The Best Interview Question Ever

This is a transcript of my interview with Mac Prichard of Mac’s List of the Find Your Dream Job podcast.  If you prefer, you can listen to my interview and more here.

 

Now let’s turn to this week’s guest expert, Jeff Altman. Jeff Altman is known as the big game hunter, and he’s helped organizations find leaders, employees, and consultants since 1971. In this role, Jeff’s evaluated almost 700,000 people and filled more than 1,200 positions. Jeff also publishes the No BS Coaching Advice Newsletter to help job hunters, HR professionals, and business owners make better staffing positions. He’s the author of eight books about job-hunting, and the host of the Job Search Radio podcast. He joins us today from Asheville, North Carolina. Jeff, thanks for being on the show.

Jeff Altman:

Thank you for having me on. I really appreciate the invitation.

Mac Prichard:

It’s a pleasure. Our topic this week, as you know Jeff, is job interviews, and there is, you say, one best question every candidate can ask a hiring manager. Before we get into that, though, let’s start with the interview process and talk about job interviews. Most of them are pretty formally structured conversations, aren’t they?

Jeff Altman:

Invariably, they have a format, too. The job hunter walks in, immediately surrenders their power to the interviewer at the door. They sit down, the interviewer asks that immortal question. So, tell me about yourself and what you’ve been doing professionally, or something to that effect, that’s right out of the interview, open-ended question playbook. After playing interview karate for about 10 minutes, and by that I mean the interviewer throws a question, the job hunter puts up a block. Another question, hip roll. Back and forth for about 10, 15 minutes, until they get to the objective evaluation part of the interview, and either you have the skills or you don’t. That’s invariably part of what an interviewer’s assessing for, but then they come to the magic moment. So, do you have any questions for us, at which point you ask about the job, and they tell you, and invariably you say, “Sounds great. Terrific.” We’ll get back to you. That’s a pretty standard interview, isn’t it?

Mac Prichard:

It is, but you say there’s a better way, there’s a better process, and it starts with a question. Tell us what you coach people to do both when they’re hiring and when they’re a candidate sitting in that hot seat.

Jeff Altman:

I’m going to start off with a job hunter perspective, and from the job hunter perspective, I want you to flip the interview all on its head. Whether it’s a phone interview or an in-person interview, I encourage people to start by saying, “Hey, thank you so much for making time to meet with me, speak with me,” depending on the situation. “I spoke with Mac about the position, and he gave me a brief description, but I wanted to get your take on the role. Could you tell me about the job as you see it, and what I can do to help?” What that does is give you the information at the beginning of the interview, so that you can use it to talk about what you’ve done that’s relevant to the employer and not just talk about what you’ve done.

Mac Prichard:

This is the game-changer of a question; this is the one that can change the dynamic.

Jeff Altman:

Absolutely, because if you think about it from the employer’s perspective for a moment, even if you have a job description, generally it has evolved a couple of times before you’ve walked in the door. If a recruiter has sent that job description to you, you don’t know if it’s really changed. Those small tweaks, or those major changes, no one ever goes back to get them re-approved, so the job description is static, because why bother? We got this one approved, but from the job hunter perspective, unless you know of the changes, you’re out of luck. I always tell people, start off by asking that question at the beginning of the interview, so they can use that information to address what really matters to them, and not just talk about what you’ve done, which you may hit on the right point. Those nuanced questions, those nuanced points that you make by knowing what they’re really looking for now can make all the difference in the world.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so start with, you walk in the room, you go through the pleasantries, you sit down in the hot seat, and then you take charge is what I’m hearing you say.

Jeff Altman:  

As soon as you lower your butt into the chair, that’s when you’re the one who starts speaking. Occasionally, they will say, “We’ll get to that later,” and to me, that’s very useful information, because it lets you know that they want to be controlling. They really don’t want to have a conversation with you. They’re being very cut and dry, and this is not about developing a relationship with you or selling to you. They just want to collect data. That’s useful.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s go back to, you’re sitting in that chair. You’ve had the opportunity to ask that question, and what I’m hearing you say is one of the benefits is fact-finding. It starts a conversation about what’s on the employer’s mind. What are some of the other benefits of starting with that question, and having that conversation, Jeff?

