You’re reading an excerpt of Ask Me This Instead: Flip the Interview to Land Your Dream Job, a book by Kendra Haberkorn. This powerful work is written by a veteran recruiter for job-seekers who want to find their dream job—not just the next job. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, worksheets and a question database, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
The interview process is often just a few hours spread over several days or weeks. That is not a lot of time to get to know the company, responsibilities, and expectations, let alone all the people. You’re going to spend 40+ hours a week over the course of many months or years working with these individuals. It’s important to recognize each person’s unique contribution to the process, work, and your experience. The people you spend your days with can transform the mundane into meaningful or turn a dream job into a toxic, miserable slog. Your interviewees are a small representation of the company in most cases (unless you’re interviewing at a tiny company or new startup) and your time with them is your primary chance to get a window into the broader employee and team experience.
Throughout a standard interview process, you’ll encounter a handful of prospective colleagues. Some of these interviewers could play a key role in your experience and others you will just know in passing, but they are all valuable guides to your future work experience. Each person brings a different lens to the company, role, and team and can unlock new perspectives and information that others wouldn’t be able to share. Crafting a targeted set of questions for each interviewer profile that addresses specific areas of interest based on your established priorities will help ensure you efficiently and effectively gather information.
To get the best 360° view of the company, you’ll need to take advantage of the opportunity to ask a tailored set of questions to each person. In this section, I’ll explore the roles, personas and priorities of the people commonly involved in the interview process so that you can incorporate them into the plan you create later in this book. Some sections are more expansive than others—these are people who are more pivotal and influential in the recruiting process. For example, the recruiter is someone you’ll almost always interact with, and the hiring manager is probably the most important person for you to get to know. In some cases, a single person can play more than one of the roles outlined, which is why it’s so important for you to know who you are interviewing with, why, and what their role will be in the process. Remember that titles or roles do not always equate to influence or trust within the hiring team—anyone participating in the process could be the key vote or veto in interviews. Make sure you take an inclusive approach to engage with each one of your interviewers. Later, in the question section of the book, you’ll see questions designed for each of these personas so that you can create your specific interview plan.
Put simply, the recruiter is your guide throughout the process. Often the first person you talk to, the recruiter wants you to succeed. This is both a positive and complicated reality as they have diverse motivations to consider throughout the process including, but not limited to, those of the hiring team, those of the candidate, and their own.
This is not a game of love, but there are parallels. Recruiters play the role of matchmaker. Recruiters spend time networking and interacting with lots of different people at any given time including hiring managers, candidates, external partners or agencies, cross-functional interviewers, and executives, and are constantly trying to understand, manage, and meet their varied expectations for the role, hiring process, and the eventual new hire.
They fulfill this responsibility with a combination of intuition, judgment, and influence. Even when someone (either an internal team member or a prospective employee) is being transparent and direct, there are “unsaid truths” that a recruiter has to reflect upon and process within the bigger picture. A talented recruiter is always listening, as they work to understand a broad set of factors to see where and how they will converge toward the desired outcome—getting the right person in the right role as quickly and efficiently as possible. Typically, recruiters are natural conversationalists and make that initial conversation relatively easy for candidates by conveying information, enthusiasm, and support.
Don’t let the charm and openness distract you—recruiters are still responsible for assessing the alignment of your capabilities with an established set of criteria for the position, while also weighing your talent relative to other candidates and current employees to see who is the closest match on the most dimensions. There is nuance and subjectivity at play.
Many recruiters are expert assessors, with years of experience interviewing thousands of candidates. They know what great looks like and have a refined approach to asking the right questions and sharing relevant business or role context. Others are not experts. This may be because they are early in their recruiting career or unfamiliar with the real context of the role. They might run through a script, ask questions that have little to nothing to do with the role, and fail to listen to your answers.
While some recruiters specialize in roles of a specific nature, for example engineering and technical roles or sales positions, many internal recruiters are responsible for a wide variety of openings across functions, disciplines, and levels. In some companies, there may only be a single recruiter who has to support, source, and manage the hiring process for all openings. Because of the variability of the roles that most recruiters cover, it’s important to remember that they are generalists, not specialists, in the domain of any particular position. This means they have a broad, not deep, understanding of the skills, day-to-day activities, tools, challenges, and context that someone who would step into the role would encounter or need to know.
