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How to Conduct Your First Interview with a Candidate (a Step-by-Step Guide)

I once interviewed for a job working for a small recruiting firm. After some initial small talk, the man interviewing me (one of the firm’s co-founders) laid out a crisp, concise agenda for our meeting.

He was clearly very well-prepared for our conversation. Years later, I still remember being extremely impressed with his approach, since it was so different than my prior interviews with other companies. Unlike the man interviewing me that day, most hiring managers improvise their interview process, and that is a huge mistake.

Top candidates are evaluating you and your company, too. A random or poorly designed interview process will turn top candidates off. On the other hand, a methodical, well-structured interview process will impress top candidates and make them more interested in your opportunity.

In this article, you will learn a step-by-step process that you can follow for your first interview with a candidate (after your search firm or internal recruiting team has done an initial screen for you).

Pre-Interview Prep

Hiring managers are usually turned off if a candidate shows up unprepared for an interview. However, many hiring managers make a similar mistake! They fail to do enough of their own preparation before an interview with a candidate.

Before you interview someone, invest at least 15-20 minutes to prepare for the conversation. Review the candidate’s resume, LinkedIn profile, and any other notes from your search firm or internal recruiting team. Determine the questions that you want to ask the candidate. In addition, think about how you will answer potential questions that the candidate is likely to ask you.

7 Steps for a Rock-Solid First Interview

Here is a proven, step-by-step outline for conducting an interview:

Step 1: Break the ice.

At the start of any interview, it’s important to build some rapport with the candidate and put him or her at ease. Take a few minutes for small-talk before you get down to business. If possible, comment on something interesting about the person’s background, such as a personal interest or achievement that is noted in their resume. If nothing else, you could talk about a recent or upcoming event. Just keep it light and positive.

Step 2: Set the agenda.

After you have broken the ice and built some rapport, take 1-2 minutes to lay out an agenda for the interview. Provide the candidate with an outline of what you’d like to cover in this conversation. This simple action sends a strong message that you are well-prepared and that you are taking the process seriously. Skipping this important step is a big mistake.

Step 3: Ask about the candidate’s mindset.

There are a couple of reasons why it’s important to discuss the candidate’s mindset early on. First, you want to get a sense of how interested someone is in the position. Does he appear to be all-in, or does he still need some convincing? The latter is more likely.

Secondly, the candidate might reveal some information that will help you tailor your pitch. Knowing what the candidate values can help you convince him why your opportunity is a great fit. Or, it might help you both realize early on that the role isn’t a match.

Say something like the following: “Before we get started, tell me a little more about where your head is at. I’m sure you still have a number of questions about our organization and this position. What piqued your interest to want to learn more about this opportunity though?”

If it makes sense for your business, you could also follow-up that question by asking about the candidate’s prior experience using your company’s products(s) and service(s). For example, imagine that Peloton was interviewing someone for a leadership role with their company. It would be smart (and fair) to ask potential candidates about their experience using Peloton’s bike, app, and so on.

Step 4: Discuss the vision for your company and for the position.

After the candidate has talked about their mindset, you should talk about the vision for your company and for this role in particular. Address the candidate’s top concerns/questions and clearly articulate what is unique and compelling about your company and this position.

By asking about the candidate’s mindset first, you should have a decent understanding of how much selling you need to do and what to emphasize. Here are some topics that you might want to address:

  • What is your company’s mission, and how does your company add value to the world?
  • Why is now a great time to join your company?
  • What is the long-term vision for your organization?
  • What makes your company a great place to work, and why should a top candidate want to work for your company over one of your competitors?
  • Why is this role compelling and unique?

Without selling too hard, you want to paint a clear and exciting picture for why a top candidate should be excited about your joining company now in the role that is being discussed. Encourage the candidate to jump in or ask some questions along the way, so that this doesn’t just like feel like one long sales pitch.

Step 5: Discuss the expectations for the role.

Candidates want to know what they would be stepping into and how their performance would be measured in a specific role. Will they need to turn around an under-performing team? Will they need to drive a certain amount of growth? Will they be expected to launch a new product or service offering?

Explain the mandate and primary goals for the role. Here are some questions that you might want to address:

  • Why is this position available now, and why is the company not filling the role internally?
  • How is the organization structured, and how will this position fit into the organizational structure?
  • What will this person inherit and be expected to do?
  • What would this role need to accomplish in the next 1-2 years in order to be considered a success?
  • What types of people typically do best at your company, and what type of person are you looking for in this role?

Very few interviewers proactively address these topics. Imagine how much you could impress a top candidate by providing clear, compelling answers to these important questions.

Step 6: Discuss the candidate’s experience.

After talking about the candidate’s mindset, the vision for your company and role, and the expectations for the role, you will have built a very solid foundation. Then, use your remaining time to discuss the candidate’s background and relevant/recent experience. You can condense or extend this part of the interview, based on available time and how the interview is going. If necessary, you can also do a deeper dive of their career history in a follow-up interview.

Step 7: Discuss next steps.

Wrap-up the interview by discussing your timeline and next steps. If you are certain that you want to advance the candidate to the next step in your process, be specific about timing and what happens next. On the other hand, if you aren’t sure yet if you want to advance someone, keep the follow-up open-ended. Mention that you enjoyed meeting the candidate and that you will be following up after having several conversations with other candidates as well.

Summary and Final Thoughts

The process outlined above is not the only process that you could follow for an interview. You can certainly add, remove, or adjust some of the steps noted above. The main point is to have some sort of clear, well-designed process.

Top candidates are evaluating you and your company, too. If your interview process lacks structure or feels random, you are much less likely to make a positive impression on a top candidate. Be methodical about your process, and you will attract better people and fill open positions faster.

P.S. Looking for more help with your company’s executive recruiting efforts?

Download my free eBook below, or contact me directly to schedule a call.

About the author: As the Founder of Stronger Talent, Pete Leibman recruits exceptional leaders for innovative sports, fitness, and wellness companies. Throughout his career, Pete has helped clients recruit exceptional leaders at the Board, C-Suite, Senior Vice President, Vice President, General Manager, Managing Director, and Director levels. Pete’s work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and, and he is the author of two books and over 250 articles on career management, peak performance, and executive recruiting.

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