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Interview Topics: Leadership

PostPosted: Wed May 11, 2016 11:00 pm
by Dustin Levy
I’m going to share a series of posts describing how I go about interviewing job candidates and I hope many of you will find this helpful for your own interview preparation. I focus on two main areas: capability and suitability. The capability questions explore a candidate’s ability to do the advertised job by probing knowledge, skills, training, certifications, etc. As these questions will be specific to each job, I won’t elaborate further here.

Once a candidate has demonstrated the required capabilities, the interview turns to suitability, or fit, within the organizational culture. Early in my career, these were the questions that tripped me up and caused me to miss out on some good job opportunities. Technical questions were in my wheelhouse, but ask me about my behaviors, motivations, weaknesses, etc. and my answers wouldn’t be very compelling.

First topic – leadership. Few people would construct a resume that didn’t cite leadership in some way, and only a very poor interviewer would take such assertions at face value without asking the candidate to elaborate further. Here’s a line of interview questions that myself and my colleagues have used to probe candidates’ leadership competencies:

1. How do you define leadership? Your answer to this question provides insight to whether you are citing leadership on your resume as nothing more than a buzz-word, or if you’ve actually developed competencies in leadership. As there are many definitions out there, and I’m asking how you define the term, there can’t really be a wrong answer. The best description that I’ve seen for leadership is that “people follow leaders who can help them accomplish things that they couldn’t on their own”. Any answer that scratches the surface of this definition resonates with me and at a minimum I want to hear an answer that is “others-focused” instead of “self-focused”. If your answer doesn’t address the impact that leadership has on others, then it’s quite possible that you possess minimal leadership skills.

2. Give me a specific example in which you’ve led others. First, your answer needs to be real and specific, not philosophical. Next, I want to see that it’s consistent with the definition you’ve given earlier. As a well-prepared candidate, you will have this example in the can and be able to articulate it readily.

3. In that example, why did people choose to follow you? This question ties back to the description of leadership that I provided earlier. A leadership position cannot be self-proclaimed or given by virtue of your title. You can only be a leader if people choose to follow you. I want a candidate who understands and can articulate what personal behaviors and attributes created a compelling reason for others to follow. If you can’t tell me why people followed you, then it’s possible that you weren’t actually leading.

4. Could you give me another example? If your first example seems over-rehearsed, I may ask for a second one to see if you can think on your feet. A “C” answer would be one that is significantly less articulate than your first, however, I appreciate that those early in their career may not have two solid professional examples where they’ve led. That said, examples where you’ve led outside of a professional environment are certainly fair to share in an interview. A “B” answer would be an example in an environment similar to the first (e.g., same people/different project or similar project/different people). The “A” answer would demonstrate a different leadership style or competency from the first. This would show that you have range and the ability to lead different types of people in different ways in different situational environments. This is where giving both a professional and non-professional example can be very powerful. Leadership can occur through demonstrating expertise, getting your hands dirty, or serving others, and a candidate who demonstrates a past record in more than one of these (or other) dimensions will present themselves as a truly competent leader.

Leadership is hard work, and when combined with all other job responsibilities, leads to my next interview topic, time management.

Re: Interview Topics: Leadership

PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2016 3:01 am
by D.X.
Hi Dustin,

Good Topic. Adding to this, it reminds me of the HR mandated Leadership Competencies we had to demonstrate as part our annual Performance Review at one of my former companies, one of the best i"ve work for to be honest. We had to give examples of how we lived and demonstrated each those competencies. There were four Leadership Competencies:

Chart the Course
Develop Best Teams
Be a Role Model
Deliver Results

To be clear this was for all employees not just line Supervisors - one of the toughest forms of leadership is leadership by influence, getting others to follow when you are not the line-manager. So a real world example of how this was looked at in a very well establish and very well known biotech. This was also incorporated into the interview guides for Interviewers (yes this Company is well oiled machine). I remember when they trained us on this, they used a sail boat analogy to contexualize the competencies, and is why I still remember. .

And a bit more challenging and really next advanced in Terms of Management: ....getting others to lead...while you as the leader...follows. Maybe a bit advanced, but if you're getting others to lead while you're following (as the leader), that's near zen leadership competency - something now I'm getting a grasp on. Yes, one can't let the lunatics run the assylum, but its something, i'm working on as part of my IDP leadership development plan in my current Company.

The other part of about leadership that is often underrated but should be championed, is being the first follower. Often the first follower is one that is probably showing the most Courage and strength. Quite often, a Leader depends on that first follower and a good leader will embrace that first follower - its that first follower that will also help influence others to start following.

Not to negate the Courage of the Leader in some circumstances, the Courage of those first few followers should be acknowledged. I would probably toy with asking a question about when one has followed the lead of someone else to then become a leader themselves. Maybe too complex. But I have 2 examples in my Team where this is the case, People viewed me as a nut recently, but I got 2 followers and now..Folks are following them, and thus me. I can't go into the Details but it took Courage for them to follow a nut like me. Of course this nut had full backing of Company boards to very high nut yes, bet.

Good post, its stuff like this that gets you ahead, so i've learned.


Re: Interview Topics: Leadership

PostPosted: Tue May 17, 2016 9:47 pm
by Dustin Levy
D.X. wrote:

And a bit more challenging and really next advanced in Terms of Management: ....getting others to lead...while you as the leader...follows.


A similar concept, Servant Leadership, calls for leaders to “serve” their followers. This flips the conventional boss-to-employee relationship around and can be a particularly effective approach when leading without direct authority.

Lots of literature out there on this leadership model and a good description here:

Re: Interview Topics: Leadership

PostPosted: Thu May 19, 2016 2:41 am
by D.X.
Hi Dustin,

Or politically, when you want to put others in the line of fire.
Especially the ones that want to fly close to the sun (i.e. the overacheiving sycophants), I call them the Icarus' and myself - Daedalus, watching from below, however, unlike Daedalus in the mythological Story, I'm usually screaming fly higher!! Go go fly fly higher higher Icarus! :)

Gotta have some Humor sometime. I've been an Icarus in the past, got burned a few times by some Daedalus bosses, so I learned. :)