How to Hire – Part 4 – Skills Interview

Making a call on whether someone has the tools for the job.

Read How to Hire – Part 3 – Phone Screen

You’ve met a candidate who you think has the potential to be right for the role. Now you need to interview them.

The sole objective of this stage is to assess whether the candidate has the skills to do the job.

It’s not to go through their CV and discuss their experience, assess whether you’re going to get along or work out whether they’d be a good cultural fit.

Skills versus experience

While it’s true that skills are developed through experience, asking a candidate to recount their career history during an interview isn’t a good use of time.

I can get an understanding of their experience from their CV or LinkedIn profile. What I need to evaluate in person is if they can transfer the skills gained from that experience to the context of this role.


Before I take you through my approach to running a skills interview, let’s cover a few important “don’ts”.

1. Don’t wing it

Trying to wing something as important as a skills interview is a huge gamble. There’s a good chance you’ll come away from the interview unsure, or even make a bad hiring decision. You’ll be wasting company time and making a poor impression. A rigorous process, on the other hand, shows that you only hire talented people.

2. Don’t hire based on “gut”

I’m amazed at how many people still use this approach. No one could convince me hiring someone they “get a good feeling about” is appropriate, let alone smart.

You get “good feelings” from people who are similar to you, or who give off the right non-verbal signals, or who fit the mental image of the person you think would be right for the role. This is personal bias, and leaves you with a company lacking both in skills and diversity.

If you’re going to spend company money hiring a person that is needed to meet long-term business objectives, then please, assess them against a defined set of skills and not your feelings.

3. Don’t believe being prepared is too clinical

I often dissuade people from the “gut feeling” technique, only for them to object to preparing questions, taking notes and using a laptop. Won’t all that procedure ruin the candidate experience?


Sure, you’ll need to use body language, eye contact and intonation to put them at ease, but your candidate won’t be put off by organisation. They’ll be thinking, “shit, these guys know what they’re doing”, “everyone who works here must be really smart” and “I want to win this”.

Don’t chit-chat during interviews. Interview during interviews.

Jump to How to Hire – Part 8 – Candidate Experience for more advice on making the best possible impression, regardless of outcome.

4. Don’t think you can properly assess someone in 30 mins

You can’t. You need to set aside 60-90 mins.

Consider the following scenario:

  • You want to assess a candidate against five skills.
  • To assess a skill, you need to ask at least three questions – 15 questions in total.
  • If you’re holding a 30-minute interview, that leaves you two minutes to ask and receive a response to each question.

You need to allow much longer, or split the interview into multiple stages.

If it takes me a solid hour to choose a film on Netflix, it should take you at least that long to assess a potential hire.

5. Don’t tag-team

I’ve interviewed for senior positions where the process involved me meeting with four members of the senior team, each for 30 minutes. The other “don’ts” were rife. Each slot involved chit-chat, no questions, no sign they’d considered the skills needed for the role or how to assess them.

It was fine, given they were hiring me to fix all that. You can do better from the get-go.

Even if you follow every other step to skills interviews, taking a tag-team approach still isn’t a good idea.

Firstly, it’s not a good use of time. Each interviewer needs a few minutes to warm up, compared to just one warm-up at the beginning.

Secondly, the hiring manager should be assessing the candidate against all skills. It’s their job to make the hiring decision, and they should be using the interview to learn about the individual.

Finally, you can’t make proper observations. If I’m assessing a candidate against one skill, and they’re smashing it, and then on the next skill their body language and response style shifts drastically, I can tell that they are less comfortable in this area. If you tag-team, you don’t get this context.

6. Don’t forget you’re selling, but don’t pitch

People don’t like being sold to. They do like buying.

Don’t waste precious time pitching yourself, the company and the role – that should have been done on the phone screen. Instead, demonstrate how awesome everything is.

Greet them attentively, let them see your cool offices and diverse team on the way in, ask them smart and challenging questions, listen actively, probe them in an engaging way …

Get this right and you’ll have sold without selling.

Preparing for and running the Skills Interview

With the above “don’ts” in mind, here’s how to tackle skills interviews.

Create an Interview Toolkit

Interview Toolkits will transform your hiring process. I promise once you’re using them, you’ll feel very good about interviewing.

  • You’ll appear confident and charismatic.
  • You’ll be more engaged (because you won’t be stressing about what to ask next).
  • You’ll be able to objectively and thoroughly assess a candidate against the skills you need.
  • You’ll have a consistent process, allowing you to compare candidates easily.
  • The candidate will speak positively about you and the process.
  • You won’t struggle to make a decision or give candidate feedback.

Here’s a sample Skills Interview Toolkit template to give you an idea. List the skills you’ve outlined in the job description, then come up with a handful of questions that will enable you to assess someone against each skill.

You want one Toolkit per role. They’re simple to create, but the art is in the questions.

The questions

Designing the questions (along with asking them, probing the answers and assessing the results) is something of an art.

If you’re new to this, I’d strongly recommend bringing in someone like me to design a few Interview Toolkits and coach you through how to use them. It doesn’t just make you good at interviewing; it makes you good at any interaction.

You want to come up with questions that assess the skill, not ask for detail on a candidate’s experience.

Example 1 (for a Project Manager role)

Experience-based question (not so good):

Could you tell me about a project that required you to prepare a very complex project plan?

Skill-based question (good):

Thinking about the types of projects we run, can you list five things that would make project planning quite complex? Can you talk me through how you’d tackle one of them?