Whether or not there is an internal team member working on recruiting, some companies also partner with external recruiters to support their hiring needs. External recruiters may be “retained” to fill a particular role, meaning they are paid up front and throughout the recruitment process to help the company find the right person. Or, they might be working on a “contingency” basis, which means they will only be paid a fee if they successfully find the candidate who accepts the job. The fees that external recruiters are paid are most often a percentage of the new hires’ salary or projected total cash compensation (including bonuses, etc.). Because of these pay structures, these recruiters are eager to fill the position and, as a result, can be a proactive and supportive partner. It’s important to note that, as external partners, they will likely have less insight and influence than internal team members and you will need to establish strong relationships with the people you meet in interviews to vet the information they provide and get the answers you need.
In an ideal world, all recruiters, whether internal or external, are a trusted guide and thoughtful facilitator for the duration of the process, providing insights on the next steps and requirements, communicating updates, and advocating both for candidates and the company. But sometimes, things won’t play out like that. There are many reasons why not—and not all of them are within the recruiter’s ability to control. Here are some of the scenarios that might be playing out behind the scenes that could influence your recruiter’s ability to move the process forward or give you information:
The hiring team has competing priorities or poor communication. Sometimes a recruiter can be on top of the process, actively engaging with and bringing viable candidates into the process, sharing feedback and recommendations with the hiring team, and getting crickets in response. They email, stop by, Slack, and text to no avail. In this case, the hiring manager may not be making recruiting a priority, may not be able to commit to a decision, or may have the answer but not the time or ability to pass that information along.
There may be changes to the process or role in motion. Recruiting is a dynamic and evolving process. And it should be. If recruiters or hiring teams think they have the role and candidate profile precisely defined at the start, they are more likely to miss something important during the interview process. As conversations progress, the context changes too. The project or goals might shift, or team members might join or quit. Additionally, teams might learn something in early conversations with candidates that changes their perspectives on what matters most for the position.
A work and team environment is interconnected, and few decisions are really independent or discrete. When something changes, there are likely downstream impacts that will take time to identify and resolve, which can delay a hiring process. In some cases, the recruiter will be aware of these evolving situations and able to provide updates. In other cases, they will be operating without an understanding of what’s impacting the process or delays and might be just as frustrated as you are.
The hiring team may wait to move candidates forward pending the outcome of other interviews. When you really want a job, it’s natural to believe that you are the only candidate the team is considering. In reality, they might have a handful of other contenders or a long list of applicants to sort through and manage at every step of the process. It’s a helpful and even productive exercise to remind yourself of this along the way. It can help motivate you to continue to prepare and put your best self forward, and help soften the pain if you aren’t the candidate selected. It’s in candidates’ and companies’ best interest to make these big decisions with more than a single data point.
Because there are several candidates in the process, the team might want to accelerate or pause other conversations at certain points. This is not necessarily a bad thing—if they have an offer out to someone else that they are excited about hiring, holding off asking you to come in for a full day of interviews saves you time and effort. It can be hard to balance the communication in these situations and some companies cannot or will not be transparent about why there is a pause. Be patient, proactive, and positive, checking back in to see if there are updates now and then. Just because this specific role might not work out doesn’t mean there won’t be other opportunities with this company at some point in the future. Though it can be frustrating, resist the temptation to be rude or impatient. If the process isn’t well-run, consider it another valuable data point!
The business or economic context might change. Hiring is impacted by other activities within a particular company as well as factors well beyond the business. For example, projects may be started or canceled, companies may make an acquisition or be acquired, startups might raise a new round of funding, new leaders might join a team and others might transition out, or the company might have an amazing quarter or completely miss expectations. These situations, and so many others, will determine if certain roles move forward in the hiring process or not. Of course, there is also the possibility that the world can change. A product or process might become outdated or unpopular, a new service or technology might disrupt an industry, or the economy might change due to local, national, or international circumstances ranging from government transitions to natural disasters to a pandemic. Smart companies will respond to these situations by prioritizing the roles that are core to the business’ operations and long-term success. Their response requires tough decisions, sometimes eliminating new and open roles, rescinding offers and canceling programs, and sometimes laying off or furloughing existing employees. In either scenario, there isn’t much you can do. Be gracious, positive, and responsive.
The recruiter might have too many “to-dos.” Perhaps you’ve been in a situation at work where you couldn’t keep up with everything that was required and a few things fell through the cracks. Recruiters, who might be working on 7, 10, or even 40 roles at a given time, occasionally have things fall through the cracks too. For every one of those roles, there might be hundreds of applicants, dozens of conversations in progress at different stages, and endless back-and-forth with dozens of people and entities. It’s important to ask questions to the recruiter about the target interview and hiring timeline, what next steps look like, and their typical approach to communication to give you the best chance of staging your follow-ups at the right time.
