Interview Question You Should Never Ask?

I’m a big fan of Liz Ryan and her writings on the topics of HR and recruitment. I find it usually very insightful and thought provoking. I just finished reading her blog post “Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?” and it was so much though provoking that it provoked me to write an answer. If you haven’t read it check first what Liz wrote and then come back. I would maintain that asking questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is not that lame as it may seem.

There are no lame questions

Any question is legitimate as long as you understand the reason you are asking it. Yes, I agree with Liz that if you got a list of your questions from your manager or HR department and you go one by one without really knowing why you are asking them then you are wasting your time as well as the time of the candidate. But if the question you ask brings you something you are looking for than it is legitimate to ask it.

It is important to have a vision

Liz claims that in today’s fast paced and ever changing world you cannot predict what will be in five years and she is of course right. In my mind that is exactly the reason why you should have a vision. You should know where you want to be in five years otherwise you will be swept off course. If you would ask me ten years ago when I finished university where I want to be in five years I would tell you that I want to be a developer and in long-term a manager. As it turned out I got the opportunity about a year after I would make that statement. So what? Things didn’t go exactly as I planned but since I had a long-term vision I was at least able to make decisions that guided me in the direction I wanted to go. If you ask me today I will keep my answer probably more fuzzy and at the values level. “In five years I want to be still in a leadership position, building something great for better of humanity and developing people around me.”

What answers you want to hear

So what do you want to hear when asking the “where do you want to be in five years” question? This obviously depends on what traits you need the employee to exhibit.

  • Sitting in your chair
  • Be the go-to-guy for technical stuff
  • Having an ice-cream business
  • Doing something new and exciting

Pretty much anything except of “I don’t know”. Keep in mind that you are asking about desires not about what will be. Things may of course turn for that individual in very different way. Obviously, this is not a question that tells you everything you want to know about the guy and chances are that quite often you will hear not what the guy wants but rather what he believes you want to hear… well, his loss.

I don’t claim here that this sort of questions are the best way to find out whether someone has the right fit and attitude that you need. For that you may want to look more at behavioral type of interviewing with questions targeted on actual situations and the way the candidate handled them. Chances are that if he or she consistently showed certain way how to deal with problems in the past they will do the same on your team in the future. Just to give you an example of such questions: “Tell me about a time in your life when you had to deal with unexpected emergency,” or “Describe me a situation when you were asked to do something outside of your scope of responsibility.” And then dig deeper into these. The key here is not to present hypothetical scenarios where the person with at least a bit of smarts can deduce the right answer but rather seek what exactly this person did in the situations he may encounter in your organization, what his believes and values are and why he is acting in a certain way. Remember, everyone is good for something. So you are not trying to see if someone is good or bad, but rather whether he is good or bad fit for your team.

Employment for life

Liz is also questioning the morality of employer to ask the question about “five years” when he may not be able to guarantee a job even for five months. But that is not the point. If I know that your dream job is to sell ice cream and you are interviewing for a position of accountant I obviously cannot guarantee you that in five years at our company you will have an ice cream stand. But I can give you a chance to learn some of the skills you will need to be successful at your dream job. I can be also very upfront with you in case I see that there is nothing I can teach you to help you get closer to your envisioned job.

It is important that not only I screen the candidates for fit with my organization but also the other way around. They need to understand whether they want to work for someone like myself in this type of organization. So my favorite question to ask about person’s long-term career plans would be: “What is the mission of your professional life?” It is a question that goes down to your core values and by answering it honestly, at least for yourself if not for me, you get a feel whether the job is right for you or not.

So the next time you do interviews with candidates feel free to ask any career related and politically correct question as long as you understand why you are asking it and what will you do with the answer.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that asking this question is a waste of time or would you ask it yourself?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Coaching 101: What To Ask?

Once upon a time I wrote an article on Coaching Approach To Leading People. Since then I shared many additional thoughts on how to lead but not that many on how to coach. So let me rectify this today with a basics of a successful coaching dialog. For you to be a successful coach you need to spend majority of the time listening and only minimum talking. At the heart of coaching is the idea that people have the resources to help themselves and you as a coach just need to trigger this hidden power. The best coaching session is the one where at the end your client gets up with a clear mind and objectives that he owns because they came from his or her heart. To get you started let me share couple of coaching questions that are always a great first move. Keep in mind that you want to stimulate discussion and you don’t want one word answers so make sure you ask open ended questions.

1. What do you want?

Before you start working on something you need to understand what it is you want to get at the end. And if you are getting coached for it then it means spending significant resources so you better be sure about what and especially why.

