Carnelian Search Carnelian Search

“Let’s dance”: a case for non-standardised interviews

Jonathan, one of the Consultants at Carnelian makes a case for non-standarised interviews. While the the aim may be noble: eliminating bias and ensuring fair comparison, he argues the view that total standardisation of questions is the answer to these challenges is misguided. Particularly when the job in question is a position of leadership.

“Let’s dance”: a case for non-standardised interviews

You do not have to look far to find recruiters or HR professionals insisting that standardised interview frameworks be employed like sledgehammers across a series of interviews with a varied candidate pool. The received wisdom dictates that precisely the same questions ought to be asked of everyone, with few or no accommodations made for an individual’s personal style, age, sex or background.

There is a noble aim here: eliminating bias and ensuring fair comparison. However, the view that total standardisation of questions is the answer to these challenges is, to my mind, misguided. Particularly when the job in question is a position of leadership.

Uncompromising competency frameworks littered with jobspeak assume that potential is immediately obvious, rather than something that needs to be unearthed in the context of relational discussion. While aiming to level the field they in fact promote candidates who have learned to speak a certain language that lazy interviewers often want to hear and offer no margin for error on the candidate’s part. It’s far harder – and more effective – to plan personalised sets of questions which enhance comparison by factoring in individual difference across the field. In so doing, candidates who are perhaps less of an obvious fit or don’t precisely match preconceived expectations are allowed to flourish in ways that challenge our own thinking on what effective leaderships looks and sounds like.

“But what does an effective non-standardised interview look like?” I hear you ask. “And how do I plan one?”

Here are some principles to bear in mind:

Standardise the categories

Be clear on the qualities and skills you are seeking in candidates and distil these into clear categories. We usually limit ourselves to four or five. Often these include areas such as strategy development, major donor fundraising, collaborative leadership, governance. Use this as the basis for candidate assessment and comparison.

Study the CV

As an interview panel, familiarise yourselves with the candidate’s career and other details. Think about any points of interest, gaps or idiosyncrasies that you can spot. Dignify the candidates’ personal stories by determining to pursue these deliberately.

Personalise the questions, and listen up!

Beginning with the categories you have settled upon, devise a range of questions which could be used to investigate a candidate’s strengths across different areas. Be ready not to use them all, and don’t be afraid of silence in response!

At interview, pay careful attention to candidates and their answers, and respond to them as individuals. If you sense that a candidate is dissatisfied with their own answer, or hasn’t communicated as clearly as they could have, offer them a chance to do so by asking a further question. If a particular line of questioning opens up an unexpectedly interesting side to a candidates’ potential, pursue it, and allow your own thinking to be stretched. Notice both the substance and the style of a candidate’s answers as you ask them. Operate on the assumption that there might be untapped potential that you haven’t yet seen.

Don’t go it alone

Wherever you can, interview in pairs or a group. People notice different things, and contrasting views and instincts sharpen our thinking and comparison. This guards against individual error and undue bias. Do all of this with reference to the categories you began with.


Viewed through this lens interviews are less a form of combat or interrogation than they are a dance. While nonetheless challenging, interviewers partner collaboratively with candidates and offer them different opportunities to shine. That is not to say that interviews can’t be uncomfortable – often they expose candidates who talk the talk, but simply don’t know how to dance!


This piece was written by Jonathan, one of the consultants on our team at Carnelian.

Other posts by Jonathan include:

Leadership Shouldn’t Fit Like a Glove

Tides of Change: Recruiting in Transition Period

Gentleness in Leadership: A Non-Negotiable

Interviews: Getting Them Right (Part2)

Interviews: Getting Them Right (Part 1)

Reflections on the Leadership of HM Queen Elizabeth II

Subscribe to the mailing list

We sent out a newsletter each quarter packed with insights, interviews and advice, designed to help you and your senior colleagues lead well and keep learning.