The Missing Interview Question

It’s often said that employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers.

And on the flip side, the teams that accomplish the most are those led by managers who know how to best support and develop their direct reports.

Yet it’s striking that in job interviews the topic of managing people is so often relegated to an afterthought.

Interviews tend to focus on past accomplishments or hypothetical, future-looking strategic challenges. Yet what’s missing is the crucial in-between: how someone has — and will — cultivate and support their team in accomplishing great things.

Key metrics and OKRs are bandied about; we quiz and query about how success will be measured, but we often ignore the skills — the human skills, the leadership skills — that will actually accomplish them. Too often we mistake leadership for the ability to make a single strategic decision when truly it is the sum of millions of acts of “microleadership” that actually get a team to a decision point.

Interview narratives overvalue the single triumph and downplay the arduous work of all of the little, hardly seen moments — the thoughtful piece of feedback given on a proposal; the time the manager gave her new staff member the space to think rather than forcing an answer on the spot; the professional development coaching session even when the manager had lots on his plate — that are the true determinants of a team’s success.

Meanwhile the interviewee asks questions about what they think will give them job satisfaction — salary ranges, work-life balance, stock options — while ignoring the most important job “hygiene” factor: their manager. Will they be working for someone who is selfish, controlling or aloof? Or will they be reporting to a manager with a track record of developing talent, empowering direct reports and creating a trusting environment where teammates thrive?

Without taking the time to inquire about the management style of a future boss, a potential employee is essentially just taking a gamble walking in on their first day of work, hoping that they will have a boss who mentors, develops and supports them. It’s like buying a car that looks beautiful on the outside without stopping to ask if the engine actually works before making a down payment.

It’s up to us — both interviewers and interviewees — to raise the level of consciousness about what great leadership and great management are and why they matter so much.

I pledge to never hire someone with management responsibility without understanding their management style and track record and having confidence that they will build and develop a great team. I also pledge to never take a job without knowing that my future manager will be someone who helps me achieve my very best.

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