Excerpted from the book on mindful business management, Business Black Belt
“Hire smart or manage tough.”
~ Lou Adler, executive recruiter
If you’re betting the farm on key employees, you need all the clues you can get. Here are a few questions to add to your interview repertoire.
Tell me what you’ve done or continue to do to educate yourself?
What people do to continue their education is very important. I am amazed how many people have stopped learning in their field beyond their college degree. For example, I have a degree in economics. Since 1979, when I graduated with this degree, I’ve studied little to nothing on economic theory. I may read a magazine article here and there on some economic theory, but generally I’ve done absolutely nothing with it. On the other hand, I’ve studied marketing, sales, and management. I’m much more valuable to a company as a marketing and sales person than I am as an economic analyst.
Consequently, if someone has a degree in marketing, I often wonder if they have studied anything in marketing since they got their degree. Perhaps they feel they had enough marketing in college and have studied nothing since. Sure, their college degree provided them with good background. I know for certain that a lot of marketing is not taught in college. In my case, economics was a good foundation for my further learning in sales, marketing, and business. My actual knowledge in marketing came way after college. Also, what someone has studied since college is a good indication of a continuing interest in learning. Further education shows me several things: They are interested in continuing to learn, they’re improving their skills constantly, and they will probably continue to keep reading and learning.
Does your present employer know you’re looking?
Compare the candidate who says, “Yes, my boss knows I’m looking,” with the one who says, “No, please keep this confidential….” As a business black belt, you know that what a person does to or says about another will someday be said about or done to you. And, as you seek to improve your organization, wouldn’t you prefer to hire an employee who honestly communicates their thoughts and feelings to you? I find that the candidates who respond like the first one above seem to be more forthright overall.
Here’s the kind of person I’m looking for: They’ve spoken with their employer about their position and their interests–they’ve made every attempt to adjust their current job to their liking and they have openly involved their employer in that process. Obviously, their employer could not accommodate them and they are now looking elsewhere for a better fit. As their future employer, I’d like the opportunity to discuss their situation and work something out before they jump ship behind my back. If they jump ship behind the other employer’s back, what else am I supposed to expect is going to happen to me?
I’ve had candidates who responded to ads because they were curious and hadn’t been considering a job change, but I’m always interested in how they respond to this question. It’s always a good one to ask. Also, if they haven’t told their boss, when will they do so?
What do/did your parents do?
(Technically (legally), you cannot ask this question, but I try to find out some way.)
Wouldn’t you like to know what influences—not shown on their resume—they grew up with? In my case, my father is a financial planner, and my mother is an interior designer. I can’t tell you how many dinner conversations I sat through listening about financial planning and interior design or about dealing with their clients. All of those subjects were constantly in my environment. I watched my mother work on houses through the before and after stages, and saw what could be done. I asked questions and she told me why certain colors went together, why certain fabrics went together, and why certain designs were the way they were. My father talked about financial planning, investments, and taxes. I wasn’t wildly interested in pursuing either of these subjects on my own, nevertheless, they were in my background, and I learned quite a bit about them in addition to my college education and other experiences.
Now when I talk to and interview a potential employee, I always wonder what else they learned in their background that might be useful. For example, our Chief Financial Officer’s father is an attorney, which makes her very useful in meetings when discussing legal issues and looking at contracts. Sure, she’s not an attorney herself, but she asks many useful questions most of us don’t think of (obviously, we seek legal counsel for finalizing any significant deal) and it’s very helpful. You never know what extra benefits a potential employee may bring to your party. This informal education also gives you some indication of what influences them in their thinking, or what influences their point of view as they approach their job with you. You could even ask them how they might apply that additional life experience to their job now, or how it influences their thinking today.
Tell me about growing up… Which kid are you?
Does Birth Order Determine Success? This is an interesting study for all of us and again there can be exceptions. Here is a brief article by Kate Lorenz, CareerBuilder.com Editor, which nicely explains why this interview information could be useful to you in your hiring process.
All men may be created equal; but a look at their pay stubs will tell you that their incomes are not. Blame it on social class, education – even luck, but according to Dalton Conley, New York University professor of sociology and public policy, inequality begins at home.
In his book, “The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why,” Conley says that 75% of the income inequality between individuals in the United States occurs between siblings in the same families. He points to the diverse fortunes of Bill and Roger Clinton, and Jimmy and Billy Carter as examples.
Research shows that first borns (and onlys) lead the pack in terms of educational attainment, occupational prestige, income and net worth. Conversely middle children in large families tend to fare the worst. (Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!)
“A child’s position in the family impacts his personality, his behavior, his learning and ultimately his earning power,” states Michael Grose, author of “Why First Born Rule the World and Last-borns Want to Change It.” “Most people have an intuitive knowledge that birth order somehow has an impact on development, but they underestimate how far-reaching and just how significant that impact really is.”
Conley concedes that birth order is significant in shaping individual success, but only for children of large families – four or more siblings – and in families where finances and parental time are constrained. (In wealthy families, like the Bushes and Kennedys, it has less effect.)