During the conversation, remember the recruiter is a gatekeeper to other conversations—their read on your qualifications and ability to do the work will play a role in whether or not you move forward in the process. Over-prepare for this conversation on all dimensions—learning about the company, team, and industry, thoughtfully reflecting on your experience, and practicing responses to potential interview questions. You might also want to get a pulse on new information you might bring into your conversation— read blogs, follow thought leaders, and pick a few nuggets that connect to your experience or fitness for this role, or demonstrate your knowledge of the field, dedicated interest, and curiosity. Finally, if you have questions about the “logistics,” the recruiter is a good person to start with, though some questions are more suitable for later in the process, like about benefits or bonuses.
important Put simply, a great manager can transform your career while you work with them and long after. Finding that kind of manager is magic and worth several percentage points on top of any salary. They influence so many aspects of your experience day-to-day and over time. As for the bad manager, think back on the vent sessions you’ve been a part of with team members, partners, and friends. What is one of the aspects of the work experience that everyone bemoans the most? Their boss. As a recruiter, I know this is one of the things candidates need to focus on the most throughout the hiring and decision-making process.
During the interview process, managers play the role of mentor, motivator, and evaluator. Their accomplishments and experience at work depend largely on the strength of their team. If anyone is more motivated than the candidate to find the right hire, it’s the manager. In navigating the interviews, the manager must weigh the capabilities and experience of the candidate within their understanding of the work to be done as well as how this prospective hire will complement and extend the expertise and output of the rest of the team.
While they may seem to be all-knowing or all-powerful in the process, in most cases, the manager will not be. There will be other voices represented in the process, other interviewers for example, as well as other decision-makers, such as their boss or a more senior executive.
Many managers are natural leaders and develop their team members’ skills and capabilities. They know what they’re looking for, perhaps they even filled the role you’re applying for themselves, and understand deeply what it takes to be successful in that role. These managers recognize potential and ability and can effectively bring out the best in a candidate and their direct reports. Other managers are new or developing in this capability, having recently made the transition from doer to leader, and might not be as effective or capable in structuring a collective body of work across a team of people, designing and scoping roles or interviewing to fill a gap. A lack of experience doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t succeed or be a great manager—it does, however, put an extra burden on you, as their prospective direct report, to understand their strengths and development opportunities, managerial and communication style and their expectations of whoever steps into the open role. On the flip side, an experienced or long-term manager might be ineffective or just bad at their job, too—years of experience doesn’t always correlate to skill in the management capacity.
In an ideal world, a manager has had a role model to learn from or years of experience and success leading teams so that they approach the new position, hiring process, and onboarding of a new hire with attention and sophistication. If they are less experienced or skilled, a strong recruiting team and thorough process can fill in some of the gaps. But sometimes, they will be relatively alone in the process and might even be driving it from end-to-end with autonomy and limited oversight.
important It is of the utmost importance that you take advantage of every minute you have with your future manager, and if possible, ask for more time than they may have allotted during the process if you get to the final stages or receive an offer. As you progress through the course of multiple conversations with the hiring manager, continue to identify, map out, and ask thoughtful, tough questions.
Along with the real-time answers, take time after the interviews to do some extra reflection and diligence. Reflect on the chemistry and compatibility you sensed—or didn’t—during the conversations. This is hard to quantify, and sometimes even harder to articulate. While I maintain that relying exclusively on your gut is a fallback that can be avoided by the kind of preparation I offer in this book, your instincts can still be a data point or factor. Your gut feeling can be very powerful and revealing as you determine if this is the person you need to be your manager at this point in your career. When I reflect back on the first conversation I had with two of my favorite bosses, I knew then—before we even got to interview questions—that they were managers I’d learn from and enjoy working with. I knew I’d become a better version of my professional self as a result of that relationship. Similarly, when I think back on the relationships that weren’t as strong or beneficial straight out of the gate or as time progressed, there was something that just didn’t click and I had to convince myself and rationalize away my hesitations to move forward. Unfortunately, the issues or lack of connection didn’t go away. In fact, when the going got tough, the distance grew and the problems magnified, ultimately accelerating my decision to look for another role.
