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  1. Blog
  2. Interviewing
  3. April 4, 2022

How to Develop the Best Interview Questions to Ask Manager Candidates

No more “so tell me about yourself…”

woman and man asking interview questions to a candidate
Photo courtesy of Edmond Dantès

Whether you call it the Great Resignation, or Great Rethink, or Great Reprioritization, employees are looking for workplaces that let them live the life they want. Now’s their chance to find a healthy work-life balance or more flexible work schedule or a more collaborative culture—whatever they’ve been missing. 

The movement means thousands of people are interviewing for a new job on any given work day. U.S. employers hired for 678,000 jobs in February. 

This is a huge opportunity for employers—although many won’t know what to do with it. 

We asked Liz Ryan, who has written about U.S. work culture and hiring trends for decades, to share what she sees as the best practices for interviewing manager candidates. Ryan is the CEO of Human Workplace, a training and consulting firm with the mission to reinvent work for people. 

She says companies and their leaders can do better by improving a lot more than just the job interview questions. Here’s how. 

What is most important for hiring teams to consider when they’re looking for and interviewing manager candidates? 

Liz Ryan: It all starts before the interview. It starts with the initial search. So often companies say “five years of management required,”  but that literally tells you nothing about whether the candidate is a good manager or not. And then it gets very technical or functional—“you have to have this background, and know this tool, and that tool.” We sort of argue against the idea of competence, ethical management right in the job ad. At the tail end of the process, in the interview, now we’re going to ask you some questions about your management philosophy, but it’s kind of too little, too late. 

It’s what they say about medical school. Now all the medical schools are requiring courses on humanistic thinking and empathy and taking care of people. But if the way you get into medical school is largely based on math and science grades, which it is, then how do you really say “oh, our docs are totally compassionate”...? So it goes back to how we even decide who gets an interview for a manager job. 

But once you’re sitting in the room [for the interview], all the questions really can revolve around “tell me about how you looked at this management role and then how you manifested that in your department.” Honestly, 90 percent of manager candidates won’t know what to say. They don’t think about the management role that way, because it’s not something that we’ve required or taught them to do. They think more like: “I have a department, I tell them what to do, I do the stuff, you get a performance review”... etc. That’s because we don’t have a healthy concept of management or leadership in the business world, for the most part. 

Read more: How to Tell an Interviewer Why You’re Looking for a New Job

So getting more into the specifics of how to apply that approach, what are good interview questions to ask manager candidates? 

LR: I’m looking for the nitty gritty. I want to know what you did on the ground.

For example, “creating a diverse and inclusive culture is really important here at [company], tell me how you’ve accomplished that before? I’d love to hear a story of how you’ve done that.” 

Think of common issues you have [at your company]. “We have pay scales, we think they’re pretty competitive, but it would be ludicrous to say we always pay everybody exactly what they want to be paid. So how do you deal with that situation where someone tells you they don’t think they’re being paid fairly and they want to get a raise?” 

And a really important question to ask a manager candidate is “tell me your game plan. Tell me how you will approach this role in the first 30 days, 60 days, six months, etc.” Because (and not that I believe in “trick” or “gotcha” questions, because I don’t), there is a certain type of manager candidate that most of us are familiar with who’s going to say, “oh, here’s what I always do: I come in, I evaluate the team, I see who I’m going to keep, I see who I”m going to get rid of,” and it’s like whoa, no. 

That’s a warning sign, because being the manager obviously doesn’t mean “this is my kingdom.” It’s not a kingdom. My analogy for a manager is an orchestral conductor. A conductor can’t play the violin or the tuba as well as these musicians can, but they are able to bring together the sounds, so that it makes an amazing experience for everyone. 

And in most professional orchestras, the conductor typically has little to say about what the musicians get paid or whether they stay with the orchestra or not. It’s a different job, and I think it’s a healthier relationship to have with musicians or all of us than the one we have now in the United States, where the manager can basically snap their fingers and say “you’re gone because I don’t like something about you.” 

So I think a manager interview is almost guarding against that unfortunate but widespread use of fear and power by managers. If the whole interview was about so-called “soft skills,” and never got into the manager’s technical or functional skills, that would probably be fine. 

By having people in a state of fear, afraid of making a wrong move, you hamper them and impede them from bringing their brains and their heart to work and just really getting into the job, which they would love to do, and it would be better for the organization.

Read more: How to Change from Culture Fit Interview Questions to “Culture Add” Questions

Besides changing the questions themselves, what can companies do to develop a better interviewing process—for managers and all candidates? 

