Management / The American View: Interviewing for the Feint-Hearted (Redux)

The American View: Interviewing for the Feint-Hearted (Redux)

A good interview isn’t just a data exchange; one question prompts one answer. A good interview involves a spirited exchange of questions, clarifications, ideas, examples, and explanations. The best interviews are set up to achieve exactly that, using prompts, misdirections, reversals, and stimulating challenges. That’s how you find out who you’re really dealing with … on both sides of the table.

[Keil’s aside: As I close on submitting my 400th online column, I want to revive some older pieces that meant the most to me (and, if feedback is to be believed, had the strongest positive impact on my readers). This column was the final piece in my trilogy on corporate interviewing. This was originally published on 23rd September 2013 on Business Reporter, and includes the edits applied to version 3 of Why Are You Here?]

No, that’s not a typo. In the second column in this series, I advocated in that interviewing should be viewed more like a fencing match than a police interrogation; that is, it should be a highly active interaction where each side is trying to manoeuvre and react, responding to one another’s subtle verbal and physical cues in order to figure out what the other person wants … thereby better positioning one’s self to deliver the winning blow in the discussion. It ought to be more of a competition and less of a unidirectional beat-down (as most job interviews seem to be).

‘Winning,’ to be clear isn’t about getting the job (for seekers) or identifying the relative best out of several candidates (for hiring managers). When it comes to personnel actions, ‘winning’ is achieved by converting talented individuals into a high-performing team that solves the business’s problems. That responsibility falls proportionately on both employee and employer. [1]

This topic pretty much ate my entire Labour Day holiday weekend since I have very strong opinions about it. I’m a huge fan of unconventional and memorable interviews. I want to be sure that I’ve managed to crack the other fellow’s façade a little and thereby figure out what’s really going on behind their eyes. I want to be reasonably confident that we’re a ‘fit’ for one another, even if the position interviewed for isn’t the one that leads to a contract. I like finding great people to work with. It’s one of the perqs that makes working life endurable.

In both the first and second columns in this series, I promised to provide some concrete examples of the kind of unconventional questions and answers that I alluded to when advancing my interview-as-fencing metaphor.  Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.

First, from the candidate’s perspective:

Are we finally finished with the ‘do something wacky to stand out from your competition’ trend? That movement started shortly after I first published this column.

Dreary, overused, and meaningless stock question #1: ‘Are you a good leader?’ [2]

Expected stock answer:I feel that my team-leading qualities are exceptional. I am always firm but fair with the people who work for me and find that I get a good deal of respect by operating in this manner.’

The fencer’s answer: ‘That depends on how you define “good.” I can give you several telling examples of how my leadership decisions have led to excellent results, and a few where my decisions didn’t work out as intended. Each of my examples involves a completely different way of pursuing objectives, because each occurred in a significantly different organizational culture. In order for me to select the examples that are most meaningful for this discussion, please tell me a little about what you consider to be “good” leadership, and why you believe that your preferred approach is optimal for your team.’

The intent behind this reversal is to get the interviewer to reveal their perspective, values and biases as early in the interview as possible. What they tell you is far more valuable for you (in assessing the ethical and functional orientation of the company) than your own answer will be to the other person. The main things you’re looking for from your riposte are indicators of how the company you’re interviewing with values initiative, daring, risk-taking and experimentation.

There’s a lot to be said for experimentation. I once had an all-day interview where the hiring manager insisted on conducting a urine screen for drug use immediately after lunch in the executive dining room. Points for chutzpah.

Dreary … You know what? Let’s just call these ‘stock’ questions and answers to save on word count. Stock question #2: ‘How would your current boss describe you?’

Stock answer: ‘I get on very well with my boss and we have an excellent working relationship. I think that the reason is due to the fact that we have mutual respect for each other.

The fencer’s answer: ‘Most of the time, she’d probably describe me as “about six-foot-tall, blond, and stout.” Depending on what’s going on around the office, she’ll use a lot of different and often-contradictory descriptors, including “effective,” “exasperating,” “inspired,” “unorthodox,” “regimented” and “unpredictable” (among others). That’s because I approach situations differently depending on the context, the compelling circumstances, the risks, the actors involved, and my boss’s intent. Let’s pick a leadership attribute that you’re interested in, or a specific situation, and I’ll give you an example and will tell you how my boss responded to me.’

Obviously, you’d want to use your own visible physical characteristics, but you get the point. The intent here is to change the entire direction of the question. By drawing out the interviewer (‘…Pick an attribute that you’re interested in’), you can learn what it is that they’re currently worried about. That should open up a whole new line of discussion whereby you can directly address the interviewer’s real concerns.

Pay close attention to facial expressions and body language when you’re listing individual attributes; if anyone on the hiring side tense up or flinches at a particular word, point it out! ‘I noticed that you winced when I said ‘unorthodox.’ There must be a good story behind that reaction. Can you please share what that means to you?’

