How Employers Choose Finalists for Interviews, with Agnes Zach

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 288:

How Employers Choose Finalists for Interviews, with Agnes Zach

Airdate: March 24, 2021

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by Top Resume. Top Resume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster.

Get a free review of your resume today. Go to macslist.org/topresume.

From the outside, the interview selection process can look like a black box.

But today’s guest says recruiters use common steps to screen applicants.

And if you understand how the process works, you can greatly increase your odds of meeting a hiring manager.

Agnes Zach is here to talk about how employers choose finalists for job interviews and what you can do to make it to the final round.

She’s the CEO at Nonprofit Professionals Now. Her organization offers executive search, temporary staffing, and talent evaluation services.

Agnes joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Agnes, let’s jump right into it. We’re talking this week about how candidates can get chosen as finalists; let’s start by talking about how you and other recruiters screen applicants.

What’s the first hurdle that you need to get past as the candidate, Agnes, after you send in your application?

Agnes Zach:

Yeah, it’s a really good question, Mac, and I feel a lot of empathy for the applicants because it does seem like a black hole. You send in all of your information and all of a sudden there’s just silence on the other end and you don’t know what’s going on.

What we’re really trying to do is be the bridge between the client and the final candidate. And so a client has come to us and said, “We need a person that can do X.” And as the search consultant, we’re asking them questions about, what does that mean? How do you manage? What does success look like? How will this person grow in this position? Who else will be influential in making decisions and working with this individual?

We’re trying to get a 360° view of what this particular position will look like and how a person will be successful when they step into that role.

Mac Prichard:

How does that information help you, Agnes, when that application lands on your desk?

Agnes Zach:

Well, we immediately look at the resume, and the cover letter, and the screening questions, and we compare the content with what we have learned about the position. In our instances, we create spreadsheets for every position that says, what are the basic criteria that you have to meet, and what are the evaluation criteria that are going to be necessary in order for a person to be successful at this position? So, we are looking through the resume, going, how many years of experience do they have? Do they have, for example, executive director experience or management experience? Have they connected with a nonprofit sector? Have they managed employees? Have they managed financial accounts?

Whatever those really specific skills are. And it’s not like we’re looking for a candidate that has 100%, but we are looking for enough indicators that we can look at a candidate’s information and say, “Yes, you qualify for this position.”

Mac Prichard:

I’m sure you’ve heard this statistic, Agnes, and it may be apocryphal, but there’s a statement out there that says recruiters might spend 7 seconds looking at a resume. What you describe is a much more intensive process.

Agnes Zach:

Yes.

Mac Prichard:

Typically what happens? With resumes, is there usually a first round where someone does just get seven seconds and then make it to the next stage? What’s happening?

Agnes Zach:

Well, you know, Mac, because I knew I was coming on the show with you, I have been keeping really close track to maybe give you a really good answer for that.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, kudos to you for doing your homework. What did your research tell us?

Agnes Zach:

On average we spend 5 and 10 minutes on an application packet. So, that means the individual’s resume, their cover letter, and the screening questions that we’ve asked and we spend that time, three different times in the process. So, when you submit your information to us through the application portal, we immediately look at it and say, “Huh, is this candidate an interesting candidate? Does this candidate look like they’re meeting some of the qualifications?” Just giving us a general idea of who’s applying and who this job is appealing to, and maybe, where do we need to be doing additional recruiting to broaden the pool.

Mac Prichard:

Would you say, Agnes, that what you and your colleagues are doing is typical of the industry?

Agnes Zach:

No, I don’t believe it’s typical. And I think that that’s why the clients that we have, the nonprofits that we serve, that’s why they hire us is because they know that we’re going to take some additional time with the people that are applying to make sure that there really is a good fit, that we’re getting diversity in the pool, that we’re bringing the best candidate forward for the client. So we are a little unusual in the amount of time that we spend.

