Job Interview: 5 Questions You Should Be Asking

  • A job interview is a chance to see if the company, the organization, and team is a good fit for your professional goals and objectives
  • We offer 5 questions you should explore:
    • Culture
    • Innovation
    • Collaboration & teamwork
    • Leadership
    • Mentoring
  • Finessing the questions: ask for concrete examples, ask multiple interviewers, listen with your eyes™, convey your engagement, relax and enjoy the moment
  • Follow through: don’t forget the thank you note
The Interview: A Two-Way Street

A job interview is a two-way street. The word “interview” has the prefix “inter”, as in interaction. The human resources specialist, hiring manager, supervisor, team mates are interviewing you to see if you would make a good addition to their company, their team, and their projects.

You, on the other hand, have the opportunity to reciprocate the information flow. Take the opportunity to assess if the organization is a good fit for you. To this end, there are numerous articles written for the new college graduate as they begin to interview for their first full-time job. Go ahead, google for those lists of questions, study them, and prepare to answer those questions first. But before you go to your first interview, be sure to consider…

The 5 Key Questions to Explore

In this article, we offer our suggested questions in five key subject areas that should be important to you:

  1. Culture
  2. Innovation
  3. Collaboration and teamwork
  4. Leadership
  5. Mentoring

We discuss how you can finesse the delivery of these questions. We offer our take on the spectrum of possible answers, what to expect, and how you can discern the answers along with non-verbal cues (and clues).

#1. Culture

How would you describe your corporate culture?
Some organizations are old school, stiff, and likes to go by the book. “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” They are set in their ways. They want you to conform to their way. On the other hand, a progressive organization is open to change. Open to new ideas. Open to innovation. These organizations do not just tolerate out-of-the box ways of thinking, but actually encourage and reward such behavior regardless of resulting success or not.

Some organizations recognize long hours and even expect frequent work on weekends, others care more about progress and the end result – recognizing working smart, not necessarily working hard.

Some organization value their employees, their work-life balance, and their family obligations and commitments. Others expect you to marry the organization, be the “company man” or “company woman”, and do not expect you to have a life outside of the organization. They take, take, take. Until you have nothing left to offer. (Okay, maybe I’m getting a little melodramatic, you think?)

Organizational culture may be a very important consideration. When the organizational culture clashes with your expectations, you will be eventually miserable in your job.

#2. Innovation

Most people often associate innovation with technological invention, likes those on TED talks on innovation. But that is not the focus of this article.

In the business world, there is a second definition: innovation as it applies to new ideas with positive business impact. In this context, innovations can be applied to a business process, the way we use business tools, the way we provide customers with a service or a product, the way we take care of our employees, the way we manage our suppliers or subcontractors, or the way we apply resources (money, time, people) to increase business value. Any employee can contribute with innovation. But does the company welcome and encourage innovation?

How do you encourage innovation?
Some organizations educate their staff about innovation. They have dedicated efforts to innovate such as internal research and development (IR&D) efforts. For business process innovations, they have physical and intranet suggestion boxes, managers have “open door” policies and practices. But in the end, do managers take the time to listen to their employees’ ideas and suggestions? Do they consider them? Do they implement some? If not, do they follow up an explain why certain suggestions were not implemented?

How do you reward innovations?
What are some examples of recent innovations? 

Rewarding innovation shows that management appreciates new ideas. It could be a simple pat on the back and recognition at a company event, or a gift certificate as a token of their appreciation. For more elaborate innovations, they may reward with a substantial cash and/or stock bonus. Examples of when the organization puts money where its mouth is (so to speak) is tangible proof that innovation is serious business.

#3. Collaboration & Team Work

How do thing work here: is it individual work or team-oriented work?
Some jobs are very individual effort oriented (e.g., scientific research), while others are very team oriented where just about everything is done as a team. Even extreme examples of individual effort oriented jobs have some elements of team work. What do you prefer? Mostly team, with some individual effort? Be sure to explore this with the team as your interview with potential future team members.

How do you team build?
Some organizations sponsor team building events. These can range from informal lunch outings or after-work hours social gatherings, to more formal activities performed during the work day. Some even go as far as to bring in third-party management consultants to run the team building exercise.

How do you assimilate a new member to the team?
Since you would be joining the team that has already formed, how would you dove-tail into the organization?

#4. Leadership

Behind every great team is an equally great leader. Good leaders inspire, challenge their staff to perform at their best. Good leaders provide staff with requisite tools, training. Good leaders mentor their staff, recognize and reward their performers.

What is your leadership style?
Some managers lead by example. Others lecture and preach, but do not practice what they preach. Some managers empower their staff with the right information, resources, tools, and then get out of the way for you and your team to perform. These managers give you lots of professional freedom, but is always around for consultation, be your sounding board, and be your champion. Other managers like hover and micromanage, requiring you to check in and ask for approval for every little thing. There are many leadership styles. Politely ask for examples of how they lead.

