For Rahul Kulkarni, questioning comes easily. The chief product officer at Sokrati, a digital marketing and analytics start-up based in Pune, Kulkarni has been part of the hiring process, recruiting Web designers and technical writers and a marketing manager. “The time span in start-ups is small, you want to pick people who get stuff done, who are capable of becoming leaders and quickly,” he says, explaining why interviewing the right way is so high on the charts.
Asking the right questions is a skill Kulkarni picked up from his years at Google (2006-12), where he conducted almost 250 interviews for positions as diverse as product managers, human resource professionals and policy analysts. “At Google, there was never a set of fixed questions, because everything we asked would be up on websites like Glassdoor almost immediately, so you had to learn to be innovative while framing questions for potential candidates,” he says.
Typical interview panels in most companies have a mix of human resource professionals, line managers and business heads, each of whom ask different kinds of questions. The interviews could be one-on-one or with a joint panel, each one varying from maybe 10 minutes to as long as a few hours. They have to find the perfect talent, and recruiters pay a high price if their hires turn out to be unsuitable.
We spoke to a mix of professionals—business heads, functional experts and human resource professionals—to find out about their interview strategies and the set of questions they never miss out on. Here is what they said:
Set a conversational tone
“How has your day been?”
“How was the drive?”
“Hope you had a comfortable journey in?”
These are some of the opening questions favoured by Sameer Wadhawan, vice-president, human resources and services, India and South-West Asia, Coca-Cola India. For senior hires, Coca-Cola usually conducts three-four rounds of interviews; each is conducted by different experts like the talent acquisition manager, the functional expert of that position, the business head and the human resources person. The interviews last 3-4 hours, typically beginning mid-morning and going on to the afternoon, with a break for lunch at the company cafeteria.
So spending the first 15-20 minutes in casual chit-chat relaxes the candidate, says Wadhawan. “We want to make the interview a positive experience for the candidate and want the candidate to be relaxed; the interview is conversational, so that we can pick up cues to the candidate’s personality,” he explains. In his opinion the best way to start an interview is with general questions.
The résumé round
“Walk me through your CV.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
This is often a good way to check for consistency, for people tend to paint a picture on their CVs which may or may not be completely accurate. When a candidate talks about his or her résumé, they are likely to mention things they are most comfortable about rather than highlight only what reads well on a résumé.
Not everyone follows this route. Prem Kamath, a Mumbai-based CXO coach and consultant who retired as head—management resources, Hindustan Unilever Ltd, in 2004 and has conducted hundreds of interviews, says, “If somebody has written something in the CV, rather than wasting time asking him to repeat himself, I pointedly ask about the experience.” He feels that often interviewers don’t do their homework and don’t study a candidate’s résumé closely. “They begin with the standard ‘tell us about yourself’ and read the candidate’s résumé while he is speaking. Reading while the candidate is talking means missing out on the nuances of the answers,” says Kamath, who prefers to study the applicant’s CV thoroughly and ask detailed questions based on it. Answers to these give the interviewer clues about what motivates a candidate and why he has chosen to change jobs.
Uncover personality traits
“A good interviewer should be able to ‘peel the layers’ off the candidate and try and get a peep into his nature, temperament and his value system,” says Divakar Kaza, president—human resources, Lupin Ltd, Mumbai. Kaza’s favourite questions are:
“So what are you reading these days?”
“What/Who is your favourite book/author?”
“What are the top three issues today according to you?”
These could be global issues, or perhaps those that are closest to a candidate’s heart or work. The answers to these questions or the choice of issues helps Kaza gauge the candidate’s thought process and whether he has an independent opinion on issues or not.
Coca-Cola’s Wadhawan favours questions like “What was your most cherished experience?” The advantage of this question is that it looks simple but it could be a tricky one. If a candidate, for instance, told the Coca-Cola interview panel he was most proud of a moment where he solved plant labour problems by taking a tough stand and sacking employees, the answer would help Wadhawan decide whether the candidate is meant for his company or not. “I have an environment in my plant which is very unionized and I would like a candidate to be someone who will collaborate and manage, not rush to sack people.”
Politics, the economy or even the weather can be good talking points. Kulkarni recalls asking a candidate in Google about the weather. “From the weather we moved to global warming, and possible solutions to the problem. The idea here is to move from the general to slice and dice. This way you can gauge the candidate’s creativity and their problem-solving abilities,” he says.
The job and goal connect
“Sell me this pen” (pointing to an ordinary ballpoint pen on the interviewer’s table) is a challenge Kamath often put to young MBA graduates who applied for entry-level sales and marketing jobs with Hindustan Unilever.
Kulkarni’s question for a candidate applying for the position of a marketing manager would be something on these lines: “Take this ordinary whiteboard marker and relaunch it like Steve Jobs” or “If you had $2 million in brand spend, how would you allocate it?”
For a specific job, interviewers ask specific questions. So, while recruiting for the position of marketing manager, the questions must revolve around functional marketing problems. Similarly while recruiting for an investment firm, a question like “You have X million dollars to invest. What kind of companies would you put them in?” helps gauge functional skills.
A job that demands effective customer service might, for instance, use an obvious question like “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an irate customer”, just as effective leadership communication could be judged by asking: “Describe a situation where you persuaded team members to do things your way.”
It’s puzzle time
Asking off-beat questions in interviews is a much favoured strategy nowadays. Many of these quirky questions originated in the Silicon Valley, US. Candidates at Microsoft, most famously, have faced such questions as: “Why are manhole covers round?”, “How many piano tuners do you think there are in Chicago?”, “How do you measure 4 gallons of water using only a 3- and 5-gallon jug?”.
In his books on interviewing at Microsoft, How Would You Move Mount Fuji? (that’s a Microsoft question too!), author William Poundstone talks about why puzzle questions have been thought to be effective, especially at young technology companies. Answers to anticipated questions like “What has been your biggest challenge?” don’t convey too much about the candidate as they have been well practised before. Puzzle and trick questions, on the other hand, have been thought to work well to test a candidate’s clear thinking and his responses under pressure. Besides, with puzzles, you either fail or pass.
Construct case studies
For senior marketing hires, Kamath put forward tricky situations that need solutions. For instance: “You have joined a new organization as a senior sales manager. You find five salesmen who have been in the company for 25 years are not being tapped. How would you go about settling in?”
The thought and responses to a question like this give Kamath clues to the qualities in a candidate. “There is no right and wrong, but it’s the quality of the responses and analysis of the issue at hand that is important; this gives clues about the candidate’s creativity and people management skills.”
The final question
This one is for the interviewer. At the end of the interaction, do not forget to ask yourself: “Do I want to work with this guy? Is there something he can teach me?” As an employer, one is trying to learn from the interview too. You want to understand how the person will deal with difficult situations, and what the tough or smart investments he has made are.
Kulkarni says the question he asks himself as an interviewer, on the smartness quotient, is: “Is this guy smarter than me? Then I would like to work with him. If you cannot think the guy is smarter than you in any respect, if you are going to teach him everything, then it’s not a good hire.”
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