‘It’s vampires, isn’t it? The industry press has been hyping vampires in publicly-traded companies recently. I completely understand.’

Stock question #3: ‘What sort of decisions do you find the most difficult to make?’

Stock answer Should I have the prawn or beef sandwiches for lunch![3]

The fencer’s answer: ‘That depends entirely on context, risk, impact, and time; there’s a huge difference in the decision-making process of whether to continue cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a hospital corridor versus performing it in the middle of a busy motorway. Let’s talk about some specific problems, and I’ll explain what factors I apply to come to a decision.’

The intent here is to seize the initiative from the interviewer. Start leading the discussion rather than passively waiting for inputs. Put the questions to the people who are accustomed to doing the asking, and draw them out. Use your answers to set up your next question. As a bonus, if the interviewer reacts strongly to your attempt at driving the conversation, it may indicate that they’re uncomfortable dealing with strong-willed or self-assured subordinates. A boss who insists on dominating the conversation in an interview is one that will probably insist on dominating every conversation. Consider what sort of person that is; do you really want someone like that vying to dominate you in every aspect of your working life? If you’re okay with it, enjoy. If not … It’s better to recognize the trait early on, before signing a contract.

It’s weird how many HR people and recruiters are more incentivized to ‘lock in’ inadequate workers to meet short-term performance goals than they are incentivized to find exceptional talent.

Let’s reverse the analysis. Here are some examples from the interviewer’s perspective:

Interviewer’s objective #1: Determine whether or not the employee has any idea what the job actually entails.

The feint: ‘I want to know if you really understand what this position entails. Describe what you believe the person we hire is going to be expected to do?’

Most times, a candidate will regurgitate what was in your posted job description – which is most often wrong. The overwhelming number of job posting on the Internet are either misleading through omission or just flat-out wrong thanks to static between the hiring manager and HR.

Further, unless the candidate came from inside the organisation, there will almost always be some aspect of the job that the applicant isn’t aware of. That’s why I like to follow up on the applicant’s answer with a comprehensive summary of what we believe the job requires. Once I’m sure that I’ve got the applicant thinking, that’s when I hit ‘em hard with the follow on:

The lunge: ‘Now that we’ve cleared that up, what attributes of this job appeal to you the least, and why?’

There are two objectives here: first, I want to see if the candidate actually listened to what I said. If they didn’t, then they may well be useless as a team member. I need people who can have their misconceptions challenged, can take in new information, and can then remember it. Second, I want to see whether or not the candidate can synthesize what I just said and formulate a reasonable argument, complete with meaningful reasoning, on zero notice. That ability is (I believe) a critical discriminator between a development candidate and a professional one.

Best answer I ever received: ‘Wow! That’s not what I thought the job was about at all! Based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think that I’m a strong candidate for this position.’

When asked why that was, the applicant pointed out two job performance expectations that I’d described that she had no practical experience doing. I thought that was a brilliant answer; she showed self-awareness, strong listening skills, disarming candour and sterling personal integrity. I hired her. She turned out to be amazing.

Worst answer I ever received: ‘I really just need a job so I don’t care what it entails.’

Nice to know where your priorities are. Thank you for applying.

‘Yes, I think we can visualize how you’d fit into our organization. No, that’s not meant as a compliment. Best of luck in your endeavours.’

Interviewer’s objective #2: Determine how well the applicant understands our organisation’s needs.

The feint: ‘Who do you think would be the best possible hire for this position …’ Cut them off with a gesture before they start to speak, and immediately introduce the lunge: ‘… not including you?’

This baffles a lot of candidates, because they come to interviews primed to ‘sell’ themselves as the best thing since. That’s the standard advice that most ‘experts’ give: sell yourself as the ‘product’ and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s a wasteful and tedious tactic which is why I don’t find the common stock answers to be worth my time. I’ll decide if you’re the best candidate for the job. To do that, I need to know whether or not you understand who we are, what we do, what we need, and how to go about solving our issues. I certainly don’t expect an outsider to have any detailed insider knowledge; I do, however, expect to hear some general knowledge of the industry, of current affairs, and of the applicant having done some research into us before the interview.

Best answer I ever received: ‘I think the best candidate for this role would be Mr. [X]. Last week, I interviewed several people who used to do this job in your organisation. They explained that you’re experiencing challenges in X, Y and Z.’ 

That young lady did a phenomenal job. She had no experience whatsoever. To mitigate that, she’d taken the initiative to read the rulebooks that regulated our industry and really did interview people from our department. That level of initiative showed us that she wouldn’t likely sit idle when confronted with a new and unfamiliar challenge.

Worst answer I ever received: ‘I think the only person in the world better than me at this job would have to be Jesus, because he’s perfect.’

