you or whether or not your manager genuinely likes you.

This third question only matters if a seasoned manager feels comfortable with the answers to the first two. Once they believe you have the ability and desire to the job, this becomes the only question that matters.

The power of “like”

As a hiring manager, I would often assemble interview teams to debrief on their assessment of a group of finalists for a role.  Inevitably, job seekers fell into two categories: “and” and “but”.

The Power of Like

If I brought up a candidate’s name and the panel member’s response began with “I really like her”, then I knew it would be an “and” candidate.  They start with a positive trait, then string together a list of other reasons they are a good hire connected by a number of “and” statements.

“I really like her.  She has great experience and seemed really energetic.  She knows the industry, and I think she’ll be very easy to work with.”

However, if I brought up a candidate and the response began with “I think he could do the job” or “He seems really motivated”, then I knew it was going to be a “but” candidate.  They would start with one of the answers they got right, but will eventually transition to reasons why the candidate may not be a good fit.

“I think he could do the job, but in every example he provided, he took all the credit.  I worry that he may not be a good fit.”

While you don’t have complete control over your interviewer’s reaction, there are a few things you can do to build rapport and improve the odds of being an and candidate.

  • Smile – Kinesics (study of body language) shows that your happiness and positive feelings are contagious.
  • Express interest – Ask the interviewer follow-up questions to statements they make, and lean forward slightly in your chair.
  • Ask them about themselves – Most people love to share their story. Allowing them to do so will build a subconscious connection to you in their mind.
  • Be sincere – Resist the urge to be overly nice, disgustingly polite, or over the top in any way. Just be your best self.

Everyone has the same objective in an interview

At the end of the day, you and the interviewer should want the same thing: a placement that takes advantage of your interests and skills in a positive environment where everyone does their best work.  Think about that as you answer questions and as you ask your own.

If you can weave in information that will be helpful to the interviewer as they try to figure out the big 3 questions, then they can relax and focus on areas of interest instead of “gotcha” questions.  This means that you are more likely to build rapport, which just helps the third question.

It is also important that you ask good questions as the candidate.  Frame your questions to strategically help address all three of the manager’s concerns.  If they know you’re concerned about whether you can do the job, it’s something you will enjoy, and it will be a good fit, then they are likely to view the conversation as collaborative instead of adversarial.

Ace your next interview

If you keep in mind these things that hiring managers care about during the interview process, it can transfer much of the power from the interviewer to you.  Sometimes the hiring manager may not even be aware that these are their three largest concerns, but they are.

Use this knowledge to control the conversation and achieve a great outcome the next time you sit down with a potential boss!

Good luck!