Finally, in an effort to check your gut, take the chance to verify that the manager is telling you the truth during the interviews. To do that, connect with others who currently and previously worked for them. As you go through the interview process, connect with interviewers on LinkedIn. Once you’re connected, you can see where your network overlaps and potentially find someone who could endorse you or provide insight into the team and opportunity. These individuals will have different views, and it’s important to understand that the context of the relationships and growth a manager experiences, as well as your unique interpersonal dynamics, will surely impact how your connection plays out with the manager. In the meantime, you can get a read on how they coach and develop, communicate and direct work, measure performance and share context, balance the struggles and celebrate success from these other conversations. After all, there’s a good chance the company will check your references—why not look into theirs? I always thought that anyone who was considering working on my team should talk to the people who worked for me before—they would tell a much more accurate picture than the stories I’d craft about my style and approach. Find a way to get this insight by asking current or former direct reports targeted questions.
Department Executive or the Boss’ Boss
Depending on the nature of the company, role, and makeup of the hiring team, you may or may not encounter the hiring manager’s boss or a department executive. Even if you do not meet them, understanding their role and influence in the hiring process and your ultimate path at the company is valuable information to gather during interviews.
Put simply, this leader is responsible for the hiring manager’s team’s success and likely a broader scope of work. With this bird’s eye view, they want to ensure there are capable, engaged, and talented individuals in each position and, importantly, that those individuals come together to form a high performing and productive unit working toward a collective set of priorities. The department executive is tasked with operationalizing a higher-level set of functional or company priorities and building an organization (vs. a team) that delivers. As with the hiring manager’s motivations, a strong group of teams reporting to an executive enables and impacts their success so their attention and commitment to the process takes into consideration the full team’s performance, capabilities, and expertise.
In most cases, the leader will have collaborated on, reviewed, or approved the job description. Depending on the size of the company or the seniority of the role, they may have weighed in on the content of the job description, as they help drive and delegate priorities and goals for the overall team. Typically more tenured in their career (though not always), a department executive will have institutional, industry, and team context that enables them to interview and evaluate with confidence and a perspective that is long-term and beyond the scope of many of the other interviewers. At the same time, they remain close enough to the details and day-to-day operations that they can credibly determine an individual candidate’s strengths and gaps while calibrating and comparing those attributes across their teams.
In an ideal world, they participate in the process to assess, but more importantly to help paint a vision and clarify departmental and organizational goals and the related interdependencies and accountabilities. During your (likely limited) time with the department executive, try to capture their wisdom and insight on that next layer of context by asking thoughtful, targeted questions about the manager and team you’d work with. This is an important time to also prepare a clear, concise, and compelling elevator pitch about you—highlight your strengths, interests, and capabilities and directly connect them back to the position and the conversations you’ve had so far in the interview process. While this executive may not be an active participant in your eventual day-to-day, they will be a key voice and decision-maker in influential processes and milestones (like performance reviews and promotions decisions) as long as you’re both on the team.
Activity: Craft Your Interview Elevator Pitch
The elevator pitch—what you say when you have 30 seconds to make an impression—is a great tool in the job seeker’s toolkit. The elevator pitch can be used in passing at a networking event, or to kick off an interview with someone who may not be as close to the role or hiring process (like an executive). As you refine your job search to a specific type of role or company, having this quick pitch ready is in your best interest. (Having it ready means you’ve practiced actually giving it!)
My career started in marketing at a small startup and has progressed through roles as a Digital Advertising Campaign Manager and Senior Manager of Advertising Performance and Optimization at Amazon. I shine when I get to lead a team driving digital advertising strategy and ad operations to efficiently improve campaign performance and deliver business results.
I’m curious about how I can apply my expertise within fintech, an industry I know is positioned for long-term growth. I’ve led high-performing teams in my career and am now focused on the chance to lead a department and help build a marketing strategy and organization from the ground up.
If I had the chance to step into the Director of Digital Marketing role, I’m confident my background and excitement about building data-driven, cross-channel marketing programs will enable me to support COMPANY in achieving customer and revenue growth.
As you went through this exercise, did it feel a bit like the cover letter? That’s intentional. The cover letter and elevator pitch can complement and reinforce one another. In fact, reiterating the main points in more than one way is to your benefit. The elevator pitch is a supporting structure, not a script. The goal is to help you think through your experience so that you can practice a time or two (or ten!) on your own. Then, when you have the chance to share your pitch with someone, you won’t have to recite a stilted script—you’ll be confident enough to speak naturally and authentically without missing any of the key points.
