Marina Kim

Marina co-founded and leads Ashoka U, working with campuses to embed social innovation as an educational focus and core value of the university culture.

Recruiting Secret Weapon: The Life History Interview

Recruiting Beyond Skills Fit

How can you tell from a series of short, very controlled interviews that your next hire will be the best possible fit? Someone who has the right amount of smarts, drive and creative thinking, while also sharing your core value system?

There are many ways to conduct interviews. You can focus on role fit, team culture fit, or skill fit. You can do interactive behavioral assessments, work sample tests, and multiple interviews to assess hypothetical scenarios. All of these options are important to include in an interview process but they are only looking for specific kinds of fit.

One technique has transformed our hiring.

We have found the Life History Interview adds new layers of data to the candidate picture that can help make final decisions in a holistic way.

New idea: Life History Interviews

At Ashoka we have spent over 35 years refining a methodology called the “Life History” interview. Originally, it was developed to help us identify leading social entrepreneurs to go through the extremely rigorous Ashoka Fellow selection process. We found that a significant portion of those that became Ashoka Fellows had a transformative moment when they were younger that gave them a life-long commitment to social impact and making change for the betterment of society.

Over time, it has also evolved to be a core part of the Ashoka hiring process for most staff, designed to find individuals who can thrive as entrepreneurs within an institutional context. We are looking for early patterns that this individual has asked questions, behaved according to their values, and has a track record of making change in small and large ways. Whether it was standing up to a bully in the playground, starting a lemonade stand to raise money for charity, starting a dance troupe to bring different perspectives together, or launching a new recycling program in school, there are lots of key influential moments when you are younger that can show how early identities as leaders are formed.

The interview itself is approximately 2 hours in length, and it is framed around the premise that you are not just hiring a professional with a transferrable skillset. You are hiring a person that is wired over a lifetime to have certain behaviors, influences, preferences, stories and “aha” moments that have changed how they see themselves.

We have found that this type of interview can be make-or-break for knowing if you are bringing in the right person. Assessing patterns throughout a lifetime offers new evidence to see if there’s a fit. You can search for the values, drivers and influences of this person and see if their track record of life (not just their resume) demonstrates they have “excellence in their heart” and it truly is part of who they are and how they operate with everything they do.

We have taken inspiration from oral historians to try to get into the heart of people’s behaviors and decisions over their lifetime. Here are possible questions to use as a starting point:

  • You’re born and then what? Please describe your narrative about where you grew up, your family, and any other major life experiences that shaped you up until college.
  • Who or what were some of your most powerful influences growing up before high school – a particular teacher, your family, any other key inspirations/mentors?
  • Where did you start developing leadership urges to take initiative from a young age?
  • When did you first feel a sense that you had agency and could speak up for something you believed in? What was that experience?
  • How did you deviate from your family or community expectation growing up?
  • How did you choose where to go to college, and how did you decide what to major in?
  • Describe a few key formative experiences – courses, professors, leadership experiences – during college. How did that affect what you decided to do post-college?
  • What are 3 scenarios you can visualize if you dropped in on your life 10 years from now – where are you and what role/type of work are you doing?

Tips when Doing a Life History Interview

1) Be willing to start with your own story. You should model the appropriate level of openness and personalization before probing deep personal stories from the person you are interviewing. While they will have at least 90 minutes to go into various parts of their story, I recommend you immediately begin the conversation with an outline of the life history interview philosophy and a 10-15 minute narrative of your key upbringing and what got you to where you sit today. This can help to make candidates more at ease, given the highly non-traditional format of the interview.

2) Ask your questions, then let them talk and listen deeply. It’s completely common when you trigger stories and memories that you might only ask 5-10 questions during the conversation, and the rest just flows fairly easily. The most important part of these interviews is deep listening, which can lead to real insight and an uncanny ability to understand this person and what makes them tick.

3) Zoom in and go deep when you want to isolate a specific instance. One of the most common tendencies is for people to race through their whole story in just a few minutes until they get to the comfortable zone of their resume. Sometimes you need to slow down the narrative to allow the real stories to emerge. For example, feel free to spend several minutes digging into one specific example of the trip to Nepal at age 15 that changed their life and their view on the need for education, which is now a key professional interest.

4) Try to go off-resume and look for patterns. I deliberately try not to spend too much time on anything that is represented in the resume, instead I am trying to dig beneath the surface to understand why the resume is the way it is. The obvious is to see that there are recurring internships and jobs related to technology and education, which might be the industry and a type of technical aptitude, but digging into the values alignment is even more interesting.

5) You will have an immediate emotional response, but wait for the objective analysis. I always have to wait a few days to write up my analysis because hearing the personal stories of someone can often make you overly attached or sympathetic to them. However, you really do need to make a hard-headed assessment of whether this person will be the right kind of person to work with for several years given everything you learned about them, their behavior and decision-making patterns.

This is a Powerful Tool. Treat it with Respect.

This is a very special opportunity to look into the past, present and future of a potential candidate and assess them as a holistic package. But it is also deeply personal, intimate and time-consuming. I recommend saving this as a near-final interview to ensure you are getting the best person for the role after doing all of your traditional screens and filters for role and skills.

This interviewing style may start off being somewhat uncomfortable, but keep at it and you will find your groove. The only non-negotiables are to enter the conversation with respect for the person and their story, a deep curiosity and ability to listen, with a goal of drawing out a larger narrative than a typical 45-minute interview that might include stock industry questions that receive a pre-prepared response.

This approach helps you find patterns and identify the candidate’s true essence. In some cases, this allows me to find that the person’s greatest mission in life is to pursue a path other than joining our team.

As with all things that affect a person’s livelihood and taps into their memories of key influences growing up, treat this experience with respect and humility. At the least – do no harm! At the maximum, you will find a cherished new colleague who will be the key engine of your next wave of organizational growth.

Disclaimer: Ashoka is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age or sexual orientation. Before undergoing your own interviews, consult with your HR team to ensure you are complying with the law.