When candidates reach the point of executive-level interviews, you can assume hiring managers have already determined they have the right qualifications. So now it's your turn, as the senior VP or the CEO, to do the final interview--the one in which you're assessing things like work ethic, culture fit, and commitment to the job. The problem is that these are largely esoteric qualities. You can't exactly ask candidates if they will be a great colleague and teammate, if they are committed to working for your company through "thick and thin," if they are humble and hard working--and then wait for their answers. So what do you ask?

In my 17 years as a general manager and CEO, I've learned that it all starts with a single, simple question: "What's your professional story?" I ask candidates to go back to the bottom of their résumé and walk me through their career--from high school or college all the way to where they are today. And along the way, they eventually end up answering the five deeper questions I am implicitly asking:

1. "Do you work--and do you like to work?" Sometimes I feel our culture paints a picture of a "good job" as one that's not just rewarding but also fun and entertaining. We hear movie stars and rock stars tell us they can't believe they get paid to do what they love, or that it's so exciting that it's not really work. I think that's hyperbole, frankly. If you want to be great at anything--including acting and rock and roll--it takes a lot of work. It means doing that work not just when you love it, but also when it's boring and when it's hard and when no one's watching (and even when you just don't want to do it any more). And what I want to know in an interview is whether a candidate is willing to put the work in. More important, does he or she like putting the work in? I want stories that prove it to me.

2. "What do you actually like doing professionally?" People either know what they like doing or they don't. Simple as that. When I ask candidates to tell me their stories, I'm listening to find out if they feel stuck in their professional situation, if they never found the courage to try something new and discover what really appeals to them, or if they've indeed found the thing that makes them tick. People who don't know what they enjoy doing are easy to spot. They'll talk about their backgrounds in a blasé or forced voice, with drab descriptions centered on the rote tasks of their previous jobs--there's no emotion or gusto behind the words. But people who know what they like to do are different. Whether they landed in the profession early by luck, or they wound up there through the trial and error of numerous jobs, their eyes will light up as they talk to you, they will genuinely lean forward in the interview to tell you about the right area for them and when they figured it all out. I want those people.

3. "What lessons have you learned?" None of us are perfect. We all have had bad work experiences--most of which we don't want to revisit--and we've either learned from them or we haven't. I'm trying to figure out if candidates are self-aware enough to know their mistakes and humble enough to articulate what they've learned. Some people aren't. They tell me everything was great at a previous job. And when I ask why they left, all they can say oftentimes is that an "even better" opportunity came along. If I try to ask how they'd evaluate their performance on that job, they give me another super positive response. If that is all there is, then I have a hard time buying it. I want to hear what didn't work out. I want to hear stories about how they recognize where they fell short, where they could have made a better decision, or where they dropped the ball on a project. And I want to hear what they learned when things backfired. Because, honestly, the fact that they have that self-awareness is more of a strength than having no mistakes at all.

4. "Are you a good teammate?" I'm trying to assess whether candidates are the kind of people that others want to work for or work with. It's akin to something I like to call the "airport test." In other words, would I mind being stranded at the airport with this person? Is he going to go on and on about himself, or is he good with others--especially under pressure? A lot of that is conveyed in how a candidate tells his or her professional story. If I hear a lot of "me, me, me" and "I, I, I" anecdotes, that's a red flag. I'd rather hear candidates share the credit, tell me how awesome their team was, or their peers, or that their boss was great to work for, and how good it felt to help the whole team accomplish a specific goal when they were up against a deadline.

5. "What's your objective?" Ultimately, in any interview, I'm trying to determine what a candidate wants. I'm listening for stories that communicate a specific, thoughtful ambition. For example, someone might say, "When I was younger and working in marketing, I was given an opportunity to move off to a PR position, and I took it--because I knew I would be stronger for having accepted that risk." For me, those stories tell me that there's an objective down the road--in this case to expand marketing skills. I don't just want to hear that a candidate wants a promotion. I want to know that a person is looking for a specific promotion, and that the person has a plan.

Every executive has a signature interview question--asking about the professional story is mine. But no matter the question, the intent is the same: You're looking to understand the workers behind the résumés. Will they fit with your job and with your company? I like to get to the heart of the matter through the candidate's own words. And sometimes, one question is all it takes.

Published on: Aug 20, 2015
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