TL;DR: Questions to Ask
- How would your team describe your leadership style?
- What is the main challenge you face in delivering your key objectives?
- Could you describe the characteristics of employees in your team who excel?
- I am interested in the values of the company, could you speak to this organisation’s philosophy?
- What is your preferred way to provide feedback?
- How do you like to communicate?
- Thinking back on your career, what are some of the moments when you have supported your employees’ career development?
When going into a interview, it is easy to focus on what will be asked of us at the expense of what we should be asking a prospective employer. This is a folly, because an interview is a crossroad, one at which you are making a choice between merely seeking a job and wage or using the opportunity to develop a career. If you take the latter road, a road I would argue that is less travelled, you should go to the interview as well prepared with what you are going to ask as with what you are anticipating you will need to answer.
Below, I take a run at some example questions you might be wise to ask in these categories. But before I do, a note on good and problematic keywords. These are provided as a guide and as ever, context is everything.
Unlike management bingo, it is not a case of looking for hits in either the good or bad camp, and marking them off as you go. Rather, it is about the context in which a word is used. An ‘agile mindset’ can be a very good thing for an organisation seeking change and looking to break long standing methodologies. But it can also be problematic, when it becomes a mere catch phrase for individuals seeking to explain chaotic management and lack of a strategic plan.
While the number of questions you bring to an interview may rise and fall depending on the role, stage of career, and opportunity or concern you envisage with the prospective employer, the categories broadly remain the same:
- Leadership Styles: Is Your Boss a Dictator
- Interpersonal Characteristics: Will Your World View Shine at this Organisation
- Communication: Surrounded by Idiots
- Professional Development: Do You Really Have a Career?
Leadership Styles: Is Your Boss a Dictator
Question: How would your team describe your leadership style?
The purpose of this question is to assess the hiring manager’s self-awareness, depth of experience, and understanding of leadership. At a basic level, are they aware of what leadership is, as opposed to management, and are they aware of when and how it takes place.
I kid you not, one manager I knew quite proudly described himself as an arsehole. I suspect he thought it made him look like someone not to be messed with. Instead, this made him look out of touch, narcissistic and, no surprise here, like an arsehole.
Good keywords: authoritative, autonomous, authentic, competency, contingency, deliberation, implicit, influence, reason, transformational.
A gold star for any employer who uses the phrase ‘management by objective and self-control’.
Problematic keywords: authoritarian, charisma, emotional, power, volatile, arsehole.
Question: What is the main challenge you face in delivering your key objectives?
This will help you understand not just ‘the main challenge’ but also the category of the challenge: technical, cultural, financial, etc. This is important because if the main challenge is profit or revenue, then chances are that no matter the role you will find yourself in endless financial conversations. If that is your bag, great. But if your interest is producing compelling content or keeping customers happy, you may find yourself with cost cutting or growing market share as your key objective rather than those being byproducts of your activities.
Key objectives is also an important phrase. Sadly many employers are enthralled with KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). While these have a place in the corporate world, for many roles OKRs (Objective and Key Results) are a far better framework for achieving successful outcomes. This is because KPIs tend to focus on output and are in consequence problematic as doing more does not necessarily improve the quality, standing or even profit of an organisation. Put another way, they are objectives for objectives sake. OKRs by contrast preference outcomes over output, and are focused on the result that is achieved by the objective rather than just the objective itself. In this context, they are great at measuring complex or intangible work objectives.
Good keywords: customer effort, customer satisfaction, innovation, stakeholder engagement.
Problematic keywords: the board, costs, IT, inertia, policies, politics, profit, revenue, senior leadership.
Further Reading on Leadership
- Leading From The Front
- Teflon Leadership
- Leadership: A Human Encounter
- CEO Excellence by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, and Vikram Malhotra
- Radical Candor by Kim Malone Scott
Interpersonal Characteristics: Will Your World View Shine at this Organisation
Question: Could you describe the characteristics of employees in your team who excel?
Typically, hiring managers will respond from a traits based position. Things like ‘people in my team are hard working’, ‘my team is passionate about’, ‘outstanding individuals at this organisation are innovative’. If so, I can only apologise for the standard of what passes for education these days. But hopefully they will unpack the query with a little more nuance and instead speak to the values that enable high performing teams.
Given this is at heart a values question, good responses are as much about what the employer is seeking as whether the characteristics and values match yours. If you want to be closely mentored, provided detailed training or even micro-managed, and never like to call out things that are going wrong, but your prospective employer is looking for autonomous employees who are authentic, capable of speaking truth to power, and make good use of reasoned deliberation, they might be a great employer but you are unlikely to complete probation.
Good keywords: autonomous, authentic, deliberation, reason, self-control.
