Archive for December, 2012

Interview Questions for Both Sides

December 22, 2012

My daughter made a new friend.  I’m overjoyed.  Her new friend is warm, engaging, considerate, and communicative.  Pretty impressive for a 10-year-old!  The day after they hung out together (I’m no longer allowed to call them “play dates”), I asked my daughter what new things did she learn about her new friend.  She gave me a few good ones:  “She loves to dance, she likes seafood, and she loves pillow fights.”  Good start.  Then I brainstormed with my daughter on potential questions she could ask her new friend down the road to learn more.  After all, what better way to show you care about someone than to ask them questions?  We came up with several good ones that cover travel, music, food, and favorite activities.

Questions are the key to gaining intelligence.  The more inquisitive and the better your listening skills, the greater the edge in life’s labyrinth of human interaction.  This is especially significant in interviews and applies to both interviewers and candidates.  Yet, rarely has either party been taught specific questions to ask and what to look for in answers.

Let’s start with interviewers.  Your aim is to ascertain both the job fit and organizational/cultural fit.  Try asking situational and behavioral questions.  These are requests for specific instances in the candidates past in which they dealt with a particular type of situation.   Candidates – don’t go to sleep during this section.  Be on the lookout for these types of questions and be prepared to answer them effectively.

Let’s say you’re interviewing someone for a role that involves managing tight deadlines.  You want to see how they’ve handled such pressure in the past.  Ask them, “Give me an example of when you had to deliver a project within a very short timeline.”  At this point, you’re looking for specifics from the candidate:  A synopsis of the situation; what they were up against; the action they took; and the results.  If the candidate answers in generalities and hypotheticals, (i.e., “Usually, I would…”), ask them one more time for a specific instance.  Even if they give a specific circumstance, look for the extent of detail provided.  If they’re using 10,000 foot broad brushstrokes, they’re either making it up or their example isn’t all that relevant.

Another key to asking effective interview questions is to ask open-ended questions.  You’re seeking information and a simple yes or no answer won’t provide much color to the picture.  Here are just a few examples of general open-ended questions:

  • What were the key take-aways from each position you’ve held and how have you applied them to successive positions?
  • Why are you interested in this position and what do you expect this role to do for your career?
  • What are your favorite parts to the job?  Least favorite?
  • When you get stuck, how do you get unstuck?  When someone else is stuck, how do you help them get unstuck?
  • What have been the biggest failures and/or frustrations in your career/current position?
  • What are some things your current employer could do differently to be more successful?
  • Think of someone you have had problems with in your career, as we all do, who you would NEVER use as a reference. Tell me the adjectives they might use to describe you and why they had this perception.  How did you deal with the situation?

Pretend you’re writing a business article about your interviewee.  What kinds of information would you need in order to flesh out the article?  At the very least, you’d want to learn about their choice of career steps — why they made them and what they learned along the way.  You’d want to learn about their achievements and associated business impact.  You’d certainly want to understand the challenges they faced as well as missteps and how they overcame them.  From these data points, you will be able to weave together common themes and from that, gain insight into how this person is special, what their foibles are, and what kinds of roles make for a great fit moving forward.

In addition, it can be helpful to have members of the interviewing team to ask the same question, perhaps rewording it slightly, to see what variance there may be in candidates’ answers.

For candidates, it is important to come prepared to the interview with specific questions already printed out.  This demonstrates preparedness, forethought, initiative, and organization skills.  Make sure to ask relevant and poignant questions about the company, people, market, etc.  Do not ask the “What’s in it for me” questions, such as compensation and benefits.  Here’s a small sample of good open-ended questions to ask:

  • What are the three main factors you will be using to determine the right person for the job?
  • What are the greatest challenges associated with this position?
  • How would you describe the company’s culture and what kinds of people seem to fit in best?
  • Every company has its share of warts and pimples.  What are some of those with your company?
  • I read your recent press release (or article) regarding ______________.  How do you see this impacting ______________?
  • Why did you join the company?
  • What is the strength of the company’s financials in terms of profitability, working capital, cash flow, and debt?
  • What happened with the person who had this role previously?  Why didn’t it work out?  (Or, if it’s a newly created position…)  What was the impetus for creating this new position?
  • How will my performance be measured, initially in the first few months and then on an ongoing basis?
  • We’ve covered many topics.  What reservations do you have regarding my candidacy?  (This is good to ask so that if they do have any concerns and are willing to share them, it gives you a chance to address them right there instead of have them fester.)  Will you recommend me for the position?
  • I’m very interested in moving forward in the process.  Where do we go from here?  What are the next steps?

As with interviewers, candidates should think about asking the same question to multiple members of the interviewing team.  Just last week, a candidate asked each member of the interview team about their strategy to branch out into other verticals besides the primary market the company is currently targeting.  Interestingly, the candidate got conflicting answers, raising a red flag about the company’s vision, strategy and cohesion.  Better to know this now than after joining the company.

“The truth shall set you free.”  Great words to live by.  Whether you’re making a new friend, meeting a new business contact, or engaged in an interview, the best way to gain the truth is to ask questions.  Granted, in an interview that is flowing along with two engaged people, all kinds of questions will arise naturally.  Yet, to grease the skids, it’s especially useful to have questions prepared and at the ready.  It signifies professionalism while helping both interviewer and candidate keep on track and ensure that all salient points are covered.


Action items:

1.  Prepare questions in advance.  Even if you don’t get to them all, it’s helpful to have them printed up and in front of you.  In an interview, the discussion can go along at breakneck speed, and it’s all too easy to forget to ask an important question.

2.  Ask open-ended and situational questions to gain more detailed information and greater perspective.

3.  Always be curious.  One of my favorite follow-up questions to many answers is:  “Interesting.  Why is that?”  It’s amazing how following up with a simple “Why?” can reveal so much more than you ever imagined.