  • What is it you want and why do you want it? (Usually people have a good idea of what they want but very often the “why” gets the confused. You may come to me and ask you want to figure out how to get more money. If I ask you why you will probably say “so I can buy stuff”. So why do you need to buy stuff? It feels good to have a new car. Why does it feel good? Why a new car and not something else? etc. Digging into the “why” can totally change the direction and end up in another “what”. Maybe instead of wanting more money the person wants to be valued by others. And maybe there are other ways how to achieve it, ways that will be closer to the person’s abilities and desires.)
  • Is it positive? (This one may not be so obvious but it is important. If you want to motivate person and especially if you want to see positive change, new behavior and positive outcome then also the goal needs to be formulated in a positive way. For example “I don’t want to feel miserable.” Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t really answer the question what do you want. It just states what you don’t want. “I want to be happy” is much more positive though you may still need to dig deeper to figure out what “being happy” actually means for that person.)
  • Is it under your control? (Make sure your goals are achievable and under your control. There is very little sense of coming up with a goal that sounds great but assumes other people to do it for you. You would feel helpless, things could go in any way and you have no way to influence the direction or quality of the execution. Whatever your goal is it needs to be under your direct control. For example “I don’t want others to yell at me,” is a nice goal but is your boss yelling at you under your control? Not really. So try instead “I want to make it easy for others to treat me with respect.” You still cannot influence how others will behave but you can exhibit a behavior that will make it easy for others to treat you with respect and don’t yell at you.)
  • Is it aligned with your other goals? (“I want to live alone on a tropical island” is a great goal but how does it fit with your other life goals of having a family, thousands of friends, party every night and go skiing every weekend? You should always do a sanity check to ensure that the goal you want to achieve won’t have disruptive effect on your other goals and on the goals of those around you that you hold dear.)

2. How will you get it?

Now, since we know what you want we can start talking about how you get it. The goal of these questions is to identify what resources you need and how to get you started.

  • Who do you need to ask for help? (Is it really completely under your control or are there some areas where help would be welcomed? Would a chat with your spouse or your boss help you achieving those goals?)
  • Do you need any resources you don’t have today? (Do you need to buy something as a prerequisite to achieving your goal? Do you need a specific time and place to be in?)
  • What is your first step? (How you get started? What is the first step you need to take and when will you take it? And be SMART about it, or better read this article on how to define a good goal SMART Goals Are Not Good Enough.)

3. How will you commit?

Now comes the hard part. Especially for long-term goals the challenge you will face is not how to get started but how to keep going.

  • Is there anything that may prevent you from getting it? (There might be competing priorities, you might get bored, you may need support of others)
  • If yes, how will you mitigate this risk? (Have a plan for these eventualities so when they occur they don’t stop you dead in your tracks but you are ready to deal with them and push forward)
  • What other ways of getting it could work? (Have you thought about other ways how to achieve your goal that may not be so straightforward at the beginning. “You want to learn a foreign language” so you decided to “study every weekend for two hours and enroll for a lesson at local language school”. What about living abroad for a half a year? What about finding a girlfriend or boyfriend who speaks the language? There are always many options so make sure you consider what is out there before you commit to sub-optimal solution.)
  • How do you rely on others and what are the consequences for them? (We talked about who you need to help you and you have a plan to deal with drawbacks in case they are not able or willing to help. Now comes the other side. You achieving your goal and “live on a remote tropical island” will without doubt affect other people around you. Are you comfortable with that impact on your family and friends? How can you ensure you limit that impact? How will you feel about your decision in couple of months? This one is really tricky as we cannot really predict how we will feel in the future. For the reasons why, check this post Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times.)

4. How do you recognize you succeeded?

And the best at the end. If you set a goal you also need to be able to measure somehow that you reached the goal. Aside of the fact that you might be curious you also want to feel good about finishing your goals and how can you feel good about finishing when you don’t know you finished?

  • How will you track your progress? (You probably need some way how to see you are still on track to achieving your goals. Do you need a weekly follow up? Do you need a measurable small steps? Do you need a feedback from others?)
  • How will you ensure to keep your momentum? (There will be bumps on the road so how do you ensure you don’t lose the momentum? When you check your progress and you discover you are slowing down how will you reenergize yourself to push forward?)
  • How will you recognize you succeeded and achieved your goal? (How will you know you are there? “I want to learn Spanish” is a great goal but what exactly does it mean? Unless you set a clear success criteria you may never get there as it is unlikely you will ever speak like a native speaker. “I will know that I speak Spanish when I take a week vacations in Barcelona and will be able to get around, order dinner, go to the movies and speak with locals without a need to have a translator.” This is still a tall order but at least it is something you can do to verify you succeeded. For me personally the moment I considered as me being able to speak English was the moment when I stopped translating everything in my head and started to think in that language.
  • How will you celebrate your success? (Have a plan for celebration. Why? It can act as an additional motivating factor if the way you celebrate is directly related to the goal. “When I learn Spanish I will go for two weeks vacations in South America which is my lifelong dream.”

That’s it. Pretty straightforward. Most of the difficulties will be at the very beginning trying to define what the person really wants. If your client has troubles with identifying his needs and wants then you may help him out by guiding him through the Life Balance Wheel exercise to get them started.

Twitter type summary: “As a coach you don’t talk. You just listen and when required you ask questions to stimulate your clients thinking process.”

What are your favorite coaching questions? Is there something you would never ask and is there the one question that always makes the difference?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.