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Monday, July 19, 2010

Ask the right questions to take charge of the interview

By Paul Anderson

A workshop student of mine, I'll call him "John," recently had two interviews come up with Honeywell International and Crane Aerospace. They were both panel interviews. After finishing the interviews, he and I sat down to debrief.

I asked him how it went. He shared with me one of the most powerful interview questions of all time. "Paul," he said "I told the panelists that as a previous hiring manager I remember how hard it was to write a one-page job description." He then asked the panel, "Before we get started, can you tell me a little bit more about the position so I can understand it better?"

The hiring manager replied, "Sure, that sounds pretty reasonable." and proceeded to talk for the next 20 minutes about the position. During this time, John jotted down notes, clarified areas of immediate needs and challenges the company and team were facing. At the twenty-minute mark, the other panelists reminded the interviewer that they had a set of questions to ask and they were running out of time.

By that time, however, John had all the ammo he needed. He used his notes to tailor his answers to their needs. He used stories of previous experience that matched their situation and maintained rapport throughout the interview.

John got both offers and accepted a position with Crane Aerospace.

Many candidates fail to ask questions early on in the interview. They usually wait for the classic, "Before we end this interview, do you have any questions for me?" moment. Some candidates fail to take that last opportunity to resolve any objections and instead ask about the "salary range," "benefits" or "when can I start?"

Whoever asks questions is in charge of the conversation. Questions help change the focus of the interview and if they're asked strategically, can help you win the offer.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

"Is your SDLC process Agile or Waterfall?" This type of question allows you to showcase your expertise in Software Development Life Cycles (SDLC) methodologies.

"What are your top three challenges?" This question directs the interviewer to discuss what's keeping him up at night. Good listening skills here can help you tailor your message.

"What does your ideal candidate look like?" Were you wondering what soft skills or behavioral traits to demonstrate? Questions like these can help you better understand the preferences of the manager.
If you're going to master one skill in interviewing, focus on mastering the art of asking strategic questions.
What questions have you successfully used in your past interviews?

Paul Anderson of ProLango is a Redmond-based career strategist who regularly interviews companies and shares their hiring practices with the public through career seminars and workshops. E-mail him at