when you’re asked to interview your prospective new manager

A reader writes:

Our department was asked by our director (male) to have an informal-type “interview” with 2 of the finalists in line to fill our manager position (the current manager is retiring).  We are a small department of 8 people (all female) and we are tasked with “being unemotional” and to have “facts” as to why we prefer one over the other.  Yet, we were told to not assume that this will make a difference in who is hired.

First question: What do you think of this?  We are thinking that this is a effort to make us feel good – that we have some say – yet we all know that that in fact is not the case.

Second question:  Since we have to go through this exercise – could you give us some ideas of interview questions that can be judged unemotionally and allows us to give some useful feedback to the director as to our preference?

Your inclusion of everyone’s gender makes me think that you think there’s something gender-based going on here (like that your male boss is assuming women’s input will be more likely to be based on emotion rather than facts) … and maybe that’s the case, but I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion, just based on what you’ve written here.

Asking people to interview candidates to be their manager is a sensitive situation: From your director’s perspective, he wants to make sure that you understand that the final decision may not match your recommendation, and it’s smart to make that clear up front, because it really won’t feel good if it’s a surprise to you later. He also wants useful input from you — not just “we liked Susan the best.” For your input to be helpful, he’s looking for specifics that aren’t about liking or disliking someone, but rather something more concrete than that — “Susan had really good ideas about how to streamline X and it felt like she really got the challenges we’re facing with Y,” or “Jane didn’t communicate her ideas very clearly and seemed stiff to the point that it was hard to get a good sense of her.”

Very often when I’ve asked people for their input about candidates, I’ve received responses more along the lines of “I liked Susan best,” and then have had to pull out details from them. So I’ve learned over time — and maybe your boss has too — to be clear up-front about what kind of input will be the most valuable.

(Of course, it’s also possible that your boss is a raging sexist and assumes women can’t give unemotional input. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion unless there’s a larger context to cause you to.)

Now, will your input be considered or is this just a charade to make you feel like you had a voice in the decision when you really didn’t?  It could be either, but I wouldn’t assume it’s the latter without some real reason for thinking that. While I can’t imagine a situation where I’d hand a group of employees final authority over who their next manager would be, I’d still (almost) always be interested in hearing their insights and impressions and factoring them into my decision. If everyone hates the candidate I love, that’s really important for me to know. And I’d be interested in hearing more nuanced impressions from them too, especially from people with a different vantage point than mine. I’m still going to make the final call, but the more well-rounded my picture of the candidates, the better decision I can make.

That’s not to say that your boss isn’t just going through the motions here; maybe he is. I don’t know enough about him to know, but at least factor into your thinking that everything you’ve described could be the actions of someone approaching this in a reasonable way.

As for what to ask the candidates when you meet with them, here’s a list of questions to consider:

  • What’s a common misconception some people have about you?
  • What has your biggest achievement been at ___? What results there that you produced are you most proud of? (You can then also ask the same question for other jobs they’ve had. You’re looking for someone with a pattern of taking things from X to Y — with Y being greater than X.)
  • Can you walk us through how you managed a recent large project, something where others were doing the work but you were overseeing it? What was your role? How did you interact with the people carrying out the work?
  • Can you tell us about a difficult decision you had to make recently? Walk us through the problem and what your thought process was, and how you ultimately handled it.
  • How would you describe yourself as a manager? How do you think people you’ve managed would describe you?
  • How has your approach to management evolved as you’ve gained more experience?
  • What do you do to work on being a better manager?
  • What do you think are some of the most common ways people fail at management?
  • Tell us about an employee who became more successful as a result of your management.
  • How would you describe the bar for performance at ___ (or in the department you manage)?
  • What do you look for when you hire people?
  • How do you handle performance problems? Can you walk us through your approach using a real-life example?
  • Tell us about a time you had to give someone difficult feedback. How did you approach it?
  • Tell us about a management mistake that you made in the past. What would you do differently?
  • Even the best bosses generate complaints from their employees now and then. What complaints do you think the people you’ve managed would have about you?
  • What drives you crazy in people you manage?
  • One problem that we’re struggling with here is ___. What are your thoughts on how you’d approach that?

There’s a wide range or good and bad answers here. Overall, what you’re looking for is a sense of how this person operates: Are they someone who’s focused on results, or do they get bogged down with minutia?  How do they make decisions? How do they see the role of a manager? What will they be like to work with? Do they communicate their ideas well? Do they think clearly? Are they smart? Are they willing to make tough choices and have hard conversations?  Do they have good judgment? Do they manage by fear? Do they manage at all? Are they open and transparent? Secure? A wimp? A tyrant? Indecisive?  Defensive?  Calm? Direct?

Use the list above as a starting point. Good luck!

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Liz in a library*

    I’d like to also add that from your director’s standpoint, there may be a useful benefit to including your group in the hiring process. As someone who has interviewed both direct reports and my current manager, I can tell you that some people behave very differently in an interview with the person they assume pulls the strings than they do for someone whose function is at their level or below.