Mac Prichard:

If you’re a job seeker and you’re getting ready to hit send on that application, and you don’t know whether it’s going to be a 7-second review or a 3, 5, 10-minute exercise like you just described that you and your colleagues perform, what can you do to stand out and catch the eye of the recruiter?

Agnes Zach:

I think there are a couple of different things that you can do and some of it, you’ve mentioned on your show previously. The job description is actually a description of the job. So, if you’re looking at your resume and you’re looking at your cover letter, but you haven’t used words from the job description that indicates that that’s an area of expertise but some sort of skill area that you have, you’re missing an opportunity because the faster you scan, the faster someone like me looks at something, the more likely we are to land on words that we recognize. And the words that we recognize are the ones in the job description because that’s the ones we’ve been working on for the last three weeks. You should make sure that there’s a repetition of words.

Now, it used to be that people would say, “Oh, well, you just type in a bunch of keywords and it runs through the computer system and it spits out on the other end. I don’t even have to have a resume.”

That’s actually not true. They’ve adapted the system of artificial intelligence and it works much better than it used to but the humans in us are still trying to say, “How does the skill system you have match the requirements that we have to move you forward to the client?” And those keywords really matter.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so keywords matter but it’s not just about parroting back what’s in the description.

Agnes Zach:

It’s not.

Mac Prichard:

What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you just described, demonstrate in writing that they’ve got, not only the keywords but the skills and experience that match with what the employer wants?

Agnes Zach:

I would say that’s the value of your cover letter. If you think about your resume as your data points, that these are my metrics, these are my measurables, this is what I’ve done, this is how successful I’ve been in my work, that’s the resume. The cover letter is the part where you say, and this is why I’m the right fit for you. I think a really key component for candidates to remember is that you are filling a need for the client. The client has a problem. You as the potential employee need to fill it. This really isn’t about you as a candidate, this is about how you fill that hole. If you’re looking at the job description and you’re looking at the skill base, and you can say, “I can solve your problem because I can do X,” that’s what we need in the cover letter.

Mac Prichard:

How do you see candidates get the information that they need to address that point? What do they do before they send in their application?

Agnes Zach:

Well, you know it’s really interesting. I think a lot of people do different things now because of the pandemic and because of technology. LinkedIn is always popular. I do exclusive work with nonprofits and governments agencies, and so pulling up people’s 9-90s which are the tax forms that they fill at the end of each year, those 9-90s have information about the mission of the organization and the programs of the organization, where they’ve seen growth in areas, where they’ve made changes and they’re very informative. Annual reports, Facebook, and Instagram to see where they’ve been engaged. All of those same things that you would do for another position; you’re gaining familiarity, you are gaining knowledge, and you are gaining connections.

I would say, it’s helpful as we say, to say, “Oh, I know somebody. I can network and I can know somebody.” That’s helpful but it’s not a guarantee. We are trying to bring a diverse pool forward that hits lots of different buttons for the organization; knowing that there’s a connection is nice but it’s not a guarantee.

Mac Prichard:

I’m curious, Agnes, is there anything that’s guaranteed, or is it about doing a number of different things, and the more steps that you take, the more successful that you’ll be?

Agnes Zach:

I think that it’s the latter, I think that people like to think that there’s an easy way but there really isn’t. I think being a well-rounded candidate, being a persistent candidate, being an interesting person, you know, that’s something that’s really big in the nonprofit sector, is can you talk to our constituents, can you talk to our donors, can you talk to our board? And by talk, they don’t mean, can you parrot back the three financial pieces that you had. The real question is, can you talk to them like people?

Mac Prichard:

I want to ask a little bit more about having people serve as a referral or make a phone call on your behalf. What’s most effective when you go down that road? Is it asking people to contact a certain person to make a certain point? What have you seen work, Agnes?

Agnes Zach:

Generally speaking, the thing that works is a contact to the organization, not to me, that says, this person has a connection to us. This is somebody that we, as an organization, know and are aware of and would like to see them considered for this position. And then that information gets passed to me. If someone thinks that they can reach out to me directly about another organization’s position, I’m still going to have to go through that step. I’m still going to have to reach back out to the organization and say, do you know who this is? Is this someone that you want me to move forward?

