Open-ended interview questions are meant to give you a glimpse of how candidates work and think. Various CEO’s in well established companies face a clear challenge when they meet with prospective hires: Most of the people they meet have been coached and trained to come up with the “right” answers to questions, so that they can present a blemish-free and upbeat narrative about their career. And so, when they are asked about their weaknesses, candidates will inevitably try to turn a negative into a positive, as in, “I care too much.” Or, “I’m a perfectionist.” Or, “I work too hard.” The CEOs have heard them all before, and the answers can sound like cliché after a while.
And so the CEOs have had to devise clever questions to get people off their scripts. I’ve come to think of them as “bank shot” questions that get around the façade that people present, so that they can get a sense of what the person is really like, and how self-aware the candidate is.
Here are a few particularly interesting examples:
The first one is from Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com:
One of our interview questions is, literally, on a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you? If you’re a 1, you’re probably a little bit too strait-laced for us. If you’re a 10, you might be too psychotic for us. It’s not so much the number; it’s more seeing how candidates react to a question. Because our whole belief is that everyone is a little weird somehow, so it’s really more just a fun way of saying that we really recognize and celebrate each person’s individuality and we want their true personalities to shine in the workplace environment, whether it’s with co-workers or when talking with customers.”
Here’s another question that Hsieh asks in interviews:
If you had to name something, what would you say is the biggest misperception that people have of you?’ Then the follow-up question I usually ask is, ‘What’s the difference between misperception and perception?’ After all, perception is perception. It’s a combination of how self-aware people are and how honest they are. I think if someone is self-aware, then they can always continue to grow. If they’re not self-aware, I think it’s harder for them to evolve or adapt beyond who they already are.”
This notion of honesty and self-awareness are tough qualities to get at in an interview, but here’s an interesting approach from Wendy Lea of Get Satisfaction:
Here’s my favorite interviewing question: ‘Let’s assume we’ve worked together now for six months. There’s something that I’m going to observe of you that I have no idea about right now. What would that be?’ And it could be good or bad. I’ll let them decide. It forces them to clean out their closet a little bit. The human condition is so complex. I’m not a zipped-up girl. I have moods. I have emotion. I need people to show me their own complexity, because if they don’t have any, they may freak out with me. I might hear, ‘Well, you might notice I get overwhelmed.’ And I’ll say, ‘What would be the circumstances that would put you in that state?’ This is not a formula, but it does help me understand how self-aware they are. I had one person say: ‘I think you would be surprised that I’m as decisive as I am. People think I’m not because I’m kind of easygoing, but I’m more decisive than I look.’”
And here’s a great way to get at the question of somebody’s weaknesses, without falling into the trap of predictable answers, from Seth Besmertnik, the CEO of Conductor:
I ask people where they want to be in the future. They tell me, and then I say, ‘Do you think you’re going to be different then than you are today?’ And they’ll usually say, ‘Of course I’m going to be different.’ Then I’ll say: ‘So how are you going to grow from the person you are today to the person you are then? Where do you most need to grow to achieve where you need to go?’ This is a very indirect way of asking people what they need to work on. From that answer, you get a strong sense of a person’s confidence. If people are confident, they’re willing to admit weaknesses and insecurities. And you get a sense of how self-aware they are.”