LR: Companies can be so guarded about their issues, about what they’re struggling with, meanwhile they want to know all about you as a candidate. 

The company should tell the candidate “here’s our problem”—tell them the pain. Like if someone came to your house because you had a plumbing problem, you wouldn’t not tell them the problem because you want to keep the upper hand. You would say “my kid stuffed their sock down the tub drain!” You tell them what’s going on, what’s happening on the ground. If you’re a publication hiring an editor, you say, “look, here’s our problem: we need an editor who’s going to come up with these off-the-wall, cool, and compelling story ideas and maybe create a series, etc…That’s the readership we’re not getting.” 

In fact, tell them the pain in the job ad! Be honest about the fact that your company is not flawless. Because why would I [as a candidate] trust you if you started our relationship with this idea that you’re superior to me? If I can’t make an impact on the company, why would I join? If you can’t sort of admit that you need help then why would I take the time? So tell me what your meaty problem is that you need my help solving.

Our interviewing protocol that we teach employers [who work with Human Workplace] is you tell the candidate before the interview “bring your questions, we’re going to handle your questions first. All of your questions, any aspect of the job, the company, me personally—as your manager, anything at all.” And the candidate goes first, and they ask their questions. And if their questions take up an hour, that’s a great interview. 

There’s nothing sacred about the idea that the company should ask all the questions. And if the candidate asks their questions and the conversation morphs into a different place, that’s great. 

Read more: 31 Unique Interview Questions to Ask An Employer

When it comes to interviewing for manager candidates, is it better to promote from within or look outside the company? 

LR: When it comes to promoting people from within versus hiring them from outside, if you think of a business as an organism, it’s like “what’s going to be the healthiest thing?” At a certain point in time, you are going to bring in more people from the outside because you hired this wonderful crop of young people out of school and you trained them and they’re incredible, but they’re not ready to manage a team in a way that the team needs to be managed. So the fact that they’re there and they’re available is great and we can give them recognition and money and meaty projects, but that doesn’t mean the right answer is for them to all of a sudden be responsible for other people. It would be asking too much of them, just from a learning curve and a maturity curve standpoint. 

And there’s other times where people are champing at the bit and so ready and they’ve proven their ability to lead a project, lead a task, lead whatever, and we say “no no no, we need to hire from outside because they have to have a masters degree.” But why? Why would they need that [degree] for a management problem? 

So it’s really just looking judiciously at each situation. But in general, if you don’t promote people from within fairly regularly, forget about the so-called “employer brand.” A lot of people are claiming that they have to quit their job and go to another company to get more money and to get more responsibility because their company will only hire managers from outside, so that’s not a good idea. And if you only hire from the inside, that’s equally negative, because it says it’s only “groupthink.” That’s how consulting firms used to be—the consulting firms just moved up, and never did what they called “experienced hiring.” They only hired on college campuses and you would end up with all these people at Deloitte and KPMG, and they’d only worked for the firm for 30 years—that’s bad, too. 

So it’s a mix, and I hope a healthy mix. It’s looking for people who have the fortitude in themselves, they know themselves enough to speak up. Because the hardest part of a manager’s job is speaking up when someone above them wants them to do something they shouldn’t do, like mistreat or underpay an employee, for example, or discipline someone for some BS thing. That’s when a manager really has to find their backbone—and that’s what I look for when I hire managers. 

Sounds like these issues with hiring and interviewing are still common in the workplace. Do you think things are improving? 

LR: I’ve been writing for publications for 20 years, and the shift is very, very encouraging. I used to write the same stuff we’re talking about and people were like “that’s crazy!” and now they’re like “right on!” So people are waking up to the fact that there are things that have to change with the way we look at work and the way we do work and the way we organize it. 

Read more: How Managers Can Build Cultures of Trust at Work

About our source

Liz Ryan has spent years improving workplaces and HR practices. She’s an HR professional and consultant, a columnist, an author, a founder and CEO. She’s currently CEO of Human Workplace, a training and consulting firm and a global movement with millions of members around the world sharing the mission to reinvent work for people. As CEO, Ryan writes and speaks about the new-millennium workplace. She’s written books about improving U.S. work culture, including Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve, Red-Blooded HR: Essays on Human Resources as a Force for Good, and Righteous Recruiting: Essays on Reinventing Talent Acquisition for People. You can also follow Liz in her frequent LinkedIn live videos on resume writing, recruiting, and other career-related tips. 

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