Analyze This

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

The nonprofit on whose board I serve wants to hire people who thrive on complexity and newness, as you’ve recommended. But how do we uncover such qualities during job interviews? – Randy Scheel, Vancouver, Wash.

There’s no single question that will reveal the presence or absence of the strengths you’re looking for. The secret is in knowing how to listen–to observe a candidate’s psychological “tells,” to use a poker metaphor. This, in turn, means noticing your own responses. Does the back-and-forth between you feel emotionally flat? Are you having trouble seeing a three-dimensional person?

In my experience, those feelings arise when the individual you’re talking to isn’t comfortable in his or her own skin–or in imagining what it’s like to be in yours (or anybody else’s). Such a candidate is unlikely to have the emotional ease and flexibility to experiment with untried methods or welcome complex ideas. Warning signs at the interview: Someone who talks in the wooden tongue of business jargon–”I interfaced with my direct reports at weekly meetings”–rather than speaking in vibrant, descriptive language. And anyone who can’t respond to a request to “tell us something about yourself” after credentials and work history have been established. A person who rehashes his or her résumé, making it sound as if life begins with one’s first job, won’t have the qualities you want. I also look for evidence of a sense of humor (noncaustic), appropriate modesty, and curiosity–an interest in the interviewer and the surroundings.

Add to that self-awareness and the ability to take in another person’s view. One way I try to gauge this is by asking candidates to talk about an issue they’re passionate about. After they’ve made their case, I ask them to argue the other side.