Earlier in my career, I spent several years speaking to college students across the U.S. about how to get your dream job after college. After each presentation, I would also stick around to answer questions individually.
Inevitably, there would be a few students after each presentation who would come up to me, tell me what they wanted to do after college, and say something like “do you have any advice for me?”
While I was always supportive when a student asked that generic question, it was definitely frustrating. After providing specific, highly practical job search tips for an hour, the best question that you can ask me is “do you have any advice for me?” Why not ask a question about one of my tips, or an area that I did not cover? Or, what about asking for my advice on how to overcome a specific challenge with your job search?
On the other hand, there would usually also be a few students after each presentation who would ask much better questions. For example, a student once asked me how he could build rapport with executives when attending professional networking events. Another time, a student asked me what she could do to stand out in a good way during a group interview. (Neither topic had been covered during my presentation.) Compare these students to those who just asked “do you have any advice for me?”
You can learn a lot about someone by paying attention to the questions that he asks. This is just as true for executives as it is for students. For example, I once interviewed an executive for a Vice President role with a PE-backed company. Let’s call him “John.” Unlike some other candidates for the role, John did not show the recent career progression that is typical for a high performer. Instead, his career had been stagnant for a while, and he had been in the same exact role for nearly ten years. The only reason that he was considered for the role was because the client’s selection criteria were so specific that the relevant talent pool was very limited.
So, I did an initial phone screen with John. Then, we scheduled a video interview. After we went through his career history, I asked what questions John had about the organization and the role.
First, he asked who the role reported to, even though that was clearly noted in the job description. Next, he asked how long the CEO had been with the company, even though that information was clearly listed in the CEO’s LinkedIn profile. The only other questions that John asked were about the location for the role and the compensation package. He asked nothing else about the organization or the position.
In comparison, other candidates that I interviewed for the role asked a variety of much better questions. For example, one candidate asked how the company was responding to a new regulatory policy that was having a significant impact on the industry. Another individual asked several thoughtful questions about the organizational structure around the role, including the incumbent and the direct reports. Unlike John, these executives had clearly done their homework before the interview. They showed up well-prepared to ask smart questions.
When you interview someone for a leadership role, don’t just pay attention to their answers. Pay attention to their questions. High performers ask intelligent questions that demonstrate their drive and that they did their homework. They don’t ask for answers to questions that someone could easily figure out on his own.
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About the author: As the Founder of Stronger Talent, Pete Leibman recruits exceptional leaders for companies that make the world stronger. Throughout his career, Pete has helped clients recruit exceptional leaders at the Board, C-Suite, Senior Vice President, Vice President, General Manager, Managing Director, and Director levels. Pete’s work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and Fortune.com, and he is the author of two books and over 150 articles on career management, healthy living, high performance, and executive recruiting.