My favourite interview question

I love recruiting, as a manager I think it’s one of the ways in which I can best serve the company, by attracting (first) and then hiring the best possible talent. The feeling of discovering great people, the satisfaction of helping my employer, and the candidate, find a perfect match that adds value to both parties, is truly rewarding.

Over time I have evolved my set of interview questions, based on articles I read, podcasts I listen to, books, practice, interviews I have been on the receiving end of… it’s a process that keeps evolving. But there are 2 questions that I always go back to, because I believe they are a key indicator of aspects I have seen correlate very well with exceptional performance: vision and passion.

By vision, in the context of an interview, I mean the vision candidates have on their future. Have they thought about why they applied to this job? How is this going to help them achieve their long term goals? Did they even think about their long term goals? A good answer to these questions requires a lot of preparation and self-awareness (#BePrepared)

By passion I mean what rules their lives when they are not working, what they love (vs like) to do when they have 10 minute to spare, where they spend most of their money. Surprisingly, this is NOT what candidates write in the “hobbies” section of their resumes.

In Office of Cards, in the Office Extras chapter at the end of the book, I wrote at length about how to find a new job, breaking down the entire process for those who have not mastered it yet, or maybe who just don’t have enough practice. Also, in Chapter 3, I described an approach to finding out what you want, and help build your vision.

Here I want to focus on that, the vision. What I want to find out is 3 things:

1- THE WHAT: is the candidate clear on what their long term goal is? (#OwnYourLife)

2- THE WHY: has the candidate thought about why this job will help them achieve their term goal? (#GoOneLevelDeeper)

3- THE HOW: can the candidate “sell” me their vision, convincing me they have thought deeply about what they are saying and they are not just saying it to please me?

First things first: why is this important?

I think this is a key aspect for success in large organisations because, to some extent, and the higher up one goes the more true this becomes, to win in large companies you need to be able to sell your ideas, to tell a story in a way that convinces people, to become an Idea Selling MAESTRO (which incidentally is the title of Chapter 10 of Office of Cards). So, here, I want to see if the candidate has a vision for him or herself and is capable of articulating it in a clear way, so that I can understand it and, ideally, support it. This vision starts, in this context, with why the job they are being interviewed for is a stepping stone to get them closer to that vision. Does it give them skills they need? Does it take them in the industry they like to work in? There could be a million reasons, but as an interviewer I look for something “personal” in why this job in this company makes sense for them now (vs the standard “oh this brand is so great; I want to work for the leader in XYZ industry…”).

How do I find out what their vision is?

This starts from an experience I had as candidate in 2015. Usually, during interviews, people ask the question: where do you see yourself in 5 years? Or 10? These questions are meant to see what type of career the candidate would like to have. Do they want to become masters of their craft? Do they want to manage people? Do they want to own their own companies? It’s a good question and it serves the purpose of finding out the candidate’s attitude towards their short-term career well. But that’s not a vision.

In 2015 I have been through a very thorough recruiting process, 9 interviews in total and an offer that, in the end, I rejected. But the process was awesome, every interviewer was building on previous interviews, I felt like each of them was walking away from our chat with one more piece to the puzzle they were putting together on me. I had never experienced so much mastery in orchestrating 9 (nine!) interviews. I never had to repeat a single thing, which is hard to believe, but true.

During one of the first interviews, the HR person caught me off-guard with this question: where do you see yourself in 20 years? 20. Years.

Wow. I had never thought that far ahead. In 20 years I’ll be 55, I thought. I asked for a minute as I was candid and told her I never considered this. I was on the phone, in an empty room, closed my eyes, and tried to project myself there, thinking about my dad when he was 55, what he was doing then, if he was happy… and, out of nowhere, this came out: “I want to run a restaurant”.

Yes, this “head of analytics, big data, technology, consultant, advisor, author, coach, blablabla…”, wants to own a restaurant. The recruiter said “interesting, why is that?”. So, I genuinely told her “I don’t know how it came out, I guess it has to do with my passion for food, for wine, for hosting people and making them happy via great meals, about my Italian roots (in Italy food has a very important social meaning)”. That was the beginning of a 15-minute rant about reasons why this was really where I saw myself in 20 years. I even came up with what food I would do, what type of decor I’d like to have, even the specials! And, guess what, this still IS where I see myself in 17 years 🙂

What is ironic is that all the reasons why that was my vision were in me, I just never thought about those, never put the pieces together in such a clear way.

Fun fact: I had then another great interview with a senior person in this company and mentioned that this came out during the chat with HR, and he said “cool, my dream is to run a holiday home, maybe we can join forces one day, you do the food and I do accommodation”. Awesome!

A great recruiting process should feel, for the candidate, like a self discovery process, where they find out about themselves, what they want, where they are going, and how this job will help them get there. Ideally, this discovery happens BEFORE applying to a job, or maybe when preparing for an interview, not DURING it, but #PlayTheLongGame in the context of life engineering and career design means using each job as a piece to the puzzle you are putting together for yourself, each piece helping you materialise the vision you have.

Important to note: over time, the vision can (and should) change. Things happen in life, priorities change and so it’s very important, every year or so, to assess if the vision that is driving your career decisions is still the same or if it has changed. If it has, not a problem, just start thinking about what to do get closer to the new goal.

Since then, I have started trying this question myself but it was missing something. Asking for a specific date (20 years) puts people in the tough spot of thinking what age they will be and then do essentially what I did, on the spot. It’s not easy if you do not have a vision, and most people don’t. So I have changed a tiny bit, and landed on this question instead:

“What would you want to have accomplished when you retire?”

This is a much better version and has given way better results.

1- retirement is a choice, not a date, so some people will think 65 years old, but I had candidates (the best ones) who said “I want to retire at 50”. When I asked why, of course, they went on their own 15-minute rant on why, which is awesome because they had a super-clear vision. Even among those who think in terms of 65 years old as a “natural” retirement age, you find great candidates don’t sit and wait for that to arrive, but have clear visions on how they want to get there;

2- here we talk about accomplishments. What do you want people to know you for? Sure, you can tell me you want to retire as CEO, but that’s hollow. That is not an accomplishment, that’s a job title. What THING do you want people to associate with you. Also, some candidates, once again the best, give answers that span across their lives, saying something like “from a career perspective, XYZ; from a personal standpoint, XYZ; from a family perspective… oh, and I want to go live in Brazil”. What is awesome is that they usually have deep WHYs (#KnowWhy) to each of the statements, which shows me they have a clear vision.

When a candidate 1- has such a clear vision and 2- can articulate it in a clear, cause-effect way, usually they have the same capacity in selling ideas and insights and, often, they have assertiveness, charisma and influence to take people along with them, so that their visions can become a reality. And this is one of the key components to win in large organisations. This is why I love this question and this is why, when I am in doubt on a candidate, I always go back to it because if they do well here, usually the rest follows.

So, what do you think? I know it’s a tough question and I do not use it with people under 30 years of age because I think it’s unfair to ask a kid to visualise themselves at 65, but over 30 this is a magic question to find real gems.

Interested in hearing your thoughts, did you have hear this question? More importantly, what would you answer?

As always, please comment and share, if you like!