One aspect of the interview process where I have seen candidates struggle time and time again is asking questions. When your interviewer says “do you have any questions for me?”, this is a great chance for you to stand out and show that you have put a lot of thought into the institution and the career opportunity in front of you.
In this post I won’t tell you specific questions to ask – that will come at another time – but I will share with you a great formula to help you understand how to ask great questions.
As you will see, the objective is for your interviewer to sit back and think “Wow, that’s a great question”.
First of all, let’s establish 5 ground rules to help avoid the basic mistakes:
1) Never, EVER, reply with “no, I think you’ve covered everything”. This is a disastrous reply! How can you possibly know everything about a role and a company. Be in no doubt, this reply is a huge turn-off for your interviewer. It just shows that you haven’t prepared properly for your interview. Candidates with this reply rarely get hired.
2) Don’t ask dull or trivial questions, such as about perks, working hours, the quality of the staff restaurant, future team mates etc – these will be relevant at some level, but will not amaze your interviewer. Save them for when you have been offered the job.
3) Don’t ask closed questions i.e. ones which require a “yes” or “no” answer – you want to engage with your interviewer and drive an interesting two-way conversation with your questioning.
4) Don’t ask questions simply to show off that you have explored the website and memorised some stats. So what? You are not applying for a data retention job – computers do that.
5) Don’t ask questions for the sake of them. Every question should have a purpose and relevance.
Ok, now that we have covered what not to do, let’s start to explore what you should do.
As I said at the top, the broad goal is for your interviewer to sit back and think “Wow, what a great question!”.
First of all, here are 5 reasons why this is a useful objective in an interview:
1) It shows you have taken the time to think very carefully about the specific role, the company, it’s goals and strategies, and the industry context.
2) It reveals intellect and intellectual curiosity – this is a big turn-on for interviewers because people who are smart and curious will grow, and will have untapped or hidden potential (see my post on Raw Material for more on this point).
3) It shows you are thinking about a career at an organisation, and not just trying to get a job. This is you doing your due diligence on the company, which shows you are serious about making a commitment.
4) It helps you assess your interviewer’s own competence. If he/she is a potential future boss and has great answers for your great questions, then that is very exciting. Conversely, if they are stumped, or can’t say anything positive, do you really want to work for them anyway?
5) Trust me on this, in my experience, very few candidates ask great questions. If you can successfully fire off one or two in an interview, it is a great differentiator and will help you stand out as a memorable and strong candidate.
So, now that we have decided that there is a lot of value in asking great questions, let’s look at 5 key areas which are a rich source of material for those great questions.
1) Company strategy – ask about where the company is going, i.e. where they are looking for strategic growth. Read up on the last published results or investor presentation to have a feel for the organisation’s business plan, and ask about it. Why are they targeting growth in Asia rather than Europe? Where is the company on the offshoring / near-shoring debate? What are the firm’s market share objectives? Who are the key competitors and what is this organisation doing to win market share from them?
2) Company leaders – ask who are the great leaders in the company. What is the CEO’s style? Does he lead with authority, but is not too authoritarian? Is he the heart and soul of the company? Is he someone who mixes with employees and gets people on board with his vision? What about the divisional head, is he/she someone who can inspire the troops? Is he available, or impossibly busy? Ask for examples of great leadership in the firm. Ask your interviewer how he leads his team or business. What’s his management style? How does he grow his people? All important and fair issues for you to understand.
3) Company culture – most large organisations have very specific cultures, which can be a huge positive or negative for you depending on the type of person you are and the environment which will allow you to thrive. Ask the interviewer to describe the culture. A bad or waffly answer tells you there is no strong culture – not a good sign. A strong culture tells you that most employees will be aligned and behave according to the norms exhibited and expected by senior management. Is the company very hierarchical, or is there a flat management structure? Is creativity welcomed? Are employees expected to focus on executing the plan without challenging it? Is the organisation very meritocratic? By and large, the organisational culture has a huge impact on whether you enjoy your job or not – so ensure you take the chance to really dig on this topic.
4) Company stock price – assuming you are interviewing at a publicly listed company, I see no reason not to ask about the stock price. Look at where it has been trading. If it has moved meaningfully versus the benchmark index in the last few months, ask what is driving it. Is it profits, a restructuring, new products announced, management change, even share buybacks? All of these factors drive a company’s valuation, so take the chance to ask an insider what they think is going on (obviously not looking for inside information, but just insight!).
5) Industry context – what are the industry-wide factors shaping the context and strategy for the organisation? In banking for example, heavier regulation, ever increasing capital requirements and fines for misconduct have all been weighing heavily on the industry since the financial crisis, forcing all banks to evaluate the right business mix and client focus. Ask the interviewer how his organisation is dealing with the industry context and what it means for the future direction of the company. You need to do your research here of course, but assuming you have already decided the business you want to be in, this should not be difficult. If you aren’t enthusiastic to do the research, ask yourself why you want to be in the business!
Using the above metrics, you should now be armed with enough ideas to assemble a few really smart, penetrating, and truly great questions!
However, the process doesn’t quite finish there.
You don’t just fire off your question and sit back satisfied that you have impressed your interviewer.
You now LISTEN INTENTLY to his answer.
Because this is now a conversation, and you want to understand his answer, and most likely follow up with further questions, until the conversation reaches a natural conclusion.
Assuming all has gone well, at this point will your interviewer sit back and conclude “Wow, this candidate is really smart and engaged. He understands our business and the challenges and opportunities we face much more than any of the other candidates”.
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