Activity: Craft a Thank-You Note
If you want to get the most out of the effort you put into your elevator pitch, consider incorporating a very similar structure into your post-interview thank-you notes (or more likely, emails). It’s not required to send a follow-up and it can even be controversial—after all, the company is looking for someone to fill their position, maybe they should send you a thank-you for coming in! But, if you view the follow-up note as a chance to highlight your candidacy, build a relationship with someone who could be a team member—now, or down the road—and to re-connect dots between your conversations and potential to contribute based on your post-interview reflection, taking a few minutes to send these notes can be worthwhile.
The most efficient way to do this is to add a personal sentence or two at the start of the elevator pitch structure highlighting why you enjoyed meeting a particular interviewer and an insight you took out of the conversation.
A Thank-You Note Example
I really enjoyed our conversation yesterday. I have been thinking about the growth goals you mentioned and how I could bring experience building high-performing, scalable advertising programs to your organization. I thrive when I have the chance to immerse myself in the most important challenges the business is facing by building efficient operations to optimize performance.
With what I learned in the interviews, I can see clearly how I can apply my expertise within fintech and as the leader of this department. If I had the chance to step into the Director of Digital Marketing role, I’m confident my background and excitement about the opportunities and challenges the team is addressing would enable me to support COMPANY in achieving customer and revenue growth.
CEO, Founder, or Other C-Level Exec
Put simply, a chance to talk with someone in this position is incredibly valuable and they may play a variety of different roles during the hiring process. In smaller-stage companies or roles in their direct reporting lines, they may be evaluating you based on functional, industry or technical expertise, leadership potential, or a wide set of competencies and capabilities they believe are key to success in the particular role, and also within the overall organization. It’s possible that they are close to the operations of a given team, project, or position, but don’t expect them to spend time getting into the weeds and don’t take them there with your questions (but do ask questions!).
If you’re interviewing at a large company or in an entry to mid-level role, you may not interview with the CEO. However, if you’re pursuing a role at a small company or startup, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to cross paths during the hiring process with the CEO, a member of the founding team, or another C-level executive. Regardless of the company size, C-level leaders and founding teams have to operate at the 50,000-foot view, bringing together diverse topics, priorities, people, and processes into a cohesive, structured, and viable path forward. In some ways, these senior leaders are accountable to “no one” (they don’t have a boss), but they are also accountable to everyone (the full team, investors or board members, customers, shareholders and beyond).
In an ideal world, there is alignment from the leadership team all the way throughout and across the organization. In reality, that’s tough, so focus less attention on the specifics of the position and listen to their insight on themes, long-term priorities, and aspirations for the team and company to get an impression of how their leadership flows throughout the organization. In anticipation of this conversation, refine your elevator pitch and do extra research on the company and the leader’s background (by reading blog posts or articles, listening to podcasts, following them on social media, and watching interviews). During interviews, be prepared to speak not only to your own background and experience but a set of connected and expanded topics as well. This is a rare chance to demonstrate your presence, articulate your talents, and leave a lasting impression.
Peer or Team Member
There is a good chance you’ll get to meet someone during the process who would be a peer on the specific team you’d join. This conversation can be a powerful glimpse into an important business relationship, and the information you’ll gather from the interview as well as the questions that a peer might ask will illuminate critical elements of the role. Put simply, prospective peers are often closest to the details of the work to be done, understand the status, challenges and opportunities, and what it takes to be successful relative to the goals the team is responsible for achieving. They might also have a similar background or set of skills and capabilities and therefore ask very targeted or specific questions to evaluate your expertise and determine if you have the qualifications to meet the expectations of the role and work well with the team.
During the interview, they may play the role of a companion or partner that would be a trusted collaborator on projects and someone who will bring internal insight and context to support your integration and success. It’s also possible that they will take a more competitive approach and step into the interviewer role as someone who is not necessarily a judge (they are not the hiring manager), but also not a friend. They may challenge you subtly or directly to test the boundaries of this potential relationship while weighing the trade-offs of how you might make their life better or potentially worse.
In an ideal world, people in these roles want nothing more than a super talented, smart, capable team member to work at their side, but others will be threatened if they believe you will outshine them, “take away” something they enjoy doing, or upset a status quo that works for them.