Problematic keywords: agile mindset, conform, follow, get on with the job, pivot, status quo.
Question: I am interested in the values of the company, could you speak to this organisation’s philosophy?
If the former question only surfaced traits and not values, hopefully this will elicit a response that speaks to beliefs, ideals, or even organisational ideology. Given the almost cult-like nature of some organisations, and here I do not mean this as a pejorative, it matters that you find a role with an organisation which has beliefs that are closely aligned to yours. No point in proceeding with a job at a profit driven corporation if public good matters to you more than the public purse.
There is also little chance of a happy career if the company in question has very specific methods of appreciation that jar with your preferred style. A great example of this is a colleague who worked at Amazon. I asked if it was a good place to work and he said it was, however there is a trend for all employees to respond to team or division wide emails with ‘nice’. He said it was a little weird to wake in the morning to see several hundred emails simply with the word ‘nice’ in them. For some, immediate and public acknowledgement is crucial to their wellbeing and sense of appreciation. For others, it is just creepy.
Bonus points for any manager who, adopting a strongly nominalist line, observes that an organisation cannot have a philosophy, only people can have a philosophy. In which case, ask them what is their philosophy of management.
Good keywords: care, customer centred, principles, shared value, social responsibility, sustainable.
Problematic keywords: ideology, long hours, profit motive, results driven, unpaid overtime.
Further Reading on Interpersonal Characteristics:
- No One Is To Blame For Misbehaviour
- ‘I’ and ‘Me’
- Patagonia Traditional CSR, Strategic CSR or CSV
- The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought by Jean-Etienne Joullié and Robert Spillane
Communication: Surrounded by Idiots
Question: What is your preferred way to provide feedback?
How your manager gives feedback is very important. Well timed and sensitively delivered feedback can be highly motivating and helpful. This is because it provides insights into what we can do to lift our capabilities and deliver more value in our role. We are also likely to get more personal benefit from our role if we are performing well.
Feedback that is neither carefully delivered nor thoughtfully provided will seldom be constructive. We simply feel demotivated and even resentful toward the individual giving the feedback. A process that dissolves the social glue holding teams together and ultimately turns the workplace into a toxic environment.
Good keywords: authentic, considered, constructive, in person, reflective, sensitive.
Problematic keywords: criticism, direct, team meetings, in the moment, performance review, WIP (Work in Progress).
Question: How do you like to communicate?
Some people are very text based. I once worked with a colleague who, even though sitting next to me in a cubicle, would send me a message on Skype rather than turning and speaking to me. As I always try and adapt to the communication preference of my interlocutor, this was not too much of an issue. But for many, this would just be weird, even passive aggressive.
Understanding the communication rhythm of your boss helps to determine if you are a good fit for each other, but also so you can amend your communication expectations. It is important to remember we are all people, even bosses. And just as a good employer should amend their communication style to suit an employee, there is also a reciprocal duty of care for employees to be understanding and find a communication rhythm that works for their employer.
Good keywords: adaptive, authentic, consistent, open, personalised, regular.
Problematic keywords: ad hoc, in between meetings, indirect, irregular, sporadic, when I have time.
Further Reading on Communication
- A Change Management Primer
- Fourth Way – Living in Harmony with our Online Presence
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson
- Simply Said by Jay Sullivan
Professional Development: Do You Really Have a Career?
Question: Could you give me some examples of when you have supported your employees’ career development?
As mentioned at the outset, we have two paths when interviewing. Simply looking for a job or developing a career. If you have made it this far, it’s a safe bet you are trying to develop a career. In this context, an employer who cannot speak to career and development is unlikely to be of much value beyond the immediate pay cheque.
It is also important to actively listen to the examples they give in their reply. Some companies, realising the importance of retention, will have a long list of ‘development opportunities’ – usually in the shape of LinkedIn learning or other online courses and which often focus on technical skills like Excel or Photoshop. While these are useful and even important if you are short technical capability, they are of limited value in career growth. They are also what I term ‘arms length’ development opportunities because it means the manager can accrue credit for developing their team without needing to put in the personal time and knowledge necessary for employee development.
Instead, look for managers who not only provide, but who actually seem to enjoy providing, both soft and hard skill development. Who are interested in mentoring not merely training. Who, perhaps most importantly, can explain how you might get from where you are to where you want to be. If they have no idea how to provide immediate, let alone long term next steps, they will not be able to be your advocate, guide, or confidant when the time comes for the next stage of your career growth.
Good keywords: career progression, growth mindset, holistic, personal development plan, soft skills, what are your career aspirations.
Problematic keywords: job based skills, LinkedIn Learning, online courses, we don’t do that here.
Further Reading on Professional Development
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash.