Questions successful business leaders ask during interviews

If you’re fortunate enough to be interviewed by Richard Branson one day (hopefully on Necker Island!), don’t expect to hear questions about your career history, strengths or weaknesses. He’s not a fan of the traditional job interview, and in his book “The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership,” the Virgin Group founder explains the importance of hiring individuals who are a good ‘personality fit’. Focusing conversation on academic and professional achievements, and talking through a CV, would in many ways be a waste of time, he argues.

“Obviously a good CV is important, but if you were going to hire by what they say about themselves on paper, you wouldn’t need to waste time on an interview,” Branson writes. “I have always believed that the single most important thing to consider is ‘personality fit,'” he says. “By that I mean, is this someone whose way of being, sense of humour, and general demeanour will dovetail easily with your company’s culture?”

That’s why he likes to ask candidates: “What didn’t you get a chance to include on your résumé?” The CV can be a restrictive format, and Branson likes to spend the majority of interview time exploring the individual as a person. He says to trust your initial instinct, as while you can teach someone new skills needed to do a job, you can’t build them a new personality that will better fit your company culture.

American entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, who is CEO of online shoe and clothing store Zappos, and who recently made headlines for introducing the self-management system known as Holacracy across the business, says one of his core business values is to “create fun and a little weirdness”. He likes to ask interview candidates, “on a scale of one to 10, how weird are you?” The numeric answer, he claims, is of less importance than how individuals tackle the question. Yet despite this he admits that if “you’re a one, you probably are a little bit too straight-laced for the Zappos culture,” and “if you’re a 10, you might be too psychotic for us.”

In sharp contrast to this, US TV host and actor Oprah Winfrey is more interested in exploring an individual’s self-worth within an interview situation. Her favourite question to ask is “What is your spiritual practice?” By this, she doesn’t mean to explore a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs, but rather find out more about their “relationship with themselves”. Self-worth is an important principal for Oprah, and she believes it’s critical to discover how an individual values themselves and keeps them self grounded, to understand what their confidence and self-belief will be like in the workplace.

Karen Davis, senior VP at Hasbro, likes to use the interview scenario to find out more about an individual’s sources of inspiration. One of the ways she does this is to ask the question “what’s your favourite quote?” There is no right or wrong answer, and while some may struggle to recall theirs under the pressure of an interview, Davis is intrigued to see how the candidate responds and whether they are able to give an answer at all. Those who ‘collect’ quotes tend to be continually looking for sources of inspiration, she believes, and this says something about their character and how they approach their career. It might also suggest that they are big readers; an attribute recommended by many well-known business leaders.

Space X and Telsa CEO Elon Musk is said to take an active role in hiring (and firing) and personally interviewed nearly all of the first 1,000 hires at SpaceX. According to reports, the first part of his interview can be extremely intimidating while he “will likely keep on writing emails and working…and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal,” writes Ashlee Vance, a reporter at Bloomberg Businessweek, and author of Musk’s recent biography. “Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.”

If this sounds daunting enough, when he speaks, Musk likes to test a candidate’s logic and reasoning, presenting them with one of his favourite riddles to solve:

“You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?”

The answer: you’re either at the North Pole, or “somewhere close” to the South Pole. It goes without saying that only serious applicants need apply!

And last, but by no means least, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel likes to hire people who have confidence in their beliefs and ideas, and who tend not to self censor. He says interviews are “overrated” and he prefers to better trust an individual’s CV and network, but nevertheless within an interview scenario, he has a favourite question he likes to ask:

“Tell me something that’s true, that almost no one agrees with you on.”

“It sort of tests for originality of thinking, and to some extent, it tests for your courage in speaking up in a difficult interview context where it’s always socially awkward to tell the interviewer something that the interviewer might not agree with,” Thiel explains.

So the next time you’re interviewing, try placing less emphasis on the traditional sorts of CV-related questions and instead consider how you can delve deeper into the candidate as a person, to ensure they’ll be a good cultural fit for your organisation.

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  • Carlos

    What is important is the person and how creatively deals with the simple challenges. Nice elaboration and examples for get the best people that might fit on the company needs and culture

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