Management

The American View: No More Stupid Questions

Don’t ask beginner level b-school questions during an interview. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert argues that lobbing the proverbial softballs won’t get you the critical insight that you need to make a decision, and insults the interview subject besides.

A close friend called me out of the blue late Sunday night and asked me for a favour. Specifically, he asked if he could ‘interview’ me for a leadership studies assignment. I asked him if he was taking classes towards a new degree and he said no. This was something that his new department head was doing internally for staff professional development. His assignment was to interview an experienced senior leader and then present what he learned to his peers and supervisors. I presume that the other professionals in his department were given the same sort of assignment, so that they each in turn could compare and contrast different interview subjects’ findings.

I said that I’d be delighted. First, the fellow asking is a dear old friend. Second, I’m a huge proponent of professional development in general and leadership studies in particular. Third, there’s the chance that something I said in the interview might help a stranger to grow into a better leader. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I asked him to send me his questions as soon as he could, and I promised to type up my answers just as soon as I got home.

I was already worn down from a long day at the office, but still … This was an exhilarating break from the everyday. As soon as I got home, I popped open my laptop, pulled up my mate’s message, and started reading the canned interview questions that his employer had directed him to ask me.

I read the first one. I closed my laptop. I went outside and shouted at a completely innocent tree for a few minutes until I ran out of breath. I went back inside, poured myself a very tall drink, and grimly returned to fulfil my promise. I wasn’t excited about it anymore – not after I couldn't be after I’d read the opening pseudo-intellectual gibberish.

This is exactly the sort of tripe that you get from a freshly-minted MBA candidate who’s never actually interviewed anyone before. Brace yourself.

Question 1. How would your staff and colleagues describe your leadership style?

This (I typed) is a bloody stupid question. I’ve already ranted – extensively ­ about this exact standard interview question in my column The Default in Our Stars. I cribbed a couple paragraphs off of that work as a terse answer, and prayed that whoever had come up with this interview question list wasn’t going to entertain any other freshman-level business school exam questions.

I turned to question number two and skimmed it.

Questions 2.  What are the most important values and ethics you demonstrate as a leader? Give us an example of these in practice.

I closed my laptop. Drained my drink. Closed my eyes until the urge to shout obscenities had passed. Then I gave up and tried to give my mate what he needed to turn this pile of offal into dais to teach from.

I opened up my keyboard, turned to the blank Word document, and typed the word ‘NO.’

I admit to being an occasional curmudgeon. I embrace my dour and gruff side. I’ve earned it. On the other hand, it’s easy to see a trite question for what it is when you’ve already grappled with it a hundred times. The thing is … These blokes that my old war buddy is doing this project for aren’t bitter old industry veterans. In fact, the senior manager that came up with the project probably isn’t a bitter old sourpuss either. These folks are all advanced technical specialists, I thought. For most of them, it’s probably the first time that they’ve ever heard this before. They don’t know why these questions are misdirected, counter-productive, and inadequate for the purposes of evaluating a candidate’s potential.

You’ll learn far more useful insight into a candidate if you take him or her out to lunch — or, better yet, out for a pint — than you will in any structured, formal interview session. Well, hell … (I thought). They don’t know … That is to say, they don’t know yet. No time like the present for correcting an educational oversight.

 

No (I typed). That’s the wrong question.

Never attempt to reduce a complex human cultural morass into a trite business school scenario. Doing so treats people like they’re simplistic automata when they’re anything but. It also presupposes that organizations are monolithic entities operating like some sort of Borg-like singular consciousness. If you attempt to lead flesh-and-blood people under those conceits, you’re doomed to fail before you give a single command.

Consider instead these two essential points:

First, a workplace does not operate under any one set of values. A workplace is a seething, roiling melee of conflicting values. That is, a leader is dealing with the individual and associative values of every individual who comes to work on any given day. Each employee brings his or her own set of imprinted personal, familial, social, and trained values to the office whether they’re aware of it or not. Unless these people all graduated from the same Marine Corps Boot Camp, each individual’s values are inevitably going to come into conflict with every other individual’s values. Office culture is borne form these incompatibilities and conflicts as people struggle to achieve a rough working relationship with one another. [1]

You can either learn how to get along, or else lunge over the fabric wall and go completely berserk on Chad over his Teletubbies ringtone.

People have to learn how to get along with one another. A significant part of functioning in a collective setting involves discovering and then overcoming your own revulsion that other people don’t do the same things that you do in any given situation. Those darned Other People insist on praying out loud before they eat lunch in the break room. They take speakerphone calls in the open-plan cubicle farm. They strike up ribald conversations at the urinal. Behaviour that’s shockingly gauche to you is meaningless to them … and vice versa.

