How to Ask the Right Questions in a Job Interview
You’re searching for a job, a new position, or a new client. Maybe you’re a little desperate — you really need this new gig. The interview is coming up, and all you can think about is how nice a pay bump or lucrative project would be if it all comes together for you. Or maybe you’re thinking about that awesome new office and the relief of a shorter commute.
It’s natural and normal to fall into this mind-set. These are such positive, seductive feelings that you can’t help but indulge in them. That’s understandable—after all, they’re what motivate most of us to look for new work in the first place. But this mind-set can also be dangerous. They’re feelings that, if you don’t shed them before you walk into the interview, will lose you the very opportunity you’re so keen on landing.
Going One Step Beyond the Standard Advice
You have to put aside what you want and replace it with what they need. Why? Because they need something and think you can provide it, or you wouldn’t have gotten the interview. Now comes the opportunity to confirm their hunch.
This is a point that gets made pretty often in advice for jobseekers, but it isn’t always easy to put into practice. You already know that your main objective is to convince them you can meet their needs better than anyone else. Got it.
But you’d be mistaken if you think you can do that just by positioning your skills and experience in line with the role as it’s been described. Again, you should do that, but you also need to address the prospective employer’s needs more head on.
A second piece of common career advice is that you should interview them while they interview you, and that’s a sound suggestion as well. But the “you interview them” side of the equation isn’t just about culture fit, or finding out whether you’d actually like working at the company. You’ll also want to gear your questions toward uncovering what the interviewer wants the new hire to accomplish and what their own experience has been at the company.
To take each of these common approaches a step further during your next interview, you’ll need to know not just the right questions to ask but the right stories to tell.
Trading Stories, Not Just Data
When I was presenting to Coca-Cola for a packaging assignment, I told a story about when the big boys in my neighborhood bought me a Coke at the corner store when I was six years old. Getting that Coke made me feel like I had just been accepted into their tribe. It forever cemented my connection to the Coca-Cola brand. From that simple story, the Coke team knew I understood the essence of their brand.
Short, tightly drawn stories like that build meaningful connections. And they can often result in your interviewer returning the favor, by telling a story or two of their own that shows their connection to the organization. That’s the way it should be—all about them.
Yes, it’s an interview, so you can expect lots of questions on both sides of the table. But you need to be ready with many questions of your own, and the standard few you may already know to keep up your sleeve may not get you as far as you’d hope. First, ask permission: “I’d like to ask you a few questions about the role [or project]. Would that be all right with you?””
This way you’ve taken the reins, rather than waited until the very end of an otherwise one-directional conversation for a desultory turn of the tables. Then you can dive in. When you do, ask big-picture, open-ended questions, not just those that can be answered strictly with information, like “How will you define success in this role?”
Ask big-picture, open-ended questions, not just those that can be answered strictly with information
The key is to demonstrate that you want to understand the company and its goals in the broadest possible way so that your work will be in sync with their most fundamental objectives, not just those associated with the specific job. Here are a few things to inquire about, which lead to trading stories, not just information:
- The current state of the company:
I understand the company was recently acquired and it’s been announced that you’ll be entering some new markets. Is that correct? If so, how do you see this position [or project] supporting such a major change?
- How the role or project relates to the company’s past and future:
What has your experience been with projects like this in the past?
What sorts of failures has the team this position is part of encountered before, and how would you describe those?
- How the position or project you’re interviewing for supports where they see themselves going:
What would be most valuable and helpful for you right now?
How are your needs evolving right now, and which key challenges do you expect to face right around the corner?
- What the goals are and why those goals are important:
How would you describe success, and why is that your criteria?
Each question opens up a new avenue of questioning, and it shows you’ve done your homework. This line of inquiry can also get your interviewer to talk more concretely about their aspirations, in a spirit of mutuality.
The more they talk about the opportunity, the more you’ll learn, so you can refine your follow-up questions on the spot and in your communications post-interview. Best of all, the more they talk, the better they’ll feel about you and your ability to succeed for them.
This article originally appeared in Fast Company.
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