Sargent's solutions - interview skills to ensure you hire the best candidate

Preparing the right set of questions is key to a successful interviewing technique, Alan Sargent advises

Q. I am leaving my present job as head gardener for family reasons and have been asked to assist with interviewing for my successor. I thought it would be easy but I am at a loss to know what to say.

A. An increasing part of my consultancy work involves locating and appointing new head gardeners, usually for larger and more complex properties with several existing staff, often with mixed abilities. I understand that you are in charge of such a garden.

The process of interviewing a prospective head gardener is not straightforward in any way because of the nature of the site, the wishes of the employer and any possible future plans for the garden. Information on interviewing techniques available from the library or internet is not very useful because the suggested questions to the candidate are not particularly relevant to our industry.

My first question to the employer is what are you looking for? A manager of the garden or a head gardener - someone who is a brilliant gardener but may not be so good at dealing with people and the problems that are inherent when working with indigenous staff and perhaps involving the general public? Some people can easily handle both while others cannot.

I have a number of questions, all of which are open and allow the candidate to answer fully, in as much detail as they wish. I tend to avoid closed questions unless I require a straight yes or no answer. Bear in mind that the questions I have set out in this article are only part of the interview, and these ignore the more general or housekeeping type involving references etc.

Making the candidate feel comfortable and important

As there are few thing more daunting than appearing in front of an interview panel, I relax the interviewee by thanking them for applying for the job and congratulate them on their successful application having achieved a personal interview when so many failed to reach this stage.

Q. "Your curriculum vitae is very impressive. What do you consider to be your most outstanding attribute? What can you offer that other candidates cannot?"

Q. "Do you consider yourself to be a head gardener or gardens manager? How do you see your present role in your current job?"

Q. "Would you say that you are a proactive or reactive person in your professional life?"

Q. "How do you like to run your team? Do you prefer to carry out all aspects of day-to-day management or allow the staff to think and act for themselves, thereby giving them responsibility for their time and their actions?"

Q. "Do you prefer to conduct one-way evaluation assessments with your staff or two-way reviews?"

Q. "Apart from your mobile phone or computer, what do you consider the most important item of everyday use to you as a manager?"

Q. "Please describe the likely achievements that you will have made at the end of the first week and month, and what benefits your actions will have had on the well running of the department."

Q. "Describe your methods of dealing with difficult staff, perhaps outlining a couple of examples from past experience. Please give the reasons for the problems, how you dealt with them and the outcomes."

Q. "How soon would you conduct personal interviews with your staff? In what order would you decide each persons' position in the interview programme? Senior first? Newest employee first? And why in this particular manner?"

Q. "How do you keep up to date with new legislation, products, materials and techniques? What out-of-hours activities do you undertake to help you understand the latest developments in the world of horticulture?"

Avoid unnecessary questions

As you can see, there are no questions regarding propagation, composting, plant identification, irrigation methods - nothing at all horticultural. I feel that if someone has previous experience as a head gardener, such textbook questions are unnecessary and can even come across as insulting.

While none of us can know everything, I am not concerned with the minutiae of the mundane. I am much more interested in seeing how the candidate reacts to each of these questions. They are far more difficult to answer than they may at first appear.

They do, however, offer the interviewee the chance to really shine and offer a wide ranging insight into their attitudes and knowledge - and sometimes the outpouring becomes a flood.

They are couched in such a way that someone may offer a suitably correct answer, one that may have been anticipated and rehearsed beforehand, but the opportunity is also there to contradict an earlier statement made on a slightly different question. Only those who are genuinely suitable will be able to maintain their credibility.

I have used these questions on a number of occasions and commend them, or others in a similar vein, because they bring out the best/worst in candidates. The "correct" answer is not easily anticipated, especially as it may vary from site to site, and only an honest response will prove successful.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management.


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