Tag Archives: interview questions

All in Your Head?

“Let me see your list of questions,” I asked. I could see by the furtive glance that Claire didn’t have a list.

“I don’t have them written, just in my head, but I could probably write the questions down for you, if that would help,” she responded.

“How many questions do you have in your head?”

“Well, none really prepared, I have the resume, so I will just ask questions from that.”

It’s not Claire’s fault. No company ever trained her to conduct a job interview. No company ever trained her to create interview questions that reveal valuable information to make a hiring decision. Hiring interviews are one of the most critical management skills for the successful manager.

I see many managers conduct the hiring interview solely from the candidate’s resume in their hand. Change this one thing to make your interviews better. Craft your interview questions from the role description rather than the person’s resume. Every question should have a specific purpose to give you data about the candidate relative to the role you want them to play in your company. It’s not what the candidate has done (though it may be fascinating), but what the candidate has done related to the role. -Tom

Open Ended Questions in the Interview

“But the biggest mistake in the interview, was the gift you served up to the candidate,” I said.

“What gift was that?” Marianna asked.

“Open-ended questions,” I replied.

“But, I was taught to ask open-ended questions. I even read a book that said to ask open-ended questions,” she pushed back.

“Marianna, as the interviewer, you have a job to do. Your job is to gather specific data about the candidate related to the critical role requirements. When you ask an open-ended question, that question loses its purpose. When you ask an open-ended question, you are on a fishing expedition without a goal. The candidate is searching your face and fabricating a response that you want to hear. Open-ended questions give the candidate latitude to follow their own agenda, to create a narrative that may have little to do with the critical role requirements.”

Marianna sat quietly.

I continued. “Have you ever read a resume that was a bit enhanced? Have you ever read a resume that contained a little fluff? Have you ever read a resume that contained outright lies?” I stopped. “Open-ended questions give the candidate latitude to enhance their response, add a bit of fluff or create an outright lie. And you invited them to do it.” -Tom

Fictional Behavior in the Interview

“What do you mean, my questions were more real during the exit interview than the initial interview?” Marianna wanted to know.

“In your initial interview, it sounds like you depended on a personality profile, whether people liked the candidate and a response to a hypothetical question,” I challenged.

“What do you mean, hypothetical question?”

“You asked him how he would plan a project. You didn’t ask for an example of a project he actually planned. Even more important, you didn’t ask how he executed the project according to the plan.”

“But, I figured, if he could explain his planning process, he should be able to use that on a real project,” Marianna defended.

“You figured wrong. Lots of people can talk. Fewer can execute in the real world. That is why you have to ask questions about real experience. Hypothetical questions reveal only fictional behavior.” -Tom

But, the Candidate Was Likeable

Marianna was puzzled. “How long does it take to know if a new hire will make it?” she thought out loud. “My last hire, I had to terminate after six weeks. Funny, I had high hopes. We did a personality profile and his graphs lined up with our best candidate profile. I introduced him around and everyone who interviewed him, liked him. Since planning is one of the critical role requirements, I asked him how he would plan a project. He nailed it, showed me a seven step planning process almost identical to some of our project schedules. In response to some of my open ended questions, he had great stories to tell about how he would be valuable on our team.”

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“He was likable. He was friendly. He got along well with everyone. That is why it was so difficult to terminate.”

“So, what was the problem?” I pressed.

“He never actually did any of the things we talked about. During his exit interview, I asked him about his planning process, the one he elegantly described in his initial interview. He said he got it off our website. No wonder I was impressed. But, he never actually put a plan together.”

“Sounds like your questions in the exit interview were more real than the questions in the initial interview?” -Tom

Process Important, but Not Sufficient

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“When you hired George, your interview focused on the process of project management?” I pressed.

“Yes, and understanding the process is important, but not sufficient for the Operations Manager role,” Anne replied.

“What else should you have included in the interview?”

“To manage two or three projects requires knowledge and adherence to our process. That’s a project manager role. To manage ALL of our 36 projects requires building a team of competent project managers. That’s what I should have included in the interview. I never found out if George ever built a team.”

“If you had to do it over again, what questions would you ask?”

Anne paused. Then carefully generated a series of questions related to building a team.