This is ‘secondary socialization.’ Borrowing directly from the Wikipedia definition, it’s the process of learning what constitutes ‘appropriate’ behaviour as a member of a larger society. It’s how behavioural patterns get reinforced by socializing agents outside of the home. It’s the way that both children and adults learn how to act in a way that’s generally considered appropriate for situations that they find themselves in once they leave the bubble society that is their immediate family.

Part of this process involves learning how and when to overlook minor social infractions in order to maintain a functional group harmony. Another part of the process involves setting and reinforcing those behavioural ‘red lines’ that constitute going past the limits of what the group will accept. This process requires people to examine their personal values from new perspectives, and to consider others’ values. When successful, the end-result of the process is a person who can function as part of a fluid, dissimilar group. When unsuccessful, the end-result is often termination-for-cause.

Second, a workplace’s espoused collective values rarely align with its actual values. That is, a company may post an official credo, values statement, or code of conduct that mandates what all employees’ official values are supposed to be, but these are almost always statements of wishful thinking that were penned by wistful idealists. They’re pretty words, written to impress visitors, auditors, regulators, and the occasional lawyer. Unfortunately, humans being what they are, a company’s ‘official’ values are honoured more often by happenstance than because of heartfelt belief.

If you really want to discover what your workers’ values are, leave them your company credit card and take off for a month.

That’s because an organization’s values only have merit and weight when they’re enforced. A value that’s claimed but is allowed to be violated with impunity isn’t a value that anyone takes seriously – or strives to internalize. That’s why most companies have a severe disconnect between who they say they are and who evidence reveals they are. When an institutional value comes into conflict with a powerful person’s desires, an existential cultural conflict ensures: either the company is required to enforce its stated value, or else it tacitly endorses the value’s violation, thereby undermining company leadership’s intuitional credibility.

This is a huge element of both cultural formation and of cultural decay. Often, a company will launch under its founders’ earnest principles, only to lose sight of those ideals as crops of new hires come and go. Other times, a group of the aforementioned wistful idealists will draft a set of ‘official’ values as a sort of mid-flight retrofit, and insist that everyone already in the culture change their existing values to suit. It tends not to work.

If we take those two essential points as true (I argue), then a company’s ethics are nothing more than those espoused corporate values that the company has yet to publicly betray. They’re more statements of ambition than they are statements of fact. The same principle holds true for individual leaders at all levels of the company. One’s personal values and the company’s values only tend to align for the sake of minimal collective compatibility. Everyone is always a little bit irritated by everyone else, but folks get along because that’s how you keep earning a paycheque.

Why, then, ask an individual what his or her ‘values and ethics’ are, when truly it’s the organization’s consistently-applied values and ethics that matter? The very act of asking the question betrays either a sense of astounding naiveté, or else a bleak sense of nihilistic cynicism. Not terribly useful.

It’s more productive, I argue, to ask what a leader stands for. That is, what principles is the leader willing to accept and endure great personal and professional hardship to defend? What metaphorical hill are they willing to die on, so to speak. What values are so crucial to the leader’s identity that they’ll refuse to compromise on them even for the sake of tolerable compatibility? Where are their ‘red lines’? Tell me that, and I’ll tell you whether or not they’re likely to succeed.

I don’t need any b-school buzzwords, ‘trick questions,’ or special implements to reach an accurate conclusion. If you know your culture and take time to know your applicants – without all the self-serving artifice – you can tell whether or not they’re a fit.

I have no idea how my answers went over in discussion. After I hit ‘send’ on my ten-page screed, I received an acknowledgement of receipt … and then silence. I hope that my old chum was able to take some of my less-acerbic arguments and help a peer or two reconsider what applied leadership really is (compared to what it arguable should be). I hope that I’ve helped grow some stronger, more ethical leaders. I regret that I may never find out.

It was still worth taking a stab at. That’s one of the core values that I refuse to compromise on. We have – I believe – an obligation to teach, mentor, and guide the young leaders coming up behind us as best we can so that they can make rational, just, and honourable decisions. Hopefully someone else that hears me ranting on the subject will accept and internalize that value for him- or herself, and then carry the message on to the people coming up after them.


[1] For a longer discussion of this topic, see my 2016 column The Colour Out of Place.

 

Title Allusion: Justin Sullivan, Stupid Questions (song), performed by New Model Army on their 1989 album Thunder and Consolation.

 


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-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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