During your conversation with a peer, prepare to share your expertise thoughtfully and with an extra emphasis on humility and empathy. Hone in on the questions that they ask you—these are probably quite relevant to the problems you’d encounter and experiences you’d discover in the role. Listen for cues about the team dynamic and cross-functional collaboration that might be playing out at their level and therefore less visible to the management team. Ask as many questions as possible about the hiring manager and team and company leadership to suss out if the interviewer appreciates the direction, development, and support provided, and if they seem committed to the team and company. Look out for inconsistencies or flags that the leaders might be able to effectively avoid addressing or have a polished and convincing response prepped and ready to share.
You’re going to spend a lot of time with your peers and strong relationships here can make the tough days easier, the wins more thrilling, and the journey from one role or stage to the next, one team or company to another, more fulfilling, and even more fun.
A strong company is rarely built in silos with a narrow group of functional experts driving the process or product development from end-to-end. With that in mind, most hiring managers will include relevant cross-functional team members in the hiring process. Cross-functional team members will be key contributors to company initiatives that are complex and large-scale, with dependencies rooted on the team and associated with responsibilities listed in the job description of the position you are targeting.
Put simply, both in the interviews and on the ground, cross-functional team members play the role of the translator—bringing their expertise and skills to bridge the gaps, add value and get stuff done. It’s because of cross-functional collaboration that work happens, that connections, barriers, or breaks get identified, and that collective success is possible. Being able to effectively navigate the distance between different teams and disciplines, as well as find the commonalities to move quickly and productively through problems and toward big picture goals, is helpful for the candidates and hiring team alike.
Because of these factors, the cross-functional team member may serve as an astute judge for a specific set of your skills and capabilities, or might provide a more general read on how they believe you will collaborate, communicate, and contribute to relevant initiatives.
In an ideal world, the cross-functional conversations expand your understanding of the business, projects, and team dynamics and give you a more well-rounded view into the overall organization as well as how it operates day-to-day. Like a peer, cross-functional interviewers are often eager to find a strong, skilled hire and will spend the extra time in interviews and follow-up conversations to support that outcome. There will be occasions, however, where internal tensions, existing friction around project goals or ownership, in addition to interpersonal conflicts, will factor into their interview approach and decision-making process.
During your conversation, focus on the aspects of the broader, matrixed elements of the role that the cross-functional team member is best positioned to answer. Their view from the outside (at least of the specific team you’d be joining) will be different than what you’ve heard and learned from those interviewers you’d work with directly. It’s a great opportunity to listen for the differences and work to understand the underlying reasoning for the various points of view—are the gaps manageable or do you think there are fundamental issues with how each group views a particular situation? These new perspectives provided should help you uncover meaning, recognize additional opportunities for you to build strong relationships and contribute toward key initiatives, and connect dots between the bullets in the job description, the conversations you’ve had and your own skills and capabilities.
Human Resources (HR)
Put simply, HR helps shape the employee experience via compensation, benefits and administration, talent development and training, and cultural programs, and are called upon to solve other people’s problems. They aim to design with all team members in mind while keeping an eye out for consistency, fairness, and legal requirements, balancing their responsibility to the company and its employees.
Depending on the environment and your own experience, HR might be a team that you trust and value and that you see as a partner and advisor, or you may view them as a cumbersome administrative function that complicates what should be simple and reduces what is actually complex to an annoying form or checklist. In fact, these are two of the more positive views into the role that HR plays in organizations. In some companies, and for many people, HR enforces outdated policies and the law, serves to protect the company rather than support the employees, and caters to those who do wrong rather than those who have been wronged. Pair that with the perception that HR doesn’t have a real seat at the table, takes a resource-focused versus human-oriented approach to problem solving, and fails to innovate or adapt to an ever-changing workplace—it’s not surprising that seeing a HR team member on your interview list may not excite you.
As someone who has had roles within this function in startups and established companies, I’ve seen the positive and negative impacts of what these teams and individuals can do. I often talk about how I think the function is desperately in need of dramatic change and do my best to support innovation and the infusion of new ideas as part of this transformation. 2020, and the layered impacts of a pandemic with its health and remote work implications (childcare, technology, and more!), reckoning with racial injustice, and layoffs, furloughs, and economic recession have further tested the HR function. With these acknowledgments and my personal beliefs, and despite my passion and intentions, I know I have also missed team members’ expectations before. I see these challenges and look back on my own experiences as an ever-present chance to learn more, do more, and grow in my expertise and capabilities. I, like many HR professionals, come into the function because they care about making the work experience better and want to do it for people, with people. Sometimes broader company policies, hierarchy, access to information, or legal requirements interfere with HR’s ability to take what would be the best, most efficient and practical path. Additionally, an abundance of employee questions and concerns can take up more time than the innovative culture-building activities that may have inspired them to get into the field.