Jeff Altman:

Right off the bat, it’s knowing exactly what the current job description is, which again, may be different than that job description you saw in the ad that was sent to you by the recruiter. Invariably when employers have been interviewing for a while, they’re zeroing in on certain things. Right off the bat, you’re hearing from them what they zeroed into, zeroed into in this job description, so that this way you can focus on that. In addition, since hiring managers are often distracted, when you think about it, your arrival has caused them to turn away from something else that they were doing, and as a friend of mine once said, so many hiring managers start off a conversation with a job hunter by saying, “I want you to talk to Joel, for example. I just have to finish up something for about 15 minutes. I’ll be right back with you, and Joel will start off.”

Okay. You’re getting them focused if you have them in the room on what they have to deal with with you, so that you’re getting their attention. In addition, it levels the playing field between you. So often an interview is a process of, they are the superior, you are the subordinate. You’re the supplicant, hat-in-hand, and this isn’t Game of Thrones. This is an interview, and it shouldn’t be royalty in the peon. It should be two people having a conversation about a need, so right off the bat, with that question, you’re getting them focused, you’re alerting what you need so that you can address their concerns.

Mac Prichard:

I like your point, particularly about leveling the playing field, because I think many job seekers are thinking they’re in the position of a supplicant. In the end, it’s about finding out what the employer’s needs are, and what the problems are, and putting your best foot forward when you’re looking for work about how you can address and solve those problems. You mentioned earlier a benefit is that some employers might be controlling about the process, and not want to address that question, but there are many hiring processes that are just formal, and you walk into that room, and there’s a committee, or a set of structured questions, and you simply don’t have the opportunity to take charge, and ask that question right up front. What do you recommend job hunters do then, Jeff?

Jeff Altman:

What I’ll start off by saying is most of the committee interviews, most of the panel interviews, are actually the second interview following an initial phone interview. Occasionally the panel is the first. However, I must in all honestly tell you why I’ve advised people to do this in the panel situation. It works just as well. “Thank you for making time to meet with me tonight. I appreciate you carving out time on all of your calendars to sit down and evaluate my credentials. I want to be respectful of you and your time, and just thought I’d say I saw the position description. I think I match it well, but I just want to make sure. Can one of you tell me about the role as you see it, and what I can do to help?” One of them will take the bull by the horns, and discuss the position with you. Someone will correct them in some way, which also lets you know about the different agendas that the people around the table have, because each of them may represent a different constituency within the organization.

For example, in IT, you may have a program manager interviewing you, and you may have someone from the business side. You may have someone from HR there, three of them evaluating you, so only the HR person will take the lead, discuss what was in the formal specification. The project manager or program manager will pick up from there to tweak a couple of points, and occasionally the business person will step in at that point. You learn something about the job from that process.

Mac Prichard:

You’re doing that fact finding; you’re getting answers to that question. How do you continue the conversation, whether it’s in a formal setting with a committee, or a one-on-one conversation? Are there other questions, for example, Jeff, that you recommend candidates bring up?

Jeff Altman:

I’d only start by saying, job hunting for most job hunters is a pretty standard process. By asking this question at the beginning, you change it a little bit, but you need to be prepared with answers to all the predictable questions that might be asked. That includes “tell me about yourself,” so you might as well have an answer scripted out in your own mind that doesn’t sound rehearsed. This is part of the theater of interviewing, and in that theater, you are an actor or actress on the stage putting on a performance, showing yourself for you as your best. I think it always makes sense for people to be rehearsed with answers to the predictable questions. At the end of the interview, there’s another situation that comes up, and that is when they say, “So, do you have any questions for us,” you obviously cannot ask about the job there, because they started by talking about that, right?

I recommend a couple of different questions that people can pose there. They include, “Could you tell me about the first 30, 60, 90 days of what your expectations are? How would you want me to start off?”

Mac Prichard:

What’s the advantage of asking that question, Jeff?

Jeff Altman:

Two questions I suggest people ask are designed to give you a sense of what you’re walking into, and what their expectations of you are. Every once in awhile, you hear about an unreasonable hiring manager, an unreasonable situation that someone steps into. For example, I had been in search for a long time and I remember getting a phone call from a friend of mine named Marty. He had been a client, a friend, and he had taken a job where he didn’t realize this on the way in, but he accepted a position managing a project with a firm, where 80% of the money had been spent, but only 20% of the work had been done. He was doomed to failure right away, so you want to know what you’re walking into, and what the expectations are. Right off the bat, asking about the first 30, 60, and 90 days allows you to get a sense of what the initial goals are that they’re going to set out for you, and how they’re going to start figuring out whether to keep you past the probation period.