It’s more efficient on my side if you go the other way. Also, if you come to me directly, I’m working on 3 to 5 different jobs at the same time, and so you may not get the response that you want. It just may be that I see it and I say, “Uh-huh.” And keep moving.

Mac Prichard:

How do you recommend people build and maintain relationships with recruiters like you throughout their careers? Because if somebody stays in a field, and they’re likely to cross paths with you a number of times or your company or your colleagues, what’s the best way to stay in touch?

Agnes Zach:

I am an active LinkedIn user. I am active with Willamette Valley Development Officers, local nonprofit associations of the Oregon chapter. I try to stay connected to AFP. All of those are interest areas around the nonprofit sector, so that I’m actively engaged there. What I really enjoy is having people take a moment to ask if they can just have a conversation with me. I would say about a third of my time I am just talking to potential candidates, and that doesn’t mean that they’re a candidate today or that they’re looking for a job today; it could be that they’re looking for a job in a year or two and they want to know what’s happening in the sector, they want to know what some key skills are that they might want to invest in. They might have some questions about further education. But it’s treating me like an informational interview that you would do for anyone else in an organization that you’re interested in.

Mac Prichard:

How’s that going to help you get an interview one day if someone does apply for a position that you’re involved with?

Agnes Zach:

Well, I think that what it really does is it brings that well-rounded idea about that person. It’s not just a 2-dimensional person, it’s now a whole 3-dimensional person, and as I said, we’re using the resume as a data point, we’re using the cover letter as our story, and our connector and our keywords, and this becomes our third point to be able to say, “Oh yeah, I remember talking to them. They said that they had a real interest in moving into this direction, in learning this new skill.”

I tend to keep a database of about 1,500 folks and am always looking to add more to that and if we see jobs that hit an interest area, we’ll send them out. Recruiting is a big funnel and we really want to be able to reach as many people as possible with a really interesting job. And as you might imagine, all of the jobs that I search for are very interesting, so we are always looking for more people who find the work of the nonprofits exciting as an opportunity.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific, Agnes. We’re going to take a break and when we come back Agnes Zach will continue to share her advice on how employers choose finalists for interviews.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Agnes Zach. She’s the chief executive officer at Nonprofit Professionals Now. Her organization offers executive search, temporary staffing, and talent evaluation services.

She joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Now, Agnes, before the break we were talking about how employers choose finalists for interviews and you walked us through the written application stage: looking at keywords, including them in your resume, looking for connections in order to get a referral or perhaps a call on your behalf, and you talked about how long you and your colleagues spend reviewing all of these materials.

Now it’s time for the interviews, and let’s talk about how people move from that written stage to the phone interview. What’s going on there, Agnes?

Agnes Zach:

At this point in the process, the phone interview for us tends to be really skills-based. Can they do X? Do they have experience with Y? Can they tell me how they would approach this problem? So we’ve looked at the resumes and cover letters, we’ve ranked them based on what the qualifications are for the position, and we tend to do phone interviews, phone screens, with quite a few folks. We don’t want to screen anybody out immediately, so we try to keep it a little bit open, but we’re looking for precise, clean, 3-5 minute answers with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is not a time to tell me your life story. It’s not the time to share the latest vacation story that you’ve had. These are really specific. We’re looking for ways to differentiate candidates from each other.

Mac Prichard:

I want to talk more about what happens in those phone interviews, but let’s just step back. The people who didn’t make the cut, what didn’t they do that they can control and maybe do differently the next time?

Agnes Zach:

They did not clearly illustrate to us that they had the skills necessary to do this position in the way the client needed to have it done. Now, I think where people, at least the ones that I talk to, where they get off track just a little bit is that they say, “Well, then I’m not qualified for the position.” And that’s not what I said. What I said was that you did not meet the criteria for this position for the client that we have. So, we are performing to a specific criteria that the client has given us and just because your resume doesn’t match it this time doesn’t mean that you can never apply for this type of position again. It means that we are representing a specific client and you needed to think more like, “How am I solving the problem for that client?”