Still, the HR perspective can be incredibly valuable for candidates navigating the interview process—who may become employees adapting to company operations and personalities. They’ve seen team members at their best—when projects go well or when promotions and raises get announced—and have been present during those tough times too—when conflicts emerge, terminations occur, or issues pop up. Those diverse experiences give them context, insight, and, hopefully, empathy for what any individual or team might be going through.
In an ideal world (and in this case, an aspirational one), HR has the chance to listen to the voices and represent the interests of employees by developing programs that make current employees committed to their roles, and entice others to want to join the team. In reality, their hard work is mostly behind the scenes where it won’t be noticed by most people, and they are often caught between groups or individuals trying to interpret motivations and stories to get to the bottom of a particular situation. They are asked to be pragmatic and objective even though they are dealing with reactive, nuanced, and subjective situations.
During your conversation, raise questions that may be of a sensitive nature (for example, those that give a window into your personal life such as a disability requiring accommodations or questions about childcare benefits or leave policies) that you would not be comfortable asking to other interviewers. Push on the aspects of the total rewards (benefits, health care), and programs and talent management strategy (performance reviews, leadership development, and promotion processes). They will often represent the organizational perspective and process with more objectivity than the anecdotal experience, rusty recollections, or personal opinions of others. Take the opportunity to build a relationship with the HR person so that, if someday you have a problem or tricky situation, you’ll feel more comfortable approaching them for support.
When you’re interviewing for a managerial or leadership position, you’ll want to learn about the dynamics of the team situation you’ll be stepping into. Early in the process, start to flesh out the overall picture:
What is the size of the team?
Who are the team members?
What are their roles, tenures, and contributions?
Then ensure you have clarity about a few specifics that might not be proactively addressed:
Why is this role open (did the person who filled it previously quit or get fired)?
Does the team know the hiring process has been activated? How do they feel about a new manager stepping in?
How will the team participate in the interview process? If they will not act as interviewers, when will you be able to meet and interact with them prior to making a decision?
It’s hard to be a manager, and it’s even harder to step into an existing team and take over trying to build a new path forward while dealing with the legacy or baggage of what someone else might have left behind.
Put simply, a direct report is playing the same role you are playing when you’re interviewing with the hiring manager during this process. They are trying to determine if you are their person, if you’ll coach and support them in their journey in those real, tangible ways and those hard-to-quantify gut instincts. Like you, they are motivated to find the right person. Your direct reports will play a critical role in your work experience—when you have talented high-performers, work is easier, more enjoyable, and productive. You may form long-lasting relationships with these individuals, work with them at other companies, or perhaps work for them someday (especially when you work with exceptional people)!
Depending on the individuals, they may have experience working with many managers and will be able to compare and contrast your strengths with those they’ve known before, or they may have a single point of reference to measure you against. As a result, the interviews could vary significantly from a timid “getting to know you” conversation to a critical assessment of your capabilities, personality, and leadership style.
In an ideal world, you’ll have had several previous conversations with the hiring manager, recruiter, and perhaps the department executive, and will be able to ask questions about the team as a whole as well as the individuals. Make sure you proactively push to get information about the team in these conversations as the interviewers’ inclination will likely be to continue to assess you. In some companies, the direct reports are active participants in the process and members of the decision-making team. Other organizations might approach it differently, a smaller group of decision-makers might assess candidates and then introduce direct reports at the final stages with the context of community building rather than evaluation.
important Sometimes, companies won’t involve direct reports at all. It’s highly important that you meet with your direct reports prior to accepting a position. Early in the process, there may be a need for confidentiality for a number of completely valid reasons, but because the working relationship of a manager to their team is so vital to the health, engagement, and success of the overall group, building those connections as soon as possible and being able to factor those learnings into your ongoing assessment of the opportunity is key. If they do not offer you the chance to meet with a minimum of a couple members of your prospective team, ask directly to do so in the later stages of the process.
dangerShould a company deny you the chance to meet with critical team members, including direct reports, before you accept a position, consider it a warning sign that something important isn’t being disclosed.