  • Tell me about a time when you built a team of project managers?
  • How many people were on the team?
  • How many projects did the team have to collectively handle?
  • How many individual projects did a PM have to manage?
  • How long were the individual projects? Shortest? Longest?
  • What qualities did you look for in each team member?
  • How did you assign the individual projects to each project manager?
  • How often did you check in on project status with each PM?
  • Step me through one of your check in meetings?
  • Step me through how your PMs mobilized the start of the project?
  • Tell me about a project where there were unseen problems?
  • Step me through the diagnosis of those problems?
  • Step me through the coaching process with the PM in charge of that project?
  • How did the PM respond to the problems on that project?
  • What changes did the PM make?
  • What was the outcome of that project?
  • Tell me about another time when you built a team of project managers?

How to Manage 36 Simultaneous Projects

“I don’t think I missed anything,” Anne replied. “I don’t think I knew what I was looking for when I hired George. He was a good senior project manager, but I think I underestimated the level of work of an Operations Manager.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Our senior project managers can handle two to three large projects at the same time. But we expect our Operations Manager to manage all 36 projects.”

“It’s just more projects,” I chuckled. “Seriously, can’t the Ops Manager run 36 projects the same way as three projects?”

Anne shook her head slowly side to side. “Actually, the Operations Manager doesn’t directly manage any single project, the role has to manage ALL the projects. The level of work is different.”

“How so?” I probed.

“The only way to manage ALL the projects is to create a competent team of project managers who manage the individual projects. If the Ops Manager builds a good team, then the role is a cakewalk. If the Ops Manager has weakness in the project manager team, then life will be miserable.”

“So, what’s the key difference in the level of work?” I pressed.

“A project manager (S-II) manages a process. It’s a coordinating role. The Operations Manager (S-III) has to create a system for managing ALL the projects. That’s where I went wrong when I hired George.”

Send Interview Questions in Advance?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
When interviewing for a specific role, is there any benefit to sending at least some of the core interview questions to the candidates prior to the interview so they can be better prepared to provide the specific work examples we are interviewing for?

Response:
What’s the purpose? Every element of the interview protocol must have a purpose. No purpose, don’t do it.

My primary purpose in an interview is to gather truthful data points surrounding the critical role requirements identified in the role description. I connect the dots with data points (step me through the process). I connect to the truth through details and repetitive patterns of response (give me another example).

I hesitate to send interview questions in advance because I am not interested in a story, I am interested in details. Sending the questions, in advance, allows time to create a story with fabricated details. I am not interested in the enhanced resume or exaggerated detail.

I would send the role description. What’s the purpose? The job posting and the role description (two different documents) exist to attract qualified candidates. I need candidates. The job posting creates my candidate pool. The role description self-disqualifies people in the candidate pool.

I want the candidate to look at the role description and say one of two things –

  • I did that.
  • I have no idea how to do that.

I will find out the details in the interview. I will see the patterns in the interview. -Tom

Interview Questions Do Not Come From the Resume

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From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You said, in your workshop, that the resume wasn’t that important. I use the resume for all my notes and to help guide me through the interview.

Response:
I use the resume as a reference. It’s in the room with me, but it is not the piece of paper I hold in my hand. I only use it to nail down the name of an employer, the name of a project or a specific date range. I rarely read the resume for content, because the content has been carefully fluffed.

My questions do NOT come from the resume and I do not make my notes on the resume. I do not ask questions to increase my understanding of the resume. I do not need to correlate candidate responses to the narrative on the resume.

My questions come from the role description. I make my notes on a sheet, left column for my written questions, right side for my notes. I ask questions to increase my understanding of the candidate’s experience related to the role. I correlate candidate responses to the critical role requirements of the position.

When I evaluate each candidate to the same criteria in the role description, I can more easily distinguish between candidates’ capability and skill related to the role. The crucible that helps me form my judgment is not the candidate’s resume, it is the role description that defines what is necessary for success in the position.

How to Interview for Passion at S-IV Level of Work

Before we can interview for interest and passion, we have to define the work. It’s always about the work.

