Tag Archives: interview questions

A Bad Attitude is Invisible

“So, tell me,” Russell asked, “how can we interview for a bad attitude?”

“Well, let’s think about attitude,” I started. “Is attitude, particularly a bad attitude, something inside a person, perhaps invisible?”

“You nailed it,” Russell shook his head. “It’s invisible, some people even hide it.”

“It’s invisible until when?”

“It’s invisible until something triggers it, or the pressure builds up. That’s when a bad attitude shows up.”

“See, I can’t interview for something invisible, like a bad attitude,” I said. “I can only interview for behaviors connected to a bad attitude. So, what I want to know is, how does the candidate behave when the pressure builds up?”

“I’m listening,” Russell replied.

“Tell me about a project, likely the worst project you ever worked on, where everything seemed to go wrong. A project where the customer was unreasonable, never satisfied, in spite of your best efforts.

  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • How large was the project team? Who was on the team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • How did you discover the project was not going well, as planned?
  • How did the customer find out?
  • What was the customer’s reaction?
  • Step me through the interaction with the customer?
  • What was the customer’s reason to be upset?
  • What was your role in the interaction?
  • How did you respond to the situation?
  • What resolutions were discussed?
  • What was the outcome?

“You see, Russell, I cannot interview a candidate for a bad attitude, only for behavior in a situation where a bad attitude might be driving things.”

Interview for a Bad Attitude

“We always hire people for their technical skills, but we fire them for who they are.” Russell explained.

“Tell me more,” I asked. “What do you mean you fire them for who they are?”

“Well, they may have the right experience, know how to handle the technical part of the job, but their attitude is a little out of whack. In the beginning, it doesn’t show up, but after a couple of months, little things appear. After six months, this strange behavior actually begins to flourish and it’s downhill from there.”

“What do mean, strange behavior?” I was curious.

“Sometimes, it’s just people skills. They are a little gruff at first, then a couple of people get on their bad side. Pretty soon, they become downright rude. They publicly dress people down in meetings. No one can disagree with them without a huge public confrontation.”

“Do you interview to discover this type of behavior?”

“No, usually the person is pretty well coached by a headhunter on how to handle the interview, so we don’t find out until later.” Russell stopped, his brow furrowed. “Do you mean, you can interview for a bad attitude?”

“Yes, you can.”

I Can Talk the Game

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your post on Wednesday [Hypothetical Questions are a Trap], you caught my attention. As an interviewer, I use hypothetical questions all the time. It lets me know if the candidate can think on their feet. I try to use real hypothetical questions for circumstances they will run into. What’s wrong with that?

Response:
Hypothetical questions are a trap for both sides of the interview table. Intellectually, hypothetical questions seem to make sense. In reality, they force the candidate to play a guessing game and require the interviewer to suspend judgement of reality.

When the interviewer asks a hypothetical question, the candidate must now search for the answer they believe the interviewer wants to hear. This is a guessing game. The candidate, if they are like me, will have done some reading up on your industry, will understand the basics of industry jargon and be able to create some believable response.

Two problems. Just because I can talk the game, does not mean I have ANY REAL experience in the circumstance. Second, if my response is in the ball park of believe-ability, the interviewer unwittingly suspends judgement and checks the box for a good response. The reality is that I have never been a project manager for any construction project larger than a bathroom remodel. And, frankly, I wasn’t very good at that.

The interviewer cannot fact-check a hypothetical response. It’s hypothetical.

Oh, I will dazzle you with schedules of value, resource planning, milestone review, budget to complete, over and under billings. But, if you had asked about my bathroom remodel (actual experience), you would have a totally different judgement of my skills and ability.

Routine Grooved Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In the Four Absolutes, under Required Behaviors, you talk about habits. How do you interview for habits?

Response:
Habits are routine grooved behaviors kicked in by the brain in an approach to problem solving or decision making. To set the context, here are the Four Absolutes (required for success in any role).

  • Capbility (stated in time span)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors

Under Required Behaviors, there are three strings attached.

  • Contracted behaviors
  • Habits
  • Culture

To be successful in any role, there are some required behaviors. When I interview a candidate, I examine the role description, in each key result area (KRA), I identify the critical role requirements (required behaviors) and identify the habits that support and the habits that detract.

We all have habits that support our success, we also have habits that work against us.

Reading the resume
Habits are patterns. Read the resume from the back page to the front page. Most resumes are written in reverse chronological order, very tough to see a pattern going backward.

Identify the habit, then look for it
When I hire for a project manager, one habit I look for is planning vs improvisation. Improvisation is fun, but creates chaos. Improvisation may get the job done (once), customer may be very happy, but the cost is organizational body bags and friction, negatively impacting project profitability.

Effective project managers possess the habit of planning. Planning is a behavior that I can interview for. I will look for patterns of planning behavior as I move through the resume from past to present. Then I specifically look for planning behavior with specific questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project where planning was required?
  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project
  • How many people on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • At what point during the project did planning begin?
  • Step me through the planning process for the project?
  • What was the form of the plan? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • How was the plan used during the course of the project?
  • How often was the plan referred to during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan handled during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan documented during the course of the project? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • What were the results of the project in comparison to the original plan?
  • Step me through the debrief (post mortem) of the project in relation to the plan?
  • What did you learn from the project debrief that impacted your plan on the next project?

Habits are those routine grooved behaviors automatically initiated by the brain in response to a problem that must be solved or a decision that must be made. -Tom

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.”