How To Interview Candidates That Will Own Their Career Development

Eileen AzzaraCareer development, Self-Owned Development, Taking Action

interview career development
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If you’ve ever hired an employee, whether you’re a recruiter or a hiring manager, you’ve probably experienced the challenge of finding qualified candidates who are willing to take ownership of their career development. You probably have not thought of the issue in this way, or even realized that you have this problem.

You probably thought about it more generally. Perhaps you said something like, “I wish I could find a candidate that has more ambition” or “drive.” Maybe you said, “I’ll know it when I see it,” but never found it. After achieving only moderate success, you may have thought you were asking for too much and concluded you were hunting the elusive purple squirrel.  It’s tough to find that rock star person that not only has the perfect blend of job-related skills, but a personal interest in driving and owning his or her career development.

It’s now well accepted that employees need to own their career development. And while a new employee will initially need some guidance learning the ropes, it’s reasonable for an organization to expect new hires to start demonstrating this ownership once settled into their new roles.

But how does one identify candidates that will own their career development in an interview?

If you’re doing interviews the right way, you’re using a structured approach. You identify questions linked to specific skills and competencies, use pre-defined scoring criteria, and you probe appropriately and deeply to collect insightful data about your candidates. You may be very skilled at performing these types of interviews to assess technical skill in your candidates, and you probably take this approach to assess competency-based behavior (leadership, decision-making, etc.) as well.

Many companies include the concept of self-development or continuous learning in their core competency model. Sometimes they include questions designed to assess that competency in interviews. Questions such as “What do you do stay current with your career development?” or “What conferences did you attend this year?” are common examples. But these questions are fairly general, so without extensive probing they will only yield broad, non-specific information. Moreover, the scoring criteria (aka behavioral anchors) associated with these types of questions are typically broad as well. A high scoring response looks something like “consistently and proactively takes independent action to seek continuous learning opportunities”, while a medium level answer is described as “sometimes takes action to seek continuous learning opportunities.”  Wha-whaaat???? Does that help you distinguish between a candidate who is highly focused on owning his/her career development and one who is willing to own it, but passively? No.

To assess candidates for their willingness to own their career development in an interview, you need to apply the same level of rigor as you do for the technical requirements. You need customized questions designed to elicit specific behaviors and actions the candidate has taken and is taking regarding his/her career development. A clear picture of what that behavior looks like at the strong level and what it looks like at the moderate level is also required.

Interview Questions to Identify Candidates Willing to Own Their Career Development

Here are some examples of questions and scoring criteria you could apply to your next interview.  Use them as a guideline to build your own a pool of questions and scoring criteria. You will likely need to expand or modify some key points to fit your company’s philosophy. You should also be sure to include frame-of-reference training for all interviewers to minimize rater error (i.e., make sure everyone is on the same page!). Most importantly, you should only be asking these questions if your company supports and drives a culture of self-owned development.

1. Tell me about a specific competency or skill you recently identified as an area to target for your own improvement. What did you do to develop it?

  • Strong answer: Identifies a specific competency or skill that s/he worked on for improvement (e.g., “I determined I needed to give my direct reports more and better feedback because I was not providing it often enough and when I was, it was vague and they didn’t know what to do with it.”). Created and implemented a plan to improve in that area. Cites demonstrated improvement in that area via measured results (e.g., better feedback from direct reports in a 180 survey, etc.).
  • Moderate answer: Identifies a general competency or skill that s/he worked on for improvement (e.g., “I’ve been working on my leadership skills”). Created a plan but has fallen behind schedule, makes statements to indicate plan is not a priority.
  • Low answer: States that s/he is strong in everything, talks only about what s/he does well and demonstrates minimal awareness of personal development areas. Or, acknowledges development areas but did not create a plan to address.

2. When is the last time you solicited feedback from a client or colleague? What was the feedback and what did you do with that information?

  • Strong answer: Cites an example of proactive solicitation of feedback within the past several months. Indicates this is something s/he does on a regular basis. Takes action on the feedback to improve personal skill or product/service delivery.
  • Moderate answer: Cites an example of soliciting feedback more than several months ago. Feedback solicitation may have been required as part of broader organizational effort (e.g., performance management, customer satisfaction survey, etc.). Or solicits feedback regularly but takes no action on it.
  • Low answer: Cites no example or a poor example of soliciting feedback. Demonstrates lack of familiarity or appreciation with the concept of getting feedback from others. (“I tend to focus on my own observations rather than bothering others with requests for feedback.”)

3. What skills or competencies are you currently working on improving? What goals have you set and how are you tracking your progress?

  • Strong answer: Indicates s/he has a specific goal and detailed plan with specific actions linked to improve in a particular area. The plan is documented either on paper or in a technology product. The plan is on track in terms of milestones or if not on track, s/he has assessed why and made adjustments accordingly.
  • Moderate answer: Indicates a general plan or hope to improve in a particular area but nothing specific. (I’m working on improving my communication skills.) Plan is not documented or may be documented in a general format (e.g., documented the goal to improve communication skills but no actions for how that will be done.)
  • Low answer: Indicates no current plan for improvement.

4. What do you do to make time for career development activities?

  • Strong answer: Has established some sort of regular check in for assessing progress and making adjustments as needed. (“It’s a recurring 30-minute block on my calendar every Wednesday at 9am.”)
  • Moderate answer: Has established deadlines for key deliverables but tends to lose sight of them (“I give myself deadlines and put them on my calendar, but unfortunately sometimes work or life takes over and I’ve had to place my development on the back burner.”)
  • Low answer: Indicates s/he wants to make time for career development activities but struggles to do so. (“This is a challenge for me. I really want to make time for my development but it has been a challenge to do so. One of my goals is to make more time to focus on my development in the future.”) Translation: they’re not making time for it.

Have you interviewed candidates to identify their willingness to own their career development? What has worked well and what has been a challenge? Share in the comments!

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