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Be Careful What You Ask For

My in-box is a Petri dish of engaged workforce issues. I see inquiries ranging from business owners wanting advice on how to cultivate engaged workforces to employees wanting to know how they can influence their bosses to include them, and everything in between. At some level, even the most autocratic boss recognizes that employees who care about doing a good job deliver more profit than employees who don’t. But how do we cultivate it? The answers involve every aspect of your business, but let’s focus on a narrow area of great importance for today’s post.

Imagine for a moment that you have taken a two-week culinary class at one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the country. Now you’re home, and hosting a dinner party for your best friends (who know where you’ve been and are expecting a pretty great meal). Do you go to Wal-Mart to buy the ingredients for dinner? Probably not.
There is nothing more important than the raw ingredients we start with in business, yet there is an astounding lack of understanding regarding how to hire them. This is true at all levels, by the way. Fortune 100 companies have access to the best B-school talent (I read somewhere that McKinsey & Co. had hired 10% of the 2003 Harvard MBA graduating class), so presumably they have access to the ‘best’ people. Yet in the past eight years there has been increasing demand for the B-schools to alter their curriculum, because the graduates they are turning out have little or no interpersonal skills. Business skills are important, but they aren’t the only determining factor.
Besides, many of the people we need to hire don’t require advanced or lower college degrees. Some of the positions for which we need to hire require certificates or special training, and some of them require no training at all other than the training we provide (another topic for sure). The ability to hire the best people is one of the most important, most under-rated, most misunderstood skills in the pantheon of business knowledge. Let’s demystify a portion of it right now by talking about the 11 most important questions you can ask in an employment interview.
  1. Describe the most creative thing you have done in the past year. If you want engaged employees, you want people who consider their own lives to be interesting and worth engaging in! What you’re looking for in this answer is (a) the ability to choose something quickly and (b) a degree of enthusiasm about the creative pursuit.
  2. What would their peers say about them? Ask them to imagine for a moment that in your search for a reference you went, not to their old boss or HR department (or teachers, if you are interviewing a very young person), but to their peers. You are looking for a sense of how they function in a team and whether they are conscious of their impact on others at their level. Most people have a sense of how to defer to authority, so true interpersonal skills and deficiencies tend to show up at the team level.
  3. Please describe your decision-making approach. Ask them first to describe how they go about making a difficult decision (you may want to use an example, such as buying a car or buying a house). Then ask them to describe their decision-making approach in comparison with their peers.  Are they:
         [ ] Decisive and quick
         [ ] Sometimes too quick
         [ ] Very thorough
         [ ] Sometimes too slow
         [ ] Intuitive
         [ ] Inclined to go purely with facts
         [ ] Inclined to involve many people
         [ ] Inclined to involve few people
  4. When presented with a new idea or skill that you must master, how do you go about learning it? No one learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) is superior to another, and most people can’t tell you which one they favor. What you are looking for is that the individual understands how they go about mastering something, because this indicates whether they will be a self-managed learner.
  5. Please describe a situation in which you were pressured to compromise your integrity, and how you handled it. Any person old enough to have a work permit has had at least one situation like this. You are looking for how well formed their ethical thinking is. Contrary to popular thought, much of our ethical development occurs in our late teens and young adulthood – not in our childhood. So be prepared for young adults with only a fuzzy grasp on ethics, and look for indications that the young adult is interested and trainable.
  6. Other than your parents and grandparents, who have your greatest influences been? The answer to this question reveals what type of mentorship this person gravitates to – if any. People who won’t or can’t learn from others will be difficult to train and develop over time.
  7. Five Strengths/Five Weaknesses. You know that question “tell me one weakness you have?” Get rid of it. 97% of the time you’ll get some smarmy response regarding how they are a workaholic or a perfectionist. Instead, take a hint from Marcus Buckingham and ask “can you tell me five of your strengths and five of your weaknesses?” Sure, you may get perfectionist and workaholic as two of their weaknesses, but they’ll have to work harder for the other three. This answer provides tremendous insight regarding how self-aware this person is and whether or not they are capable of and willing to be honest and a bit vulnerable.
  8. Please describe your most significant accomplishment in your career to date. The answer to this question reveals character, personality, ability to learn, team skills, ability to accomplish results, pace, attitude, capability and potential. Look for results achieved and the process used to achieve results, and try to get a good understanding of the environment in which the accomplishment took place. If you are hiring a young person, let them answer this in terms of a school, camp, or other group accomplishment.
  9. Prepare a job-specific, realistic problem that you will be dealing with in the exact job for which the candidate is interviewing.  Describe the problem in some detail, akin to a math story problem. Then ask the candidate “How would you handle the task if you were to get the job?”  Listen to their answer carefully, and if they haven’t already addressed these things, prompt them for:

         [ ] How would they go about organizing it
         [ ] What resources would they need
         [ ] What would they do in the first few weeks
         [ ] What problems would they expect to encounter
         [ ] How would you plan it
         [ ] How long would it take
         [ ] What would they do first

  10. Describe five things about the training, communication, or atmosphere of this company that would need to be present in order for you to feel satisfied and successful working for us. You can’t find the “right” employee if you don’t know what that means – and the reverse is true for your job candidates. You are looking for indications that the candidate is conscious of their role in achieving a good fit. If they are going to be entirely passive in this regard, they certainly won’t be engaged.
  11. How would you finish the statement “People are . . .?”  Never ask this question until very late in the interview process. You want your candidate to be fairly relaxed and feeling like it’s nearly over. The reason this question is powerful is reflected in the saying as above, so below. Even if the interviewee has been conning you with socially appropriate answers (which hopefully you have been able to pick up on), their answer will reflect their general opinions about others and some truth about themselves. As with everything else, though, be sure to interpret their answer in context! I once had a guy respond immediately with the answer “people are dishonest!” Did that mean he was dishonest? Not at all. He was a retired FBI officer, and his answer reflected all his years of experience.
With these 11 questions you are assessing the candidate’s team, decision-making, learning, and problem-solving skills, their ethics and character, self-awareness, motivation, and general outlook. But please don’t assume these 11 questions represent a complete interview! They are just 11 questions that you should be certain to ask, in addition to the questions you will be asking regarding qualifications and specific job requirements.

I am a strong proponent of vigorous and lengthy interviews that explore granular detail about a person’s past education and job history, as well as a careful study of their personal characteristics. The interview process I designed for professional level candidates lasts a full day. When candidates register surprise at the length of time the interviewer wants to spend with them, I advise the interviewer to remind them that, if hired, they would likely spend years of their lives working together. Given the importance of everyone’s time, it is well worth the expenditure of one day to ensure a good fit.

Finally, don’t go to the effort of seeking employees who want to be – and are capable of being – engaged if you’re not going to encourage and reward that behavior. You’ll be wasting your time and theirs.  Just remember this aphorism . . . Be careful what you ask for, because that’s what you’ll get!

(c) Andrea M. Hill, 2007

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2 Responses to Be Careful What You Ask For

  1. Chris says:

    Right ON. This should be required reading for every small business owner. Chris.

  2. Andrea says:

    I’d like to subscribe please.

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