What is the manager’s leadership style?
This is great area to explore with your would-be peers, to get their take on the manager. Watch their mannerism as they answer your question, whether they stand guarded or answer with candor. It is worthwhile to understand your prospective manager’s leadership style, and assess if it meshes with your expectations.

#5. Mentoring

How do you train new team members?
Some organizations have a regiment of training courses, job aids, and various on-boarding procedures and training. Others offer very informal, “as the situation presents itself” on-the-job training (OJT). Worse, “learn it yourself” training. An organization that values its employees will spend some kind of effort to train each and every employee. Some organizations will go as far as to offer continued formal education, by sponsoring or reimbursing education expenses for an advanced degree.

How do you mentor your junior or new team members?
The best organizations recognize that each employee is an asset (or human capital). And they recognize that assets get more valuable as they invest in nurturing and developing the asset. These organizations will assign a dedicated mentor to offer you OJT one-on-one. Some mentors are experts and enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience. All you have to do is ask (and show some appreciation). When they do not know the answer, they’ll gladly give you pointers to who might know. Good mentors “teach you how to fish”. And not do the fishing for you. They’re teaching you how to become self proficient. Do not underestimate what a good mentor can do for your career. Good mentors will offer you advice beyond the job tasks – ranging from benefits selections to personal finance advice. Great mentors become your best friends, whether you know it in the moment or not.

Finessing the Questions

With these types of questions, it is best to understand that you’re trying to establish a good match between the organization and your preferences in an employer. Rather than to memorize the above questions and try to pitch the verbatim during the job interview. Be flexible and ask the question in a way that makes sense to you given the circumstances, so you can assess the organization’s culture, innovation, collaborative spirit and team work, your would-be manager’s leadership style, and mentoring for new team members.

Don’t believe everything you read. Just because the company ethics and values are printed on brochures or even posted on bulletin boards, don’t believe everything you read. Be the judge for yourself. Use the interview to explore the true organizational culture and its spirit for innovation. Ask for tangible examples of these ideals put into action.

Try asking the question of multiple interviewers: the HR specialist, the hiring manager, the team lead, and team members. They end up asking you the same questions. That’s not by accident. Like a detective, they’re cross-examining you and checking for consistency. Likewise, you can use the same technique: ask the select questions of different interviewers and see what you get back. The range answers (or lack thereof) may surprise you. Maybe they’re consistent, almost like a tag-line. But more often that not, they vary in the most compelling ways, especially if you press them for concrete examples. The HR forward facing official press release party line, the hiring manager’s spin, the team lead’s motivational pitch, and peer perspective – do they all mesh? Do their individual responses reinforce the the others?

Listen with Your Eyes™. As you listen to your interviewer’s responses, watch their non-verbal cues – their facial expressions, their eyes, their posture, and their body language. If you’re being interviewed by a panel, watch their interactions… do they make eye contact with each other, as if to coordinate who should attempt to answer question first? Is there a prima donna that just dominates the interview, or do they take turn in a courteous and collaborative manner? There’s a lot information there that is not said. Listen for it with your eyes.

Convey your engagement with your body language. In like kind, they will be listening to what you have to say with their eyes. Make solid eye contact, especially when you’re making a important point or answering a tough question. But overdo it and stare. Offer the occasional sincere nod in agreement or understanding. Lead forward. Get enough sleep so you don’t yawn. Catch yourself and do not fidget.

Remember to take a moment and relax. Be in the moment. Enjoy yourself. Your potential employer is trying to sell themselves, as much as you’re selling yourself as the ideal candidate. Remember, it is an interview. Offer a sincere smile. And always be yourself. You will shine. You will find the confidence to “ace” the interview.

Follow Through: After the Interview

As with most things, do remember to follow through after the interview. Within a day, no more than two, take a moment to sent a follow-up email to each of your interviewers, to thank them for their time. (Hopefully, you have their business cards.) If something they said made a lasting impression, share it with them, as a way to personalize your message. Also, use it as an opportunity to re-iterate why the job holds your interest, why there is a good match, and why you are a great candidate. Even if you are not lukewarm about the job prospect, you should still follow through and sincerely thank them for their time. It’s a small world… you’ll never know when you’ll run into them again. And you’ll be shocked that they’ll remember you.

Personal Anecdote

As a manager, I have personally interviewed
100+job candidates,
for both internal and external hires.
It’s surprising how much the candidates focused
on questions regarding the job
and tasks at hand,
and not so much on exploring
or learning about the organization.
I believe a good long-term match is based
on the organization’s culture, spirit of innovation,
collaborative spirit and team work,
leadership, and mentoring.
If more job candidates would explore these areas
with their interviewers,
more job seekers would likely find
deeply satisfying jobs,
and organizations of which
they’re proud to be a part.

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