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Five Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer

A s corporate America appears to embrace a “continuous learning” strategy, executives must prepare for addressing a rapidly changing job market. They must also be prepared to make a solid selection of a potential new employer when the opportunities are seemingly infinite or slim.

Ask executives who are transitioning positions and he or she will share with you the intense pressure (both financially and in terms of time) as the search for employment lingers, even when one is gainfully employed. Although it feels great when the hunt is over, most executives will tell you that they often wished they had the strength to say “no” when they suspected that the job responsibilities were right, but not the culture. In effect, they traded one set of pain (that of being unemployed or underemployed) for a different pain, joining a company in which they cannot thrive.

Selecting the wrong employer can have a significant impact on personal stress and future advancement. And the prospect for being in the same position six months or a year later is not very appealing. The market, even a flooded or lean one, remains excellent for the executive who knows what he or she needs in a company to thrive. Being patient enough to spot the right opportunity among often a myriad of masquerading choices is the most prized skill in the job hunt maze today.

Questions about Culture Determine Fit

The problem of identifying the ideal employer is twofold. First, what questions should you ask, and second, what should the answer be from the prospective employer? After interviewing thousands of executives about reasons why they were let go or fired from an organization, I hear things like, “I wish I would have asked how they made decisions at the leadership level —if I had known the answer, I would have thought twice about joining them.” How, then, is the right opportunity spotted? Often the questions a candidate asks about the culture (not the job) in the interview will determine his or her fit and longevity in the organization going forward. Commonly, questions candidates ask do not yield the right answers.

Having interviewed thousands of people in the last twenty years, I can count on one hand the persons who came to the interview with the questions that likely would help them determine if they could thrive at a prospective employer. Largely, the questions have little to do with the job— they have to do with the way the culture works. Here are questions I think get at the culture of the organization:

  1. How do you make decisions at this organization?
  2. Tell me about a risky decision the company made in the last four or five years.
  3. Where have the best two ideas come from in the last five years?
  4. How does this organization handle conflict at a senior level?
  5. How does the organization communicate when one is succeeding or failing?

Perfect answers are sometimes hard to come by, but I have a few suggestions that can get us closer to a culture that of our dreams.

Do you remember the one or two jobs you had over the years that were so engaging that you could not wait to get to work? If you have found yourself in a couple of those circumstances during your career, focus on those instances. Pay less attention to the people with which you worked or what you were doing, instead go back and answer the five questions from an organizational perspective and you will discover tantalizing clues to the kind of culture in which you thrive.

Answers are the Key

Several years ago, an acquaintance asked about the reputation of a company that considered him for a position. He asked, “Should I join this company?” My response was “I can’t answer that question for you—I do not know you well enough nor have I worked for the company in the past.” I suggested he use the five questions to discover whether the company was right for him.

Before an interview with any prospective employer, make sure you have identified the “perfect response” to each of the five questions. You may not have the exact answer, but you should have the elements identified that would allow you to thrive in the culture. Take question #1, for instance. You might thrive in an environment that allows you to make decisions independently. If asking the executives at a prospective company yields an answer that the President makes all significant decisions, the company might not be right for you.

It is easy to argue the merits of each individual question and not all the five questions will have equal weight—in fact, some may not matter to you at all. The simple fact is that many transitioning executives do not have a clear understanding what kind of culture in which they will thrive, and as a result are inclined to accept any job offer because of the “job” (position, title, pay, etc.) not because it is the right culture. Sometimes they walk away from a culture in which you could really thrive because the job is not right, only to join a company where the job is right, but the culture boots them out six months later. Try explaining that in an interview.

Among the many mistakes candidates can make in selecting employment, the most common is the belief they can work with or for anyone. Not true. Eventually, even the most flexible person will reach a breaking point when the work culture becomes personally intolerable. The overall culture dictates the “feel” of an organization, not an individual “chemistry” with your prospective boss. Make your decision to join a company based on the culture of the organization, not solely on the personality fit with a specific person or the responsibilities of the offered job. What then happens to you if that boss leaves or the job changes?

Watch for Non-Verbal Reactions in an Interview

Today, one-on-one interviewing is still very common. In each interview, ask some or all of the five questions of everyone you encounter in the company. The more consistent the answers, the more consistent the culture. (I would rather join a company with a consistent culture even if it did not fit perfectly.) Inconsistent cultures, where the rules of engagement vary from day to day are often the worst organizations of all. Just having both the questions to ask and the “perfect” answers on your mind will yield better results. However, paying attention to the way the hiring team answers the questions may be just as important. If, in a group interview, and while asking the question, “How are decisions made here?”, if some executives on the panel look to the floor or roll their eyes as the President answers the question–their non-verbal reactions may be more telling than the answer itself.

As you ask these questions and you find the answers do not match your expected responses, or the responses are all over the map, it might not be a good idea to join that company; in fact, I would likely run away as fast as I could. If the answers agree, or they are largely consistent among the people you meet, you may not need to look further.

So, what of the acquaintance who used these questions? He told me, with some embarrassment, although the answers did not match, he took the job anyway. He said, “This is the worst decision I have made in my life.” He left the company within six months and never even put the position on his resume.

About the author:

Tim Pappas is a principal with Pappas DeLaney, LLC, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm specializing in working with CEOs and top-management teams on leadership strategies and organizational alignment for corporations nationally.