Here’s a look at what impact your birth-order may have on you:
More conscientious, ambitious and aggressive than their younger siblings, first borns are over-represented at Harvard and Yale as well as disciplines requiring higher education such as medicine, engineering or law. Every astronaut to go into space has been either the oldest child in his or her family or the eldest boy. And throughout history — even when large families were the norm — more than half of all Nobel Prize winners and U.S. presidents have been first born. Famous eldest children include: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling and Winston Churchill. And macho movie stars are First Born, too, including Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and all the actors who have played James Bond.
Middle children are more easy going and peer-oriented. Since they can get lost in the shuffle of their own families, they learn to build bridges to other sources of support and therefore tend to have excellent people skills. Middle children often take on the role of mediator and peacemaker. Famous middle children include: Bill Gates, J.F.K., Madonna and Princess Diana.
The youngest child tends to be the most creative and can be very charming–even manipulative. Because they often identify with the underdog, they tend to champion egalitarian causes. (Youngest siblings were the earliest backers of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.) Successful in journalism, advertising, sales and the arts, famous youngest children include Cameron Diaz,
Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal.
Only children have similar characteristics to first borns and are frequently burdened with high parental expectations. Research shows they are more confident, articulate and likely to use their imagination than other children. They also expect a lot from others, hate criticism, can be inflexible and are likely to be perfectionists. Well-known only children include Rudy Guiliani, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Alan Greenspan, Tiger Woods, tennis’ teen queen Maria Sharapova and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Because they hold equal status and are treated so similarly, twins turn out similarly in most cases. Consider advice columnists “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” (Abigail and Esther Friedman), and Harold and Bernard Shapiro, who became presidents of Princeton University and Canada’s McGill University respectively.
Dr. Frank Sulloway, a behavioral scientist and visiting professor at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at University of California, Berkeley and author of the book, “Born To Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives,” says first borns are more similar in personality to first borns in other families than they are to their own younger siblings and that youngest children are often more similar to the youngest child in another family than his or her own elder siblings. He says this is because the family is not as much a “shared environment” as a set of niches that provide siblings with different outlooks.
Conley agrees, but stresses that these are just general trends – and that the whole birth-order theory can be turned on its head depending on the child’s personality, the age gap between siblings and the family circumstances each child experiences during his or her formative years.
Kate Lorenz is the article and advice editor for CareerBuilder.com. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.
Who are your heroes? Why?
The more important component of this question is why. But to get to that, you want to know who the hero is. That will at least access memory and thinking in the direction of inner goals and desires. Hopefully, these heroes display the characteristics of the kind of person you’re looking for to fill the job.
Here’s a current problem: [use a current, real-life situation here].
How would you handle it?
This is my favorite question to ask. Can the candidate think on their feet? Are they current with our industry? Do I like their thought process? What probing questions do they ask before offering a solution? This is real, not hypothetical, so you can get a feeling for how this potential employee is going to handle the problem you’re hiring them to fix. The more specifically they answer this question the better. Answers to a variety of these kinds of specific questions weigh heaviest at decision time. (I had one candidate retort, “That’s what you pay me for!” I’m not looking for free advice, I’m not going to do the work myself, that’s why I’m hiring, but I am looking a little generosity of spirit… and a contributory attitude. Not her for sure!)
Give them a test
We gave our product managers a writing test. We wanted to know how well they can write. After all, what we sell is the best way to handle a business task, such as writing a business plan, writing an employee manual, and writing a marketing plan. So, we gave the applicants a sample of some text we were currently working on (on disk) and asked them to bring it back edited the way they would do it. We wanted to see how creative they were, how much they were willing to change (they could have written and reformatted the entire page), how clear a communicator they were and so on. As a result, the people we hired were excellent. Also, we keep the same page to test new applicants for the same job and compare with our existing people.
Tell me about a mistake you made and what you learned from it
The bigger the mistake the better. A good candidate should smile and admit he or she has several doozies to choose from. A healthy attitude and answer to this question demonstrates to me that the person isn’t afraid of being a little vulnerable and has plenty of self-confidence. It also seems that they are willing to face their mistakes and learn from them. This kind of person can bring a lot of good experience (mistakes that don’t need to be repeated) to your business.
We hired an executive a few years ago who seemed to be the poster boy for VP Sales. Slick, confident and very polished, he very adroitly dodged this question as if to say that he had never screwed up. Overall, we were so impressed with his charisma that we hired him. Big mistake. I can’t say that this question should have given us cause not to hire him, but it and a few others should have been clues to look a little further and think twice.
Tell me about your vacations
What someone chooses to do on a vacation provides tremendous insight into other interests they may have. Instead of hearing about fantasies and something they may like to do someday, you hear about what someone actually did and what experiences they actually had. Vacations represent people’s freest choices and give you some further insight into their natural tendencies. Ideally, you would like to have an employee in a job where they can apply their natural tendencies to do the right thing, or the things you want them to do.
Business Black Belt Notes
- Make sure your questions are relevant to the job.
- It’s often useful to know what factors influence the thinking of your employees.
- Do they continue to educate themselves?
- Who do they admire and why?
- What do they do on their off time and how might that relate to your business?
- Are they up-front with difficult relationship issues like their job situation?
- Can they own up to mistakes, learn from them, and even teach others?