What are Your Weaknesses?

...and Other Idiotic Interview Questions

Interviewer: So, what do you know about our company?

Candidate: Recites the key points from the company Web site.

Interviewer: What are your strengths?

Candidate: I’m a really good communicator and I work well with all kinds of people.

Interviewer: What are your weaknesses?

Candidate: I don’t take enough time for myself and I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew.

Management Team Discussion: “I think he’s a good guy.” “Me too.” “Let’s make him an offer” “Let’s.”

Come on, people. Do you really think the interviewee can’t come up with acceptable answers to these pathetic little questions? Do you think that maybe, somewhere along the line, somebody might have tipped the candidate off that you might ask her what his or her weaknesses are?

In my 15 years on executive management teams I have participated in interviews of 300 or 400 candidates for various positions. I admit I used to ask questions and was on the receiving end of answers about as predictable as the ones above. Somewhere along the line that changed.

Last week a candidate for an operations manager position told me at the end of an hour-long discussion that he had just sat through the toughest interview of his life. I don’t try to be tough in interviews, I try to learn. In the end, I think I make much better hiring decisions than I once did.

Especially in a surface finishing environment, where time is always short and good judgment and decision-making skills are a must, the ability to make sure the right candidate receives the offer is absolutely critical. Here’s how: First, I never interview anyone before digging through their résumé and comparing it against the position’s key experience and education requirements. If these are not met, there’s no reason to push ahead. Second, I require all candidates to complete a personality profile to ensure they possess personality traitss required for the position. No match? No interview. It’s that simple.

Next, I list the traits and skills most important for success in the position. I then skip all the canned, predictable interview questions in favor of deep, probing questions that help me determine whether the candidate is right for the job.

Assume, for instance, we’re interviewing for the position of coatings operations manager in a surface finishing operation. Further assume that the key skills and traits necessary for success in the position are a sense of urgency, an understanding of the importance of customer service, an ability to multi-task, aptitude for maximizing efficiency on a finishing line, solid problem-solving skills and experience working in a metrics-driven environment. So, try the following questions on for size.

Sense of Urgency. What customer lead times are you accustomed to working under? How do you meet them? How do you handle employees who struggle to keep up? What would your last supervisor say about your ability to work under pressure? Can I add him or her to your list of references?

Importance of Customer Service. Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty to service a customer. Everyone has one answer to this question, so… tell me about another time you did this. Tell me about a time when you received great customer service. What made it great? How do you communicate the importance of serving customers to the rest of the organization?

Multi-tasking. How do you set priorities? Can you give a real world example? When was the last review performed by your employer? Did it assess your ability to manage multiple priorities? What were the results? Who performed the review? Is that person one of your references? If not, why not? What were your top five priorities at work yesterday? How did you set the order of importance?

Maximizing Efficiency. I love case studies here. For example, say I have a part that goes on a rack to be processed. I can put four parts on the rack. I can place one rack on every four feet of line space. The line runs at 15 fpm. How many parts can I run in ten minutes? I grant you have limited knowledge of our business but do your best to answer this question: How would you increase throughput on this line? (Deer in the headlights? Wrong candidate.)

Problem Solving. What is the toughest problem you ever solved at work? What were the variables you considered in solving it? What were your alternative solutions? How did you pick the best one? Give me an example of another problem you solved? Same follow-up questions.

Metrics-Driven Environment. Does your present employer have a bonus program? What are the criteria for getting a bonus? (It’s amazing how few people know the answer to that one.) What percentage of the total bonus did you earn last period? How could you have earned more? What other things are measured in your current position? Knowing what you know about our business, what do you think we should measure?

Making great hiring decisions starts and ends with really getting to know the candidate in spite of the inherent limitations of a short interview. Asking great questions results in hiring great candidates.