The 2020 Mid-Year Economic Update_long

Questions I Have Stopped Asking in Job Interviews

John Salveson gives examples of questions that produce canned responses.
John-Salveson

I spend a good part of my day interviewing senior executives for senior-level positions in our client companies. Since co-founding our executive search firm in 1996, I’m sure I have interviewed more than 1,000 executives as candidates. Many of those executives have been from the wholesale distribution industry.

Over this time I have developed some standard questions I use in most interviews. I have also stopped using a few questions, because they either elicit “canned” answers or just don’t get at the information I am looking for. Here are two examples of the latter.

Question 1: “How would the people who work for you describe your management/leadership style?”

This sounds like an obvious question which should elicit useful information. It usually doesn’t. In fact, 90 percent of the people asked this question give some version of this answer: “I work with people to set clear goals and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. I am available to them when they need me but I don’t micromanage them.” How do I know this isn’t really true for 90 percent of today’s leaders? All I have to do is talk to people about their bosses and their corporate cultures. I seldom hear that management-style description.

Question 1A: When I get the predictable, vanilla answer described above I ask a second question: “What is it about your leadership style that drives people nuts on your team? What would they change about you?”

Believe me when I tell you that 90 percent of the people I interview are completely stumped for an answer to this question. This means they are either hiding something or not listening. When I take a walk around our office and interact with my colleagues I usually get at least three to four “suggestions” on how I could be a better boss, colleague, business developer and so on. Granted, I am a “target-rich” subject in the game of improving leadership skills, but if you can’t tell me anything you are working on to make yourself a better leader I find that troubling.

Question 2: “I know you have explained to me why you made each career move on your resume. Give me the 30,000-foot view on your career – what have been the drivers, the overarching motivators – not so much what did you do as why did you do it?”

One of the things I look for in evaluating executives is the number of moves they have made in their careers, how quickly they have progressed and the logic behind the moves they have made. This is especially true for people who have lots of career movement – or very little career movement.

Candidates always tell me why they left a particular job to take a different job. Sometimes their reasons make sense (they wanted me to move to China, they sold my division, I got a once-in-a-lifetime offer …) sometimes they don’t make much sense (I had accomplished everything I came to do so I left …) and sometimes they are just downright ominous (I had a philosophical disagreement with my boss, the SEC began to investigate the company, I had four bosses in three years …). There are always reasons.

So for people with a lot of career movement, I always ask them the “30,000-foot” question.

Again, the 90 percent rule applies here. Usually, people go back over their work history and explain again why they made the changes they made. Maybe they think I wasn’t listening the first time around. Occasionally, I get a meaningful answer. One person told me he moved jobs frequently because he craved challenges and got bored easily. Good answer. Another told me she had a career goal of being a CEO, and each of her moves gave her additional scope, breadth or industry experience that would move her toward the goal. Also a good answer.

Let me know if there are some interview questions you use that are particularly productive. Also – what is the strangest question you were asked during an interview?

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