A typical interview goes something like this: The prospective employer grills you with 45 minutes of behaviorally-based interview questions--sometimes in a three-person panel (and if they're not, they're probably doing it wrong). Then, at the end of the interrogation, with a few minutes left to go on the clock, they ask, "Do you have any questions for us?"
By that time, you're probably in a semi-catatonic state and looking for your next cup-of-joe just to make it out to the car. For most of us, we're not prepared to ask the right questions, especially while in the hot seat. We're playing defense most of the time. That is, unless we take control of the interview at some point. More on that below.
Listen, one of the most crucial aspects of interviewing on your end is to figure out if this company is where you'll spend the majority of your waking hours collecting paychecks for the next 2-5 years.
But most job candidates aren't equipped to do so. Or if they do go on the offense and strike back with questions, they're usually the wrong ones.
Job candidates know enough to dress well, show up, sell themselves on skills and expertise, follow up, and hope to make the next round. But what if they call you back for a final interview? Or what if they make an offer? How do you truly know this is the right company, or boss, for you long-term?
Gathering information on a future employer to find out what makes them different from other organizations is crucial. The most important piece of this puzzle is making sure your boss, executive, or leadership team match up with your desires and aspirations.
The Questions You Should Be Asking
Here's what to do: Stop fixating on questions about the job, what you'll be doing, or "what will a typical day look like?" type questions. Focus instead on tapping into your prospective employer's values, norms and practices.
In other words, do you fit their culture? Will you work for a boss who values, encourages, develops, and respects his or her workers? You won't know until you find out. This is what's going to keep you a happy and productive employee into the future.
Ask your future boss: Tell me about an instance where you demonstrated good leadership skills?
Here's what to listen for: Great bosses lead from both the head and heart. They serve their people by making them better. So listen for stories about whether your potential boss leads from the trenches and sees herself as "one of us." Or do you get a sense that there's a superiority complex in the air, that she feels entitled to special treatment? Job candidates should formulate questions that will trigger these stories in their potential boss's answers.
Ask: Tell me about the career path for this position. Where will it potentially lead me to down the road?
Here's what to listen for: Mailroom-to-C-Suite type of success stories that demonstrate promotability and succession planning. Companies with strong leaders will create paths and opportunities for their top performers to develop their skills and keep them engaged. Can you move around in the company, or will you be stuck at your position?
Ask: What typically happens to employees when business is going through slow cycles, or if there's a recession?
Here's what to listen for: Stories about people losing or potentially losing their job when things go south. Great leaders and people-centered cultures will do their best to not restructure or lay off employees when faced with a downturn in the economy or a slow business cycle.
Case in point: At Honeywell, their CEO David Cote asked employees to take unpaid leaves instead of laying off thousands, keeping them employed.
St. Louis-based manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller also implemented four-week unpaid furloughs for 7,000 employees instead of layoffs during the height of the recession in 2009. Far better for all to "suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot," said longtime CEO Bob Chapman. That choice saved the company $20 million, and ultimately increased morale.
New York-based technology company, Next Jump, goes further with a lifetime employment policy. Their employees essentially cannot be fired, and in the case of low performers, managers work with them and offer them training to improve. "Being fired is a highly traumatic emotional event. It's the equivalent of being told 'You're no good'," Next Jump CEO Charlie Kim told David Marquet in an interview.
And who can forget the story of Charles Schwab executives, who actually gave employees who lost their jobs a bonus when they were rehired!
Other leaders who put their people first will take pay cuts to avoid downsizing. These are examples of the types of leaders and cultures you want to work for.
Bringing it home
In review, make sure to listen to answers that come in the form of stories because that's where truth is found. Ask your potential new boss to share examples about a time when something happened at their company that wouldn't happen elsewhere.
To make sure that truth is in the pudding, cross-reference these questions with other people across different levels of the organization as you collect more stories. Do they match? Do you hear common themes in their stories? If so, that's an excellent sign that people share the same organizational values. This is a company you want to work for.