Interviewing by Firing Squad

By: Melissa Harris, MBA ’16 (XP-85), Executive in Residence at the Polsky Center

The chairman of the panel called it “The Jeopardy Round.”

It entailed him listing the names of famous people. And, with each name, I was to reply with a description of that person.

Mikhail Baryshnikov was one of them as was Sally Ride and Thurgood Marshall. I knew them all until a name popped up I didn’t recognize.

Hanging in the balance was a prestigious fellowship in England and a year’s worth of preparation for this meeting.

Before I finish this story, I want to explain why this is still relevant for me nearly 15 years later. In my role as an executive in residence at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I’m frequently called upon to prepare our entrepreneurs for high-stakes interviews like this one: one person versus a panel of interviewers.

I call them interviews by firing squad.

Hanging in the balance are prizes, admission to prestigious accelerators, grants or venture capital funding. In other words, hanging in the balance is their future, just like mine was 15 years ago.

And then came the name I didn’t know.

I was honest. I told the panel I didn’t know who he was.

The interviewer asked again: Are you sure you don’t know who he is?

No, I’m sorry. I don’t.

You sure?

Yes, I’m sure.

Then he moved on, inquiring about a few more celebrities, before switching to more standard interview fare.

At the end of the interview, two things happened.

First was a second lightning round, during which I was asked: “What percentage of the human genome has been mapped?”

I paused. What percentage? I thought all of it had been mapped; the entire thing. What do you mean, “What percentage?”

With trepidation, I answered, “Um. All of it?”

Correct, I was told.

Then it dawned on me. It was a trick question. They wanted to know if I would challenge the premise of the question. And, if that was a trick, then what if that unknown name — in that sea of otherwise well-known celebrities — was made up? What if he didn’t exist?

And if he was made up, would I admit to not knowing something in such a high-stakes environment? Would I risk looking stupid? Would I risk looking fallible? Or would I just make something up? Would I guess?

Or when faced with a question to which I didn’t know the answer, would I go a step further and have the courage to ask who he was?

The final question was whether I had any questions for the panel. To my regret all these years later, I told them I didn’t. I still don’t know if mystery man was made up.

I didn’t win the fellowship.

But I did learn a lesson, and here’s what I tell startup executives whom I coach. Remain curious in these group interviews. Ask questions. Have a conversation. Maybe even challenge the premise of a question.

And when you don’t know what the interviewer is talking about, or when he or she uses an acronym or phrase with which you’re unfamiliar, don’t bluff. Stop the conversation and ask for clarification.

First, admit to not knowing something.

But then always have the courage and curiosity to ask for the correct answer.


Melissa Harris, MBA ’16 (XP-85), is an executive in residence at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago. She is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated business columnist and accomplished journalist who spent 13+ years at the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. She most recently served as vice president of marketing at Origin Investments, a real estate private equity firm with about a half-billion dollars in assets, and she is a winner of the 2017 Reed Award from Campaigns and Elections for best earned media coverage around a single event. Melissa can be reached at mmharris@uchicago.edu.