I worked as an Executive Coach for years. I also served in management in many industries. I’ve done my share of interviews, and as a career coach have advised numerous candidates on how to approach interview questions. I’m amazed at some of the reports I get back from candidates following their interviews. It sounds like the questions are getting tougher, and in some instances just plain weird.
The advice I offer anyone when it comes to interview questions is to worry less about the answers, and to focus on how you respond. In many instances the interviewer isn’t looking for an answer, but is more interested in how you think, react and respond. Here are the 5 types of questions that seem to show up these days and how to respond to them.
1. The Old-Fashioned Interview Questions.
This line of questioning usually begins with, “So tell me about yourself.” Your response should be brief and focused on the position you are applying for. Less than a minute is good range for these types of questions. Others include, “Where are you from?” “Do you have any hobbies?” and “How long have you been in the business?” These types of questions do little for you in an interview so answer them as quickly, politely and positively.
2. The Positive Questions.
“What’s your greatest strength?” “Who’s your hero?” “What are your goals?” or “Tell me about your greatest accomplishment?” These are the good bread-and-butter questions that you want to make the most of. Do what you can to add some texture and detail to your response and do it with enthusiasm. For example, “My hero is Albert Einstein because he managed to see possibilities everywhere he looked.” That kind of response is simple, to the point and says something about you and your willingness to “see the possibilities.”
3. The Negative Questions.
These start to get into the area of trick questions and require a careful and cautious response. They include, “What is your greatest weakness?” “Who was your worst boss?” “What’s your biggest regret?’ or “If you had it to do over, what would you change?” The reason these questions are tricky is because many hiring managers have heard the standard answers, or worst – the wrong answer. The best strategy for negative questions is to answer them briefly and avoid specifics such as names, dollar amounts or consequences. You also have to find that positive spin. For example, “What I learned from my worst boss was the importance of respecting and valuing people.” or “My greatest weakness is something I have spent a good amount of energy overcoming: shyness.” It may seem awkward to identify yourself as shy, but if you are out-going and confident in the interview, “shyness” will serve as a good contrast.
4. Logical Mind-Game Questions.
“How many golf balls would it take to fill this room?” That’s an actual question that a candidate was asked in an interview at “Google.” The candidate said he would determine the cubic feet in the room; determined that a golf ball was an inch in diameter and would calculate how many golf balls would fit in one cubic foot and do the math. He didn’t answer the question but his response was perfect, although he didn’t get the job. These kinds of questions are showing up more and more. The interviewer wants to understand how you think. When these questions come up it’s time to “think out-loud.” You might not come up with the exact answer, but in many ways you’ve more than answered the question.
4. Emotional Mind-Game Questions.
These are some of the most challenging; if not troubling types of questions I’ve heard about. Many are directed at applicants for an executive or management level position. Here’s an example I heard from the front: “You are standing on the banks of a raging rive at high-flood stage. You see 4 people trapped in the current coming your way. They include, you wife, your son, your mother and your best friend. You can only save two. Which two do you save?”
Before I give you one of the responses you might use for a question like this, here’s a little background on the motivation for this line of questioning. Many managers and executives have to make decisions that will affect people’s jobs, careers and lives. Every layoff confronts executive with difficult choices. If you’re interviewing at that level, be prepared for questions like this.
By the way, here’s the best answer I’ve heard for the raging river: “I know all 4 of these people and what they can and can’t do. I would save the two weakest swimmers. I would send one to get help and I’d tell the other one to follow me downstream on the river bank to see if we could save the other two.” The reason this is a good response has to do with the application of logic to a very emotional situation. That’s what an executive may have to do someday following a merger, acquisition or layoff. I know some people who refuse to answer these kinds of questions. That’s up to you.