Questions I Have Stopped Asking

This is a second installment in which I am reflecting on what I have learned and observed while interviewing more than 1,000 executives as candidates for senior-level positions in our client companies.

Conducting interviews with potential candidates over the past 15 years has allowed me to develop a standard list of questions to ask and avoid. I have 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.

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

This sounds like an obvious question that should elicit useful information, right? Think again. Nearly 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% 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.

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, again, 90 percent of the people I interview are completely stumped for an answer. 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 etc. 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, there is something wrong.

“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 position. Sometimes, their reasons are valid (think answers like “They wanted me to move to China,” “They sold my division,” or “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,” or “I had four bosses in three years”). But there are always reasons why someone leaves a role.

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 towards the goal. Also a good answer.

Are there some interview questions you use which are particularly productive? Also – what was the strangest question you were asked during an interview?

John Salveson
John brings more than 30 years of experience consulting with a broad range of organizations, including life sciences and pharmaceutical companies, banks, insurance companies, manufacturers, professional service firms, healthcare providers, retailers, service organizations and non-profit institutions. John helps companies define their talent needs and execute creative strategies to recruit and retain that talent.

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