Managing

The most important thing to ask at job interviews

Harvard Business Review /

At my venture capital firm, Cue Ball, we seek out great talent with whom we can partner, invest and grow exciting new ideas and businesses. My colleagues and I try to stay true to the principle of a founding figure of venture capital, George Doriot, who was fond of saying that it’s always better to back an A team with a B plan than an A plan with a B team.

In other words, people always trump ideas. That’s because while top talent can improve misguided ideas, the best ideas can’t improve mediocre talent. Cue Ball’s philosophy, therefore, has always been that the ultimate customer in venture capital isn’t the venture capitalist, but the entrepreneur. If you’re doing your job right and attracting the best talent, then it’s the entrepreneur who will be choosing you as opposed to you choosing the entrepreneur.

This should be the case in job interviews as well. Too often employers forget that they need the candidate as much as the candidate needs them. Perhaps out of arrogance, interviewers tend to spend most of their time asking the candidate questions and only reserve the last couple of minutes for the candidate to ask any questions of them. You only need to survey a handful of recent job candidates or sit in on a few job interviews to conclude that there’s usually too little interactive dialogue and too much one-way questioning of the candidate: Why are your skills right for this position? What was your last job like? How are you going to add value to the company? What is your work ethic? What are three adjectives that describe your attitude? What are your weaknesses? All of these questions are variations on a theme: Why should we care about you? And they all generally fit into the ”skill’’ and ”will’’ buckets.

Yet if you want the best talent, then almost by definition you should want talent that is in demand and has options. Your mindset therefore needs to be that of both job evaluator and talent scout. And as with venture capitalists, it is the talent that is the ultimate customer. The power always rests with the candidate, not the employer. This has big implications for job interviews. Employers should think about how often they’ve asked the most practical and important of all job interview questions: If you were given this opportunity, would you take it?

Firms often neglect to ask this question because they’re so focused on a job candidate’s skills. But the first 15 to 20 minutes of an interview is usually plenty of time to determine someone’s capabilities. The next time you finish an interview, ask yourself if you have a sense of whether the candidate would actually join your firm if given the chance. If you have no idea – which is the answer I hear far too often – then you’ve failed to take full advantage of the interview. Understanding whether the candidate – the customer – really wants the job you’re offering or is just ”shopping around’’ should be a goal of any good interview and evaluation process.

With that goal in mind, you should ask the candidate some practical questions: Where do you want to eventually live and settle? What other firms are you looking at and why does ours stand out? Are there any reasons why you wouldn’t take this job if it were offered to you?

Having a sense of the candidate’s motivations for interviewing and whether there are any obstacles to his accepting the job are among the most important goals of an interview. Focusing on these outcomes will enable you to more effectively channel your time and energy with the candidate.

The next time you’re conducting a job interview, remember that the candidate is the customer – that the balance of power isn’t necessarily with you just because you’re the one offering the job. If you forget this, you might end up wasting a lot of time and be disappointed when the best candidate turns you down. Or worse, you might end up with a less talented employee than you deserve.

As soon as you feel confident that you’re dealing with a qualified candidate, start selling him the job. Explain why you and your firm make sense for the candidate – why you’re the natural choice. Then ask the most important question: Would your candidate choose you?

Anthony K. Tjan is CEO, managing partner and founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball, vice-chairman of the advisory firm Parthenon, and co-author of the New York Times best-seller ‘Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck.’

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