Mac Prichard:

What advice would you give somebody who says, “Well, I looked at the job description, I did everything that you told me to, Agnes. I inserted the keywords, I worked on my cover letter, I even had someone call on my behalf, and I still didn’t get a phone interview.”

What do they need to do?

Agnes Zach:

I would be surprised. I would say, “Wow. I’m actually kind of surprised that you didn’t get a phone interview.”

At that point in time, what I often do for folks is I sit down with them, and in this case probably by phone like we’re doing today, and I walk through the resume that they submitted, and I walk through the job description that they compared it to, and I say, “This is where I saw a disconnect.” And it doesn’t have to be me that does this; you can do it with other folks. You can have them review your resume or your cover letter as compared to the job description and just have them say, “Wow, you know, this job description really needs you to do this one thing and I don’t see that you said anywhere in your cover letter that you can do that.”

Mac Prichard:

This doesn’t have to be a recruiter, it could be a peer or colleague or family member, right?

Agnes Zach:

Yes.

Mac Prichard:

Alright, well, let’s move on to that phone interview. The people who did the things that you outlined are getting phone calls and what is…when you’re having that conversation- you talked about looking for skills- how long do these phone calls usually last, and what’s the best way for a candidate to usually handle them?

Agnes Zach:

The calls generally go about 30 minutes and then there’s usually time at the end for us to answer any questions that the candidate might have, and oftentimes that’s what’s your timeline or those kinds of things. It really is true that you should have two or three questions that are pretty concrete that you can ask at the end of any phone interview. Don’t just skip that and say, “No, I’m fine right now. I’ll save my questions for later.” Ask the questions that you have, the two or three.

Mac Prichard:

Why does that matter?

Agnes Zach:

It shows that you’ve investigated the organization. It shows that you have taken an interest in this position beyond what 50 other applicants did and you have seen something in the materials  that makes you wonder, “What are they doing here? Why is this important? Why are they engaged in this?” And that tells us that you are a candidate that has taken the extra step.

Mac Prichard:

Are there questions that you recommend people avoid asking?

Agnes Zach:

At the phone stage, don’t ask about salary, don’t ask about vacation, don’t ask about how soon a vacation or cruise. At this point in time, none of that information matters. You’re not far enough into the process to be able to be into that negotiation stage.

What we’re really looking for are questions about, “How could I be successful in this position? What does the manager really need? I see that the organization is exploring a new program; why did they make that decision?” And some of those I’m not going to be able to answer, as the recruiter, and that’s okay. You need to show me that you’ve gone a little extra in this process.

Mac Prichard:

What are you, as the recruiter, and your colleagues doing as you listen? Are you taking notes? Is there some type of scoring sheet that you’re using?

Agnes Zach:

Yes and yes.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, tell us more.

Agnes Zach:

We actually do ours in a two-step process. So, during the phone interview, we’re taking notes and the notes are per question so that I can go back and review those. And I sometimes work with my colleagues and so there might be two of us doing our phone screens and we kind of share our notes back and forth to make sure that we’ve heard, or have written up our notes in such a way that says, yes, we have said we have covered all of these areas. Those notes and those questions are connected to our scoring sheets. So, if I ask you a question about finance, I have a finance category on my scoring sheet. If I ask you a question about donor relations, I have a donor relations category on my scoring sheet. And I’ve already talked to the client about what a quality answer sounds like, what are the pieces of their response that need to be there to let us know that they understand how this works.

I am ranking each answer on a scale of usually 1-5, on how well I feel like the candidate has responded to the question in a way that meets the client’s needs.

Mac Prichard:

Agnes, I think that everyone who’s further along in their career or even at the start of their career have had that experience where the phone rings and it’s an employer or a recruiter saying, “I want to talk to you about this job.”