During your conversation, focus on building rapport and capturing details about what matters to them. Be humble and willing to answer any question they ask and try to do it genuinely and with the details that will help them gain confidence and trust in you as a leader. Open the door for them to ask you questions that put you in a vulnerable place—in this conversation it’s not about asserting everything you can do and do better than others, but rather understanding how you would step into the team and help everyone reach their individual and collective goals. When you have the floor, ask questions about their motivations, career aspirations, and learning styles, as well as specifics about the projects or work to be done. Talk about feedback styles and preferences and get their insight on bigger picture topics as well—team members from every position in the organization can have incredible insights on interpersonal dynamics and strategic priorities.
How Companies Learn About You Outside the Interview Process
The concept of a back-channel may or may not be as familiar depending on how often you’ve been part of interview teams or interviewed yourself.
Put simply, “back-channel” refers to the conversations prospective employers might have with people who know or have worked with you that you have not proactively shared as references. These conversations can happen at any stage of the hiring process, from before they get on the phone to after an offer has been extended. Often companies take this approach to get the “real” story about you, as your official references are most certainly enthusiastic champions—and prepared ones at that! Like references, back-channel conversations are most often used to complement and validate existing beliefs about a particular candidate (mostly positive) and rarely change the course of the process entirely (though, it can happen) so don’t beware these conversations, but be aware that they might occur.
Not all companies will conduct back-channel references, but you can plan on it by reaching out to mutual connections between you and your interviewers that you discover via LinkedIn to give them a heads up you’re interviewing and might hear from the company. This is a good place to remind you that the world is small and people have a tendency to boomerang back into our lives at unexpected points in time. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth trying to preserve positive relationships and avoid burning too many bridges too spectacularly throughout your career (even if you don’t like working with everyone or have some tough relationships) as you never know if one of those individuals will be brought into a conversation about you at some point in the future.
People often worry, sometimes for good reason, about confidentiality when it comes to going public about their job search. If you have significant concerns around this, it’s best to be transparent with your recruiter or the hiring manager up front about the nature of those concerns and ask that they connect with you before engaging references of any sort. It’s not a guarantee, but can prevent awkward conversations, especially if there is a single individual or shortlist of people you’d want to touch base with before they found out you were interviewing. At the same time, interviewing is a common experience and most interviewers and references treat it with a level of respect for candidates’ privacy, recognizing how they would like to be treated if they were interviewing.
How You Can Learn More About the Company Outside the Interview Process
There’s another back-channel route to consider—how you can seek back-channel “interviews” about the company or others you meet and might potentially work with. You can take a similar approach to the playbook that they are probably following. In anticipation of your interviews with team members, take time to connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social sites and look for common or close connections from work or academic experiences, and also professional organizations and volunteer commitments. If you find someone that you’d feel comfortable speaking with and whom you believe would have valuable, trust-worthy insights, feedback, or resources that could aid in your decision-making, then consider sending a quick note.
In most situations, when you reach out, you can preface the confidential (or at least non-public) context of your interview process and ask if they’d be open to answering some of your questions or sharing some of their experience with the company or with one of the people you’d be working with should you take the job. In an ideal world, they’ll take some time to talk through your questions, excitement, and hesitations and provide a more objective point of view than you or the interviewers may be able to given your proximity to the process.
Before you start asking questions, make sure you include some background on why you’re searching, what you’re optimizing for and prioritizing in a new role and company, and a bit about the process you’ve gone through so far. That information will help them understand where you’re at and tailor their advice accordingly. Having back-channel conversations is not a requirement! But it can be a beneficial exercise. When making a decision that will impact your career and life, there’s no harm in asking more questions!
Imagine wrapping up final interviews with a company knowing that you not only had the chance to share your story and skills, but that you gathered all the information you could about the company, team, and role in order to understand whether this is the right opportunity for you. Asking focused questions connected to your personal priorities is empowering and builds your confidence at each step of the process, especially when you need to determine whether to accept an offer.
If you want that feeling, it’s time to design a 360° strategy for your interviews. Building your plan will enable you to get the most out of the process, just like structured interviews help interviewers achieve their objectives. Asking targeted questions around your priorities to specific people will make the conversations more illuminating and productive. And, candidates who ask the best questions stand out.
This section of the book exists to help you create the plan and take action to make your interviews work for you. As you dig into the question database, you’ll find a common question paired with insights about why it will not get you the information you need. Each of the common questions is then reframed with what you can ask instead, and highlights about why that framing will unlock valuable details about the role, team, and company. This is a chance to bring your voice and power into the process and builds upon the content and exercises from the previous sections of the book. I have aligned questions by persona and topic as a starting point. I encourage you to think about what questions you need to ask and who is the right person for you to ask them to—you may align the questions differently!
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