Most S-IV roles are integration roles, integrating systems and sub-systems for total organizational throughput. The tools at S-IV are system metrics. The role is typically an executive manager, VP or C-suite. Longest time span goals and objectives would be 2-3-4-5 years. Learning would be long-term (longitudinal) analytic. Highest level problem solving would include systems analysis (Senge-Fifth Discipline). Value-add to the organization is multi-system efficiency and total throughput. It is the role at S-IV to optimize multi-system output so that no one system overwhelms or drags on other systems, and to improve handoffs of work output from one system to the next system. One of the most important functions at S-IV is as the manager of S-III and the manager-once-removed (MOR) at S-II.

Managerial roles at S-IV are accountable for the output of the team at S-III.

Interview questions –

  • The purpose of these next questions is to look at some of the systems in your prior company and examine the way those systems worked together?
  • In your last role, list the functional systems that existed?
  • What was your role title?
  • Which single function were you most focused on?
  • Looking at that system, what impact did other systems have on its output?
  • Describe the balance or imbalance of your focus system and its surrounding system?
  • When one system in your organization was out of balance, in your role, how did you discover the imbalance?
  • When one system in your organization was out of balance, in your role, how did you influence or take direct action to correct the imbalance?
  • How did you communicate the corrective steps necessary to re-balance the systems?
  • How long did it take to re-balance the systems?
  • How did you know, what metrics indicated the systems were back in balance?
  • Step me through the work flow, start to finish as work moved from one function to another in your organization?
  • As work moved from one function to the next, how was that work transferred, communicated, handed-off?
  • Looking at the work transitions between functions, in your role, how did you detect problems?
  • Looking at the work transitions between functions, in your role, how did you influence or take direct action to improve the hand-off transitions?
  • How did you communicate the necessary steps to improve the hand-off transitions?
  • How did you document the hand-off transition steps?
  • How did you know when the hand-off transitions improved?
  • Tell me about another example?

Each of these questions asks for a specific piece of data about the candidate. And though we are trying to find out about an attitude or feeling, the questions are still laser focused on the work.

How to Interview for Passion at S-I Level of Work
How to Interview for Passion at S-II Level of Work
How to Interview for Passion at S-III Level of Work

How to Interview for Passion for Work at S-III

Before we can interview for interest and passion, we have to define the work. It’s always about the work.

Most S-III roles are system roles, building systems that don’t solve problems, but prevent them. The tools at S-III are work flow diagrams, time and motion studies, schematics, sequencing and planning. The role is typically the manager of a functional team (marketing, sales, business development, estimating, operations, QA/QC, warranty, research and development, HR, legal). Longest time span goals and objectives would be 12 months – 16 months – 20 months – 24 months. Learning would include analytic. Highest level problem solving would include root cause and comparative analysis. Value-add to the organization is consistency and predictability. It is the role at S-III to create the system, monitor the system, constantly improve the system. One of the most important systems at S-III is the people system inside the function.

Managerial roles at S-III are accountable for the output of the team at S-II.

Given a large customer problem, the central question for the S-III manager is, why didn’t our system prevent that problem, or at least, mitigate the damage from that problem.

Interview questions –

  • The purpose of these next questions is to look at some of the systems you built and how you built them. Tell me about a project you were accountable for, containing several steps, that was similar to other projects you completed in the past?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • Using this project as an example, tell me about a system you created to solve its problems and make its decisions?
  • What were the circumstances in the project that lead you to create a system?
  • Step me through the system that you created?
  • How did you communicate the steps in the system to the team?
  • How did you test the steps in the system to make sure they were in the best sequence?
  • During the project, did any of the steps in the system change?
  • When steps in the system changed, how did you track the changes and modify the system?
  • When the project was totally complete, what parts of the system could be applied to other projects?
  • Think about the next project where that system was useful?
  • What was the project, why was that project a candidate to use the same system?
  • What modifications did you have to make to the system, so it had a positive impact of this next project?
  • How did you document the modification to the system?
  • How was this system important to the effectiveness of your functional team?
  • Tell me about another system you created related to a project in your company?

Each of these questions asks for a specific piece of data about the candidate. And though we are trying to find out about an attitude or feeling, the questions are still laser focused on the work.

How to Interview for Passion at S-I Level of Work
How to Interview for Passion at S-II Level of Work