What question would you ask? Interviewing for POTUS

Not all of us have the opportunity to interview candidates in our workplace, but when we do, we want to get it right. We want pose the question that elicits a response providing a hint to how this individual will perform if selected.

Tonight, in California, the  candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president will participate in a debate. In reality, they will be answering interview questions posed by journalists. What question would you ask?

If you don’t know where to begin, Adam Bryant’s weekly executive interviews column in The New York Times is a good place to start. In an interview last month, Greg Schott of software company, MuleSoft shared his hiring philosophy.

“First off, we’re looking for someone who’s a good human. That is defined by high integrity, being a great team player, and they want to win as a company first, team second, individually third. The next thing we look for is people who are whip-smart. The third thing we look for is a clear track record of achievement.

And I also work hard to understand the decisions they’ve made along the way, like why they left a certain job to take the next one. You learn all kinds of things from why they made those job transitions. I’ll also ask what they’ve done that changed things for their organization as opposed to just doing the job that they were asked to do. What did they do that nobody asked them to do?”

We definitely want someone who’s a good human to be president. I would like to know why they left their current job to take the next one. Why have some not left their current job yet? What have they done above and beyond the job description? Integrity, smarts, record of achievement all good.

Maybe I’d add a question about flexibility, dealing with ambiguity. Describe a belief you held for a long time that with some education and experience you changed? Being president requires leading the folks you don’t agree with along with those who voted for you.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz shared his opinion on the election process and the responsibility of those elected to represent us to act differently, and posed his questions for the candidates.

“Every one of the candidates offers grand promises about new leadership and new solutions. But where do they stand on working with their rivals? Regardless of who wins the presidency, the odds of the same party controlling a filibuster-proof Senate are slim. If we want to turn the nation around, we have to act differently. Save for the most rabid partisans, most people don’t want one-party rule. They want Democrats and Republicans to work together.

Americans who are tired of politics as usual should demand a clear answer to a simple question from every candidate: What will you do to unite all of us?”

Stewart Butterfield of communications service company Slack discussed his interview process with Adam Bryant.

“I used to always ask three short questions — one math, one geography and one history. I didn’t expect people to get the answers right, but I just want them to be curious about the world. The first is what’s three times seventeen. Then name three countries in Africa. You’d be astonished by the number of people who can’t do that. And what century was the French Revolution in, give or take 200 years.

I don’t do that anymore, but I do ask everyone what they want to be when they grow up. Good answers are usually about areas in which they want to grow, things they want to learn, things that they feel like they haven’t had a chance to accomplish yet but want to accomplish.”

This is what I want to know. What did these folks on the stage at the Reagan Library want to be when they grew up? Ok, they wanted to be president. But it’s not enough to want. What do they still wish to learn, to accomplish? What does their world look like at the end of a successful presidency? The answers will give me the information I need to make a decision.

And, I would like them to name three countries in Africa.

The Art of the Interview

Most of us approach a job interview as an interrogation instead of a conversation. What if the interview was a bit more like those conducted in front of an audience by James Lipton or a podcast by Debbie Millman?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we select employees for our organizations. Today, in our age of analytics, large corporations believe they can select a candidate using an algorithm to build a scaffolding of interview questions. The process of determining ‘cultural fit’ has morphed into finding folks you would like to hang out with vs. ones who have the skills to do the job.

Both approaches seem to miss something. On one hand, science excludes humanity and on the other, the modern version of the ‘old boy’ network finds its’ candidates at the familiar fraternity mixer. Neither path leads to a diverse organization. Maybe it’s time to look outside current human resources thinking and learn from the ‘masters’ of the interview.

I have this one touchstone article that continues to resonate on a variety of levels. It’s a Harvard Business Review article published in December 2009, ‘The Innovator’s DNA’. In it, the authors (Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen) posed the question, “What makes innovators different?”

The first skill:

“Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator’s DNA.”

 The second, questioning:

“innovators constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom”. 

Networking, the third skill:

“Devoting time and energy to finding and testing ideas through a network of diverse individuals gives innovators a radically different perspective. Unlike most executives—who network to access resources, to sell themselves or their companies, or to boost their careers— innovative entrepreneurs go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains.”

With this framework in mind, I was reading Debbie Millman’s 2010 ‘How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer’ last night, and it all came together. In his foreward, Steven Heller, describes the role of an interviewer:

“Interviews must be tackled with zeal, and the interviewer must control the discussion while waiting for that unexpected revelation to leak out. A skilled host must therefore prepare exhaustively: Take James Lipton of ‘inside the Actors Studio’, with his famously large stack of blue index cards, each containing a pointed question neatly integrated into a systematic progression; while he theatrically examines the narratives of his subjects’ careers, he is always flexible enough to flow with the unforeseen currents of conversation…”

Interviewing requires considerable acumen to enable both the expressive and, especially, the reticent guest to open up. 

Debbie Millman, who has hosted the Internet radio program, ‘Design Matters’ since 2005, always does her homework – and then some…she plies each of her visitors with questions to evoke the unexpected response. At the same time, she inspires their confidence, owing to her sincere interest in the life and work she’s exploring.”

We ask candidates to prepare, but often the distractions of the other things we do, besides recruiting, interfere to a point where we ‘wing it’ as interviewers and rely on the algorithm generated questions. We end up with plain vanilla data to compare with other plain vanilla data and add a dash of our subjective judgment.  The lead candidate we hoped to recruit was probably not too impressed with the experience, knowing he or she was just another cog in the assembly line of interviews of the day.

This may not be a new idea, actually it’s quite fundamental. But imagine the success of an interview when both parties are prepared for the conversation, the interviewer inspires confidence in the candidate to present their authentic self and both can demonstrate a sincere interest in the life and work of the organization.

Saying Thank-You, email or hand-written?

The handwritten thank-you note is quickly becoming a relic of an earlier job search age. An increasing number of employers accept an email acknowledgement. However, some employers still place value on candidates who take the time to pen a note on real stationary, with real ink. The key is to do your research and say ‘thank-you’ consistent with the practice of the organization.

Job search is a competitive activity. You spend hours strategizing on how you will set yourself apart from others, with resume critiques, mock interviews and etiquette workshops. You arrive on time for your appointment, feel comfortable that you have made an impression, and on the way home, recall the key interactions of the day.

Who did you meet? What were their ‘hot button’ issues? How did you respond? Was there a question posed that you could not answer?

And you begin to envision a future as a part of this organization’s community.

Take time to acknowledge your appreciation for the opportunity to compete for the position, reiterate your approach to the ‘hot button’ issues and revisit the question that stumped you in the interview. With a bit of research and reflection you will be able to craft an answer and demonstrate your continued interest in the position.

What is the best way to follow-up on the interview? If you want to continue your candidacy, a thank-you is your next step. It gives you a forum to summarize your interest in the position, provide an answer to the question you missed and add any additional thoughts on how you might solve a problem facing the organization.

The key here is to be personal and timely. The thank-you note, like a cover letter should reflect the shared interview experience.

Even if it’s clear you are no longer in the running, send a note. It establishes your professionalism and might translate into another opportunity in the future.

Email or handwritten? Your research should give you a hint to the culture and what might be appropriate. Some view a snail mail thank-you as less competitive than one emailed. Try a combination. Send an electronic note and follow up with a written note within 24 hours.

Less than 20% of candidates thank interviewers for their time. A thank-you note could be your competitive advantage.