how to interview your potential new boss

A reader writes:

Our department was asked by our director to have an informal-type “interview” with two of the finalists in line to fill our manager position (the current manager is retiring).  We are a small department of eight people, 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.

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.

And since we have to go through this exercise, could you give us some ideas of interview questions that can be judged unemotionally and allow us to give some useful feedback to the director?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. cajun2core*

    One interview question I would suggest is, “What is your definition of teamwork?” For me, “good answers” to that would be along the lines of “Never saying that is not my job.” or “Doing what is best for the team even though it is not best for you.”

    A bad answer would be, “Doing your task and what is assigned to you.”

    I am a big believer in teamwork. To me the “bad” answer would be indicative of someone who would say, “That’s not my job”. I would not want to work for a manager who would have that attitude.

  2. Alice*

    I loved this article! We recently had a major hire of a new boss where the staff also participated in the interview process and this article was SO HELPFUL.

  3. Bwmn*

    In addition to putting expectations upfront – I wonder if that’s also to try and prevent some consensus thinking. So instead of hearing 8 people speak up in one voice “We like Candidate A more than B”, each team member is pushed a bit to put in their distinct thoughts on the candidate.

  4. cajun2core*

    Another question I would ask, particularly because this is a big one for me, and it is something I have been “docked” for on previous performance evaluations is:

    “Sue and Bob are having a conversation in the hallway right outside Pat’s office door. Bob and Sue are discussing an issue that is slowing down production and they are trying to figure out a way to correct the situation. Pat knows how to correct the situation. Should Pat speak up now, later (just casually to one of them), or never?”

    Again that situation is something that has been noted on my performance evaluation. For the record, I did speak up and provide the answer. I was told that I should not have spoken up because I was “not part of the conversation.”

    A third question I would ask is “Give me an example of when one of your direct report’s (or even indirect report’s) input has changed or significantly influenced a managerial decision you were considering.” If they hesitate too long, can’t come up with one, or provide a very vague one, I would take that as a negative. I would also ask a very similar question about a technical decision where applicable.

    To me these questions can help you determine the “work culture” of your manager, which we all know is *very* important.

    1. videogame Princess*

      Wow, sounds like your company cares more about conversation flow than getting work done, unless there was something else going on. Is it a toxic work environment in general?

      1. cajun2core*

        I have had multiple bosses at two different companies make comments on my performance review about this issue.

        All of the bosses saw it as a privacy issue. All saw it as “butting in” on someone else’s conversation. They all saw it as “keep your nose out of other people’s business.”

        The previous job was not an overall toxic environment except for this one issue. The current job is somewhat toxic. Both environments were “on a need to know basis” and *very* hierarchical (I’m the boss that’s why). Neither environment valued employee input when it came to managerial or long range decisions. The current one does not value employee input at all.

        1. Artemesia*

          A single instance, well odd that it would be a reprimand. Happening often and at more than one place sort of suggests that you are an annoying person who inserts themselves into other people’s conversations constantly. That is something people complain about here from time to time. A person who is trying to manage another finds a co-worker bossing from the side; not cool. Since this happens to you often, I would do some self reflection on how to have your ideas heard without being that person who constantly eavesdrops and dominates. Listen to the feedback you are getting on this.

          1. cajun2core*

            Thank you for the feedback.

            I hope that I never came across as annoying or bossing from the side. In most if not all cases, I was providing an answer to a question someone was asking or providing information to someone who was seeking it (just not directly from me).

            Other places I have worked actually encouraged that sort of interaction and did not see it as eavesdropping or dominating. It really seems to be a difference in office culture.

            Now that I have learned that at my current work environment this is considered eavesdropping, I have stopped offering assistance and suggestions unless specifically asked.

          2. Vicki*

            Once is accident. Twice is coincidence.
            Three times is a conspiracy.

            And cajun2core did say they were having this conversation _outside her door_. If you don;t want people listening in on your conversation, have it quietly in a conference room or your own cubicle, not in a “public” space.

            1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

              Thank you Vicki

              I agree with you Vicki but apparently not everyone does. At the current job it wasn’t even in the hallway outside my door. It was in the cubicle across from me, literally less than 5 feet away from me.

    2. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      The best environments I have worked on, and the one I always try to encourage with my team is one that believes the answer can come from anywhere.

      Yes, Sue and Sally may be assigned to a new teapot design, but if Jane has a spark, why not explore it?

  5. hayling*

    My team got a new boss this year and I got to interview the candidates. One really illuminating question was “tell me about a time you’ve had to fire someone, and how did you handle it?” Not that I expect to be fired, but the way a manager handles it says a lot about them.

  6. Ineloquent*

    I got to do this this year, which was interesting. We had a lot of discussion about technical knowledge within our field, how to handle difficult expectations, interfacing with other groups as well including how to build good relationships with them, resolving internal conflict and personnel problems, and what should be done if an unexpected situation arises. Based on their responses, and the feeling that we had, we were able to communicate to our senior leadership that none of the finalists would be good choices for the job. It was a bit sad – I’d love to have a decent manager in place – but wow, I’m glad that we didn’t end up stuck with a dud because the senior leadership team doesn’t necessarily have visibility to what our issues really are.

  7. periwinkle*

    “Tell us about a management mistake that you made in the past. What would you do differently?”

    I’d find the reaction to that question to be as important as the response. If your potential manager looks aghast that you dared to question the wisdom of the almighty Oz, click your heels and get the hell out of there.

    (Why I love working for my current manager, part 836726: he would talk openly about his screw-ups, lessons learned, and how he would approach the issues now)

  8. Granite*

    In a previous job my coworkers and I were given the opportunity to interview our potential new director candidates. One was coming from a much larger organization, so we asked her to tell us about how the work flowed in her current dept in order to better focus our subsequent questions. We had a copy of her (publicly available) dept org chart out on the table for reference.

    Her discussion of the dept focused mainly on telling us which of her staff were about to be laid off. As in not just generic layoffs, but specifically Sue and John were about to be laid off, but didn’t know it yet. We were horrified. Fortunately for us, TPTB were also horrified when we relayed the conversation.

    How folks talk to the little people can be extremely informative.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Damn. That is just…damn. How on earth does anyone think it’s acceptable to mention people they are about to cut at their company at an interview for another company?

  9. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

    I was interviewed by my employees as part of an all day interview – I thought it was great.

    One of them asked me to share a time when a member of my current team made a major mistake. It was open-ended and allowed me to share a lot about how I handle things.

    I appreciated that it didn’t assume my style was to jump to discipline.

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