    A few years ago, I interviewed candidates for a position that would be above mine in the hierarchy, but not my supervisor/the department head. I knew, but the candidates didn’t, that whoever we hired would likely be promoted to the head of our department within a year. The candidate who treated me with condescension and seemed amazed that someone so lowly was allowed in on something as important as the hiring process was not successful.

    The candidate who was genuine and interested in our work, who asked me about my job as well as the position, and who gave thoughtful suggestions for some problems I presented to her was successful. I knew she would be successful managing our group because of the interest and care she gave in giving her opinions on issues that some candidates may have thought too low-level to bother with.

    So you really can get a good feel for what this person can bring to your department. You know what is most needed there, and whether the person has it or not may come out better in conversation with you than with the bosses.

  2. scott messinger*

    I don’t know. I just want a competent manager that can manage different personalities. I would hope that the people in charge of hiring would be better at determining this than me. I have a job to do. And it doesn’t involve interviewing people. I would resent having the hiring responsibility shoved down to my level, even under the guise of ‘inclusion’.

    1. Dawn*

      “I have a job to do. And it doesn’t involve interviewing people. I would resent having the hiring responsibility shoved down to my level, even under the guise of ‘inclusion’.”

      Resent it? Really? I would see this as an opportunity to grow and contribute. You’re not the one making the decision, but your input is important to the person who is. Many times the subordinates pick up on things that the hiring manager doesn’t. There have been a few bad managers in my place that might not have been hired had their potential direct reports had the chance to interact with them during the interview process.

      1. Scott Messinger*

        See my reply below. I made a mistake by not solving the spam protection problem (why cant the blog warn people about this before they hit SUBMIT?) and lost my post and had to retype it.

        Unfortunately I retyped it as a new post, rather than a reply.

          1. Jamie*

            What browser are you using? I use Firefox and when I forget the spam protection when I go back everything is still there.

      2. Scott Messinger*

        “Many times the subordinates pick up on things that the hiring manager doesn’t”

        Sorry, it’s been my experience that subordinates DON’T pick up on things during the interview process, because they aren’t trained to do that. They only pick up on things AFTER the manager is hired, which of course is too late.

        You need to have trained employees interviewing candidates. Interviewing is a skill that not everyone can do. Just like management is a skill that is completely different that other jobs.

        As a side note (but relevant), training is also a completely differnt skill. Just because you know a lot about a topic, doesn.t mean you are good as a trainer. I have some experience in this. I used to think I was good at training, but I’ve seen REAL trainers in my 20 years of work, and I realize that my skills as such are really lacking.

        To conclude, Interviewing should be done by trained interviewers, or other employees who have been trained as interviewers. You can’t just stick someone in a interview and expect them to do a good job. Managers are better at this because its part of their job (and hopefully they have been coached at it) and they do it more often. Regular employees would not be good at it.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s partly (but not entirely) why they’re not the ones making the decision. But they can still have useful input.

          It’s also sometime true that the candidates are interested in meeting with the team they’d be managing.

        2. Anonymous*

          In my experience most “hiring managers” have never been trained in interviewing and most “managers” have never been trained in management. It’s helpful to have this training but not necessary to be able to contribute your opinion and make a sound hiring decision.

  3. Anonymous*

    I couldn’t agree more about the gender comment. There is a deeper problem with this team then interviewing potential managers.

  4. Joey*

    Some additional:
    -Give us some examples of how you’ve made work for your staff easier or more efficient.
    -Why do people like working for you?
    -Describe the workload of your previous staff.
    -What does it take to be a top performer in your eyes?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oooh, workload — that’s a good area to explore. I’d also ask: When you’ve managed staff faced with a high workload, how have you helped them manage it?

  5. Scott Messinger*

    There is a difference between growing within your area of expertise and being expected to take on responsibilities outside your area of expertise. It’s like a car mechanic being asked to be a heart surgeon. Yeah, both jobs involve circulating fluids, but they are completely different.

    I know how to translate user requirements into code. That is the limit of my ability. I’m working on 5 projects at a time with 5 different project managers. I dont have the ability, or time, to evalutate new managers. I would expect OTHER managers to be better at this task than I am.

    People need to realize that a management job is more than just a step up from those being managed. It is an entirely different career path, which requires entirely different skills. A manager of programmers has more in common other managers of all different walks of life, than with the employees they manage.

    Expecting the employees to evaluate and pick their own boss is ridiculous. If you want to involve the employees in this process, have existing management go through a 360 review process first, so you can understand the management challenges at your own company.

    Just don’t stick the employees in the interview room.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, they’re not being asked to pick the boss. They’re being asked to have input. Most people have an opinion about their managers, so having a chance to form and express that opinion *before* a hiring decision is made is going to be welcomed by most people, I’d guess.

      1. Scott Messinger*

        Well, I guess we are going to have to agree to disagree.

        I feel that good managers can manage anyone. You shouldnt pick managers who can mange a particular ‘type’ of people. Therefore the ‘input’ of the employees should not matter. Because,those employees may not still be there in a year’s time. And the new employees may be chosen for their skills, not their personalities, which may be completely different than the employees who originally chose the manager!

