Keil Hubert: Interviewing for the Feint-Hearted

What are you actually trying to accomplish when you enter a job interview? In part 3 of his summer interviewing series, Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert provides some examples of how to get what you’re really after.

No, that’s not a typo. Last week, I advocated in my column that job interviewing should be viewed more like a fencing match than a police interrogation; that is, 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 oneself to deliver the winning blow in the discussion. It ought to be more of a competition, and less of a unidirectional beat-down.

‘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, you ‘win’ by growing a team of interesting people into a high-performance team that solves the business’s problems. That responsibility falls proportionately on both employee and employer. [1]

This topic pretty much ate my entire Labor Day weekend, since I feel strongly 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 and figure out what’s really going on. I want to be reasonably sure that we’re a ‘fit’ for one another, even if the position interviewed isn’t the one that led to a contract. I like finding great people to work with.

In both last week’s column and the one before that, I promised to provide some concrete examples of the kind of unconventional questions and answers that I alluded to in the fencing metaphor.  Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.

First, from the candidate’s perspective:

Stock question #1: ‘Are you a good leader?’ [2]

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 good examples of how my leadership decisions led to excellent results for a given situation, 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 her perspective, values and biases as early 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 fellow. 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.

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 the 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 characteristics. The intent here is to change the entire direction of the question. By drawing out the interviewer (‘…Pick an attribute that you’reinterested 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 other person’s veiled 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?’

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

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

The fencer’s answer: ‘That depends entirely on context, risk and time; there’s a huge difference in the decision making process of whether to continue cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a hospital corridor and 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 other fellow. 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 insist on dominating you in every aspect of your working life. Better to know that early on, preferably before signing a contract.

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. Can you describe what the person we hire is going to be expected to do?’

Most times, the candidate will regurgitate what was in the posted job description – which is most often wrong. Unless the candidate came from inside the team, 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, 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, did the candidate actually listen 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 and can then recover. Second, can the candidate 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 brilliant; she showed self-awareness, strong listening skills, disarming candour and personal integrity. I hired her.

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. Thanks for applying.

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 Neal deGrasse Tyson. That’s a given, so I don’t really find the 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 have an understanding of who we are, what we do, what we need, and how to go about solving it. I certainly don’t expect detailed or insider knowledge from an outsider; 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, and they explained that you’re experiencing problems in X, Y and Z.’  

That young lady did a phenomenal job. She had no experience whatsoever, but had taken the initiative to read the rulebooks that regulated our industry and really did interview people from the department. That level of initiative showed us that she wouldn’t 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.  

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. The fellow is red-faced and fuming. He begins ranting about disappearing e-mails from his inbox.’

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

The lunge: ‘He recognizes you as a member of the IT department and demands that you personally fix his 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 had a strong grasp of human psychology and crisis management. As I told her when we hired her, we can teach you all of the tech; it’s much harder trying to teach you 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, lad – that’s for damned sure.

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 that 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.

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 organization 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 the 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.

[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.

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

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible 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.

© Business Reporter 2021

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