The difference between these two questions is that the former focuses on their experience, while the latter asks them to apply their skills to the role at hand. It demonstrates the skill.

Example 2 (for a VP Sales role)

Experience-based question (not so good):

Can you give me an example of how you’ve grown a company’s revenue?

Skill-based question (good):

If you started in this role, what structural changes will you make within the first year? Feel free to ask me a few questions before talking me through your answer.

The first question seems sensible, because growing revenue is ultimately what you want them to do. But not only is this answer easy to anticipate and rehearse, it hasn’t demonstrated any skills. It’s like asking someone if they have caught a fish before, compared to watching them set up their line, tie on a hook and talk through the pros and cons of various bait choices.

Growing revenue is a product of several skills – the second question allows you to break those up and assess the candidate against each. I’d expect them to ask about the current structure and metrics, future targets, budget and so on, in order to diagnose any problems and map out what changes they’d make.

I’d follow their initial answer up with probing questions (really good):

  • What assumptions have you made with this structure?
  • How much does this structure cost? What if I told you I couldn’t give you that much?
  • How is this different from the structure at the last company you worked at?
  • What would you expect each role to deliver throughout the course of that year?
  • What could affect this structure?
  • How might the structure look in three years?

Probing is how you uncover the depth of their skill. You also start to learn how the candidate responds to being challenged, and how adaptable they are.

Someone who has strong organisation design skills knows what questions to ask to formulate their designs, how to defend their opinions, what could affect their designs – and is comfortable having a practical discussion about their plans. They’ll have developed this skill through years of experience, but the question isn’t asking them to recall all of that.

A question like this might take 30 minutes to get through, but by the end I’ll thoroughly understand their grasp of the skills involved and be able to move on to the next.

As a rule of thumb, generic questions are bad at assessing skills. Asking someone what their 30/60/90-day plan would be falls under this heading. For the record, it’s also the world’s most unimaginative, boring and pointless question.

Record answers

In the Toolkit I record what the person says. I don’t record my opinion of the answer because it’s not professional, and because I may need to revisit and reassess their response later. At a meeting with a client, you’d make notes of what you’d discussed, not how you felt about it.

It takes practice to record answers while staying engaged in the conversation. If you struggle, bring a second person along to the interview to type.


Observe a candidate keenly and you’ll pick up on subtle cues that help in assessing them. Use the interview “warm-up” for this. I usually begin by telling them about something embarrassing I just did because while I’m mocking myself, the candidate is relaxing (which is a nice thing to let them do) and I get to see what they look like when they’re relaxed.

Then I can observe how their body language changes when they’re feeling a bit stressed, if it changes at all. Their body language itself isn’t part of my assessment, but it gives me cues that they might be finding that question hard.

For example, if I ask something and the candidate starts playing with their hair (which they weren’t doing before), it suggests they’re uncomfortable with that question. I would then ask follow-up questions that help me understand the extent of that discomfort – maybe the skill we’re exploring is a newly developed one, maybe they’re recalling a challenging moment in their career, maybe they’re completely winging it … or maybe it’s just that their hair is particularly soft that day. Whatever the case, I like to unpick it (their discomfort, not their hair).

It’s also nice to observe things like “oh, they’ve run out of water”.

To task or not to task

Some hiring managers get fixated on a task. You don’t have to have a task.

For roles with very technical skills, such as developers, editors or designers, setting a task makes sense. It may make more sense than asking questions.

Put a question to yourself first: how do I assess this skill? The answer to that may be that the candidate needs to tackle some scenarios, create a piece of code, solve a mathematical equation, deliver a pitch, etc. Your methods can vary, so long as they are adequately assessing the skill.

Wrapping up

Leave 10 minutes for them to ask questions, and record what questions they ask. By this stage, they should have prepared a list of questions.

Be very clear on next steps – when you will get back to them and what the following stage will be if they are successful.

Ensure walking them out is as positive an experience as greeting them.

Giving feedback

Some candidates will ask for feedback at the end of the interview, which elicits a very British (and awkward) response in plenty of hiring managers.

If you’re comfortable giving honest feedback at the time, go ahead. But if you’re not, then simply answer the question you want to answer e.g. “I really enjoyed this interview and learning how you would approach things. I’m going to reflect on your responses and get back to you by XX.”

Eventually you will need to give feedback though. They’ve invested time in you and in return they should be told how their skills did or didn’t match what you needed.

I give feedback via email because I find that many people prefer to digest bad news in this way. Depending on time, I may also offer a follow-up call.

Most recruiters swear by giving feedback verbally, and avoid putting anything in writing because of potential legal action. I don’t worry about that – I’m confident that my process is transparent, objective and thorough.


Designing and running a skills interview is a skill in and of itself. It requires an understanding of psychology, the ability to manage a complex verbal dialogue, and deep knowledge of various skills. Once mastered, it not only results in better hires and a better candidate experience, it also makes for better management and leadership.

Invest time in designing your Interview Toolkit to ensure you’re running a consistent, objective, structured and effective process.

Read on to Part 5 – Cultural Interview

All parts:

Introduction, Part 1 – Job Description, Part 2 – Agent Briefing, Part 3 – Phone Screen, Part 4 – Skills Interview, Part 5 – Cultural Interview, Part 6 – Offer, Part 7 – References, Part 8 – Candidate Experience.

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