Then there’s the second question, which I think is the great one. Even better than the first one, this question starts off with, “let’s say you hire me, and it’s a year from now, and it’s time to give me my first review. I haven’t just done a good job. I’ve done a spectacular job, amongst the best that you’ve ever seen in a role like this, if not the best. What would I have accomplished during that year that would cause you to think that way?” Again, they’re going to start talking with you, and their first reaction is to go, “Gee, I haven’t really thought about it,” and that’s how most people answer that, but then they start talking about the first year, what the goals are in the department, and the goals that they’re going to have for you in this group. They get the sense of you as thinking big, that you’re not there to be average. You want to be a stronger player, if not the strongest one, and that this matters to you.

In asking a question like that, you’re planting seeds in the hiring manager’s mind that are helpful in their decision making. Plus, you are also eliciting information from them that allows you to decide whether this person’s crazy or not. Every once in awhile, you do hear about a manger who lays out this insane objective that’s impossible to do. I would just say fact-finding at the back end about their expectations for you are also important.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so fact-finding is a constant theme that runs through this. The second one I’m hearing in all three of these questions, Jeff, is you’re getting insights into the organization’s culture, and the expectations of the manager, and whether they’re realistic or not, and it helps you uncover that occasionally crazy manager who I think we’ve all run across, and if we’ve had a long career. A third theme that’s running through all of this is you’re positioning yourself as a problem solver, and while you uncover those problems. Am I getting that right?

Jeff Altman:  

You’ve got it right, and I’ll hand the extra thing on top of that, at the same place I … Most of the time, job hunters make things harder for them than it needs to be, and by asking questions like this, you’re having a conversation with your future boss. Instead of being in that superior-subordinate situation, you’re setting the table for your future relationship, if there is to be one, that I think is important to set at the beginning for you as the job hunter, so that you know whether or not you’d ever feel comfortable working for this [person and organization].

Mac Prichard:

Great. Terrific. Excellent advice. Three great questions, not only the first one, but the two bonus ones as well. Tell us, Jeff, what’s coming up next for you?

Jeff Altman:

Oh, there’s so much. Jobsearchcoachinghq.com, which is a site that I launched to coach job hunters, is expanding tremendously during the first quarter. I’ve expanded it tremendously, so I’ve been taking on new coaching people to help people with their job search, plus the site has great information I’ve curated of my own, and from around the web with permission, of course, that’s going to help people find work more quickly, so again, the site is jobsearchcoachinghq.com.

Mac Prichard:

I’ve had a chance to visit the site this weekend. It’s a very good one, so we’ll be sure to include links to the site, and your other resources in our show notes. Jeff, thanks for being on the show this week.

Jeff Altman:

My pleasure. Thank you for having me on, and folks, I hope I’ve been able to help you.

Mac Prichard:

All right. It’s been a pleasure having you. Take care.

Okay. We’re back in the Mac’s List studio with Jenna and Ben. Tell me, Jenna, what were your impressions of my conversation with Jeff?

Jenna Forstrom:

I thought it was really great. I like how he gives this sense to the job hunter. It’s like, you’re in control; take command. Engage in a conversation. Feel out the company culture, and if they’re willing to engage with you, or if they’re on a fact-finding mission, and adjust accordingly. Halfway through your conversation, I was like, because this is a podcast and it’s not visual, but I was like, man, if you could capture his interview skillset with Vanessa Van Edwards’ body language, you are golden for any interview. If you can practice those two things, commanding an audience with strong visual body language, nothing in the world could stop you, but it was just very personable, the way he was talking.

Mac Prichard:

Very personable, and I like his message that job seekers should take charge. Obviously, you need the employers running the meeting, but you can come in with your own questions, and your own agenda, and it should be a two-way conversation.

Jenna Forstrom:

Yes.

Ben Forstag:

Along those same lines, I liked how he encouraged folks to ask questions right up front, and not wait until you’re prompted by the interviewer. I guess I’ve never really thought about that, right? It does put you in a subordinate position just waiting to be asked if you have any questions, but I think he presents a very viable, very nuanced way to introduce a question right off the bat. As he said, as soon as you put your butt in the seat. I thought that was a really good point.

Mac Prichard:

I like that, too, and again, the more you can put yourself into a conversation I think, with an employer or a hiring panel, and talking about panel problems, and Jeff’s questions allow you to uncover those problems, the more successful I think you’re going to be. Lots of good food for thought from Jeff.

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