Friday, January 17, 2014

Interview questions that actually make sense

Usually when I see an article on interview questions, it’s about those too-clever-by-half questions that too-cool-for-school companies ask:

  • How many cows are there in Canada?
  • What superhero are you, and would you wear your superhero outfit to work?
  • How many quarters high is the Empire State Building?
  • How many windows are there in New York?
  • A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?

Source for these questions: Business Insider

These cutesy-wootsies are supposed to demonstrate your creativity, quick thinking, analytical ability, unruffled-ness. But I personally don’t see how they really get at the merits of a candidate. I just find them obnoxious and a bit smug – aren’t we the clever ones?

And then I saw a list of questions in a Business Week article, questions offered by a bunch of executives, that I actually thought were pretty good. Most of them I would have liked to have been asked, or to have used during my own days as an interviewer.

Some of them aren’t all that original, but they’re mostly pretty good.

Who do you most admire and why?
I don’t have any one specific person who I “most admire”, but I do have a couple of categories. One: folks who come from poor backgrounds and manage to scrambled their way out of them. Give me the self-made man or woman, someone who started out without the leg-up that money and educated parents give you. My second category is those who find themselves in a dire situation – make that a dire health situation – and who don’t bitch, whine, and wallow in self-pity. (Hmmmm. As I’m writing this, I realize that my husband falls into both of these categories. My hero!)

In your last employee review, what areas for improvement were identified?
I can’t remember the last time I had an employee review. I didn’t have one at either of my last two jobs. But both places were exceedingly political, especially the latter one. So I’d say that my main area of improvement would have been honing my political skills, and being cagier in terms of my allies. Forget about who you think has it right, forget about who you like and want to work with. Pick the winner!

In the former company, I made several terrible hires. Yes, most of the people I hired were very good, and if they were put on the opposite side of the scale from the F-for-Failures, they would have more than balanced them out. But I have to admit that, while when they were good, they were very, very good, when they were bad they were horrid. I hired a couple of lulus, pretty much making the same mistake each time – or a variant thereof. So, if I’d had a review, I would have to say that my area for improvement would have been to stop thinking that I could lay sane hands on crazy and come up with a cure.

Why are you here?
This is an excellent question and one which, surprisingly, some job seekers do not have an answer for. Also leaves an opening for a philosophical response to the existential question.

Just as long as you remember, if you’re going to answer in terms of why you’re at this particular company, undergoing this particular interview, that ‘my boss just did something really crappy and I’m here on the rebound’ is not a good answer. (Not that I’d ever have given it. Just saying.)

So you’re a Yankees fan. If you were their owner, how would you make the team better?
Well, no one would ever accuse me of being a Yankees fan, but this one would let me put my superb political skills into action by making all sorts of suggestions for “improving” the Bronx Bombers. For starters, why not get behind A-Rod and encourage him to fight his year’s ban from baseball.

What is your passion?
This is actually one question on the list that I don’t really like, mostly because I detest (with a passion) the use of the word passion in the workplace. This likely stems from a manager who told me that I would never succeed at the XYZ company because I . T“lacked passion for securities”, XYZ being a provider of securities data to the securities industry. When A said this to me – during a review, I believe – I almost laughed in her face. I told her that I could muster up a passion for doing a good job, for wanting the company to succeed, and for working with colleagues I liked and admired. But, no, nay, never, would I be passionate about securities.

You’re a project manager? Tell me about a time you had a delayed project.
Good question to get at how someone deals with frustration. Another good project manager question – which I was once asked on an interview – was how did you learn to be a good project manager. My answer: I learned the old fashioned way, by screwing up a project.

Describe an environment in which you would not thrive.
Wish someone had asked me this when I interviewed at Wang. I would have said insanely bureaucratic and brutally hierarchical. My manager would have been smart enough not to hire me, and I would have been spared myself 2 years, 8 months of sheer on the job misery.

If you could do anything, what would be your ideal job?
I’ve actually got it now. I get to write. I don’t have to play politics. There are no opportunities to make bad hires (so I don’t have to end up firing my mistakes). There’s no commute. I have the ultimate in flexibility. And if I have a difficult client, I can just stop working with them.

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