Er, yes, but I can’t imagine Him settling for a job as a Help Desk agent.

Admittedly, working Help Desk will try the patience of a saint.

Interviewer’s objective #3: Evaluate the applicant’s sense of ownership when it comes to customer service headaches.

The feint: ‘It’s your first day on the job. You’re walking out of the gents’ [or ladies’, as appropriate] when you collide with the CEO. They’re red-faced and fuming. They begin ranting at you about e-mails disappearing from their inbox.’

I use this question (or variations on it) a great deal, because the scenario actually happened to me back during the Dot Com craze. I especially like to use this question for jobs that have nothing whatsoever to do with technical support, because lots of applicants like to try and beg off that e-mail support isn’t in their lane.

The lunge: ‘The CEO recognizes you as a member of the IT department and demands that you personally fix their problem immediately.’

Best answer I ever received: ‘I tell him that he’s absolutely right to be angry and that I’m very sorry that it’s happening to him. I tell him that I’m not the expert in this, but that I’ll make sure he’s taken care of. Then I’ll walk him down to the Exchange Administrator and stay with the both of them until we successfully resolve the problem.’ 

Ah! Excellent! This young lady had no tech support experience at all, but she did have a strong grasp of human psychology and customer service. As I told her when we hired her, we can teach you all of the tech; it’s much harder trying to teach someone how to be a decent human being.

Worst answer I ever received: ‘I’d go back to my office and get on Microsoft TechNet to search for the problem.’

That one stopped the board cold for a second. I asked the gentleman if he meant that he’d simply leave the flustered CEO standing in the hallway. He said ‘Yes, because it isn’t my job to deal with customers.’  Not in my organization, fella. That’s for damned sure.

Sometimes, you can accurately project a candidate’s entire career arc based on one telling answer.

Interviewer’s objective #4: Does the candidate have any idea how to effectively motivate and encourage his or her employees?

The feint: ‘What tools do you have as a supervisor to incentivize the job …’

The grading sheet that we used for this interview question had a long list of options that started with the standard management tools (e.g., annual pay rises, stock awards, etc.) and then went deep into the weeds (e.g., one-on-one coaching, conference attendance, training that would qualify the employee for a better job, and public acknowledgement in front of his/her peers). We tended to have twenty options listed, and would check them off if the applicant got anywhere near one of the entries that we had on our grading sheets.

The lunge: ‘… and what are the risks associated with each one?

The ‘risks’ part of the challenge is to see if the applicant understood that every incentive method can, if misapplied, do more harm than good. Giving any one employee a perquisite that others don’t get can be twisted into a charge of favouritism or unfair treatment if you’re not above-board about everything. Most of the applicants that I’ve interviewed had never considered that there could be potential complications for their ‘good’ ideas.

Best answer I ever received: ‘This wouldn’t have motivated me at all, but I once worked with a fellow who felt like an Olympic gold medallist when our supervisor took him up to the top floor to be formally introduced to the CEO as a star performer. Put him right over the moon. I think that you really need to get to know your people so that you can learn what motivates each person individually.’

That was a tremendous answer. It demonstrated everything we wanted from a new team leader: self-awareness, other-awareness, acceptance of people’s differences, compassion and ownership.

Worst answer I ever received: ‘It should be enough to keep your job. You shouldn’t expect praise for doing a good job.’

What’s really fascinating about that fellow is that he meant every word. Fascinating fellow. Not hired, mind you, but fascinating nonetheless.

People always surprise you. Great people delight you. The whole point of interviewing is to find those great people.

Hopefully these examples illustrate my point. I believe strongly that the desired end-state of a job interview for both sides to determine whether or not it’s a good idea to bring the outsider aboard. I contend that most everyone goes into an interview with a very different objective: to present a highly polished façade that will be mistaken for an ideal match, so as to hide the truth.

Getting the honest facts about one another is extremely difficult to do unless both sides approach the encounter with candour, humility, and maturity. When you find a candidate or an organisation that values and rewards complete transparency, sign on – it’ll likely be the best team you’ll ever get to brag that you were a part of.

For most interviews, though, someone involved is going to insist on doing things the conventional way (e.g., hiding their ugly truth at all costs). That sort of encounter requires some very clever verbal exchanges and no small measure of audacity if you want to get anywhere near the truth. Which is – ultimately ­– the entire point of holding the interview in the first place. Find the truth of one another and of the organisation so that you can both decide if joining forces is a good idea.


[1] Personally, I put more responsibility on the leader since they have considerably more power with which to make positive change happen.

[2] All of these ‘stock answers’ came directly from a post at RedGoldfish.co.uk that I saved several years ago. Reading through the saved article, almost all of these make me cringe.

[3] I would probably throw you out of the interview if you tried that platitude on me. Be warned.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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