Do you recommend people, if it comes out of the cold, ask for some time? What’s a good response there?

Agnes Zach:

That’s an interesting one. I tend not to try to surprise anyone because I don’t think that that’s fair, but I really think that it depends on your own personal comfort level. If you are somebody who needs a moment and wants to take a few minutes to process, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “Wonderful, I am so excited to speak to you. Do you think we could schedule a time to talk X?” Whether that’s in two hours, tomorrow, at this other time. You are somebody t they’re interested in. Don’t assume that you have to just bend over and perform and talk and do these interviews if you yourself aren’t ready. You want to be as confident as you can be.

Mac Prichard:

If you get an email from a recruiter offering a phone interview, is it okay to ask for the questions in advance?

Agnes Zach:

It is and many times the answer will be, we aren’t going to do that. While it’s an interesting piece, particularly with phone questions, people tend to want your spontaneous answer. The questions shouldn’t be so difficult that you need to prepare for them. Later on in the interview process, we often try to encourage at least some questions be given ahead of time so that it’s more focused on how a person thinks instead of how they immediately respond. The phone interview questions are generally pretty skills-based and you should be able to answer them without having to see the questions.

Mac Prichard:

What’s the number one reason that people don’t make it past those phone interviews to the final round of interviews?

Agnes Zach:

I was just thinking, Mac…I knew you were going to ask that and now I’m just like, is it because they didn’t stop talking or is it because they didn’t talk enough? I’m really serious when I say that an answer has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it shouldn’t be longer than three to five minutes. If you give me a ten-minute answer to the first question, then we’re not going to get through all of the questions. And if you give me a one-word answer, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. So, it really is thinking concretely about, what is the story that I want to tell, and then telling it specifically.

It’s like the short answer essays from high school history. If you wrote a page and a half, the teacher said that they didn’t think you knew what the answer was and you were just trying to fill in time. That’s what we’re looking for in the phone interview, that concise 3 to 5-minute answer that says, “I know that I can do this job because I have this skill.”

Mac Prichard:

It’s been a terrific conversation, Agnes. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Agnes Zach:

Well, Nonprofit Professionals now is working our way down the I-5 corridor. We recently joined 501 Commons, which serves the state of Washington and so in particular for us, Southwest Washington. Willamette Valley Development Officers is now supporting the mid-valley development officers organization in Salem, and so we’re working our way to Salem and we’ve got a couple of searches in Corvallis.

We’re truly trying to maximize our time up and down the I-5 corridor.

Mac Prichard:

I know people can learn more about your organization and your services, and you have a lot of great resources for nonprofit professionals and job seekers, by visiting your website, npprofessionals.com.

Now, Agnes, given all the terrific tips that you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing that you want a listener to remember about how employers choose finalists for interviews?

Agnes Zach:

I think the piece of the puzzle that we all forget and that we need to remember is that the client has a problem. My nonprofit organization has a problem and they need it to be solved, and you, as a candidate, your job is to help the employer see that you are the answer to their problem. If you can do that, you have much more of a likelihood of being moved forward in the process.

Mac Prichard:

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I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

If the statistics are true, recruiters and hiring managers spend less than 5 minutes looking at each resume they receive; even less if it doesn’t grab their attention immediately. In order to get past the first round of screening, Find Your Dream Job guest Agnes Zach says you need to use the language of the job description in your cover letter and resume. In addition, she suggests preparing specific, 3-5 minute answers to the most commonly asked interview questions. Agnes also shares the most common reasons you aren’t making it to the final round of interviews.

About Our Guest:

Agnes Zach is the CEO at Nonprofit Professionals Now. Her organization offers executive search, temporary staffing, and talent evaluation services.

Resources in This Episode:

  • If you’re a professional or job seeker in the nonprofit sector, Agnes offers services to help you. Find out more at her website at npprofessionals.com.
  • From our Sponsor: Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume. Top Resume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. Get a free review of your resume today from one of Top Resume’s expert writers.