        Managers should be flexible enough to manage any type of employee under them. They should only have a knowledge of the business area they are responsible for. The management culture they are expected to conform to is dictated by the MANAGEMENT, not the employees.

        I’ve been involved in this process before and I’ve found it useless and not helpfull.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, I think the input of my employees matters on lots of things that they’re not going to be the final decision-makers on. I think a lot of employees appreciate being engaged on things outside of their direct realms. But if someone didn’t want to participate, I’d have no problem with them recusing themselves.

          1. Scott Messinger*

            I agree that input from employees is useful. But it’s usually on something the employee knows more about than the manager. The employees know the details, and the person making the decisions uses those details to inform his decision.

            But employees probably don’t know more about the management process than the manager doing the interviewing. So asking for their input really isn’t going to provide much more information. Additionally, the employees probably don’t know how to perform interviews, so they may not know how to ask questions that aren’t leading, and interpret the answers.

            However (in the spirit of providing solutions, and not just complaining) there is one way I wouldn’t mind being involved in the process of hiring my own manager. It would be nice to be asked “what do you want in a manager?” I could write down all the things I would like to see in a manager, and the hiring manager could then formulate questions to hire the best person.

            I could deal with that.

  6. Jane Atkinson*

    Another question:
    Supposing one of your employees is underperforming in some way. How would you approach that?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If I had serious doubts about the whole group, or if the staff to be managed by the new manager was just one person and he/she was a low performer, I probably wouldn’t have them participate in the process, since I’d be less likely to put stock in their input.

      But if it was a group of, say, 6 people and one was under-performing, I wouldn’t single that one person out to sit out. However, I’d want people’s feedback individually, not as a group (this is the case in any circumstance, actually).

        1. Jane Atkinson*

          Yes it was a sample question. It’s an issue that bugs lots of people, so why not find out while there’s a chance?

          And AAM, I could have worded it more clearly.

  7. Phideaux*

    My absolute favorite interview question is one I read here…”Tell me about something you achieved that you think someone else in your same job would not have gotten done.” Anyone who can succinctly answer this without a deer-in-the-headlights look almost always gets a pass to the next round. For me, it’s practically been the Magic Silver Bullet for separating the average from the stars.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is the greatest question! It totally does separate out the average from the fantastic.

      (On the job-seeker’s side, the thing to do is to answer this on your own without being asked — your resume, cover letter, and interview should all convey this basic concept: that you’re someone who goes beyond the mere job description to really achieve.)

      1. Charles*

        “It totally does separate out the average from the fantastic.”

        or it can be used to separate out the BSers!

        Sorry AAM, but, if someone told me that without first saying that they cannot be sure that NO ONE else could/would do this “special” thing then I will see them as being full of themselves.

        1. Phideaux*

          A thorough resume screening and interviewing process should weed out the arrogant BSer’s. When I ask this question, I’m looking to see if a person recognizes that in order to further themselves, the job, and ultimately the company or organization, they need try things no one else has tried, think of ideas no one else has thought of, and put those ideas into action when no one else will. If someone else could have done it better, they would have. I’m looking for someone who is willing to look at problems from a different perspective, step outside of the normal way of doing things, and to have the confidence to do it and be able to explain it if asked. This question illustrates just how well they are able to do that. And, in some of the positions at my company, a little bit of cockiness can be a plus so if this question brings that out, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

          1. Anonymous*

            Keep in mind most great managers dont try to reinvent the wheel. They just copy good practices of other managers. I agree that it’s hard to give a good answer to this question without sounding presumptuous.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          When I ask it, I don’t mean “tell me something no one else in the world could have done,” but rather “tell me about something special that you achieved that wasn’t a normal part of the job.” I’ve found the most successful hires are made by looking for people with a track record of going above and beyond in what they achieve, and that’s what this question is supposed to elicit.

  8. Anonymous*

    When I was hired for my position over 10 years ago I got to meet the staff in an informal sort of interview (after meeting the formal interview committee and my potential boss). My potential boss was also there so it was not a total free for all, but he really was just an observer.

    They asked me questions about my experience and how I would treat staff. Later, I was told by many in the organization that the person before me basically came in with the degree but with no experience and maybe even worse, had treated the staff as low-lives and insignificant, playing favorites etc. This upset them to the point that they were at least one factor as to why that previous person was eventually let go (which knowing the staff as I do now makes me think they really had to be very upset; I’ve not seen them get worked up about most things).

    I don’t know how much of their input counted in final decision, but looking back I think it was mostly useful for my boss to observe us interacting, and perhaps especially useful for the organization to at least try to acknowledge that there had been this very divisive issue. I think even if no one had been hired in the end, it might have helped the organization to have gone through the interview process this way.

  9. Brian Asmussen*

    Great interview questions for anyone interviewing a leadership position of any kind. I’m interested in questions you would use for front line staff. I always enjoy reading your posts!

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