For you, a veteran transitioning to a civilian career, a new mindset has to be adopted. Your ability to ask pointed, intelligent, specific and insightful questions is critical to your career, and a skill you must develop. There are many forums where good question-asking is at the heart of your company’s success and your success: planning meetings with strategic partners; networking receptions with people in your industry, or industry of interest; and others. I am going to focus on asking questions in job interviews.
Put yourself in the average jobseeker’s mind for a moment. You have an interview. How do you prepare? You prepare by going over your resume to make sure you know it inside and out. You go over the examples you’re going to give for their questions, and you go over how you’ll deliver them. You’ll do research on the company so you can demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable and interested more so than the other candidates. Are you fully ready? Not even close. You’re not ready because you have the wrong mindset for the interview. Your entire preparation process revolved around the questions you will be asked – as if this were nothing more than an interrogation session (which admittedly it can sometimes feel like!).
Being able to answer what you are asked in an interview in a clear, memorable way is only half the battle when you’re in the room. You have the chance to ask questions about the company in which you’re interviewing for the first time, with a real practitioner from that company. The interview is as much about you learning about the company, as it is the company learning about you.
It’s safe to say that you should prepare about five to seven questions in advance of the interview. This may seem like a lot, but I suggest this number for two reasons. One: you never know what questions you will have that will be answered in the course of an interview. Maybe you have two to three really good ones ready to ask, but by the time the interview ends and you’ve had the conversation, they’ve already been answered. Then what? Saying that all of your questions have already been answered is unacceptable and shows that you’re not good at thinking on the fly. Two: some interviewers give very short answers, and some may speak for ten minutes after your first question. The point is that you need to be ready for both scenarios, and more is better than less in this situation. You do not want to run out of things to talk about. That is not to say that you won’t get ideas for other questions in the middle of the interview, but best to be prepared.
This brings us to the types of questions to ask. Although I could recite a litany of questions that would be appropriate, and likewise a list that would be inappropriate, I will lay out some principles for what to ask and what not to ask instead.
Do ask the interviewer about personal experiences with the company. The objective of your question is not only to get to know the company better through someone whose actually been there, but to also further establish a connection with the man or woman across the table from you. Getting people talking about their own experiences (particularly their good experiences), will associate you with those experiences, and by default you will be thought of in a positive light after that. Whether it’s about a favorite project, or what they like about the company or how they came to apply to said company, the value of this type of question cannot be understated.
Do NOT ask the interviewer anything that can be Googled. It may be tempting to talk company specifics with the interviewer, but questions asked the wrong way can make it seem like you have not done your research on the company. Company specifics obviously are things you should ask about, but in the context of how it is affecting the organization and your interviewer’s opinions are how the questions should be phrased. Instead of, “How did the equity analyst community respond to the earnings call last Friday?”, a better approach would be “How do equity analysts responses to earnings calls affect management’s decision making?” Do you see the difference? You can easily find analyst reports on the company – you can usually look up every analyst that covers the company, by name, in the Investor Relations section of the website. What you’ve done with the second question is take information that is publicly available and use it to gauge the company culture. How does management think? Are they driven more by long-term results or short-term pops in the stock price? How does that drive planning and decision-making at the subordinate levels?
Your aim should be to use the information you can look up in the course of your research to then inform your questions about things you cannot answer simply by Googling.
Do be specific in your questions about cultural fit. Nothing makes me roll my eyes more than a candidate who flat out asks, “What is the company culture like?” That type of question is sure to put the interviewer in an obligatory position of explaining everything about it and can often be seen as lazy. Plus, you are much more likely to get the boilerplate responses of “collaborative”, “innovative”, “diverse” etc. By pinpointing your questions such as, “What qualities separate the great from the good?” or “What is something you’d change about your company?”, you gauge specific aspects of the culture with which you may have concerns or in which you have an interest. Also, the interviewer is much more likely to give you a more fruitful answer drawn from their personal experience at the company.
Do NOT bring up politics, salary or family…unless the interviewer does so first. Such topics are considered by many to be taboo in interviews and best advised to be discussed only in limited fashion and only if the interviewer initiates the conversation. Sometimes politics is germane to the job itself. At Candorful, we recently practiced with a veteran who was interviewing for a public policy position at Facebook. As you can imagine, politics would be discussed in light of Facebook’s prevalence in political debate and through people’s opinions of its practices. Just be careful to leave out personal views and stick to objective discussion.
Salary has become a hot-button item and recruiters as a practice, are no longer authorized to ask you about your salary history. However, if through the course of your interview, the interviewer wants to discuss the compensation structure because maybe it’s different than most companies, then that’s a good opportunity to learn about it without looking like it is the only thing. If you do bring up salary outside of this context though, it could signal that you’re in it simply for the money. In that case they know you will leave the minute you have a better offer.
Family is another tough topic to avoid in interviews. No matter how much of a connection you’ve made with the interviewer, unless you know them personally it is best to leave family out. You cannot guarantee that someone will not employ any implicit biases they may have about certain family situations. Maybe the position for which you’re interviewing requires a lot of travel. If the interviewer knows that you have a relative that is seriously ill, he or she may not recommend you for the job, even if you’ve stated that travel is OK and you’re the most qualified.
As I mentioned before, the interview is as much about you asking the interviewer about the company and themselves, as it is the interviewer getting to know you and if you’re a great fit for the company. As a military veteran, your ability to prepare and adapt to various situations will be one of your greatest assets in this part of the interview. Make sure you adhere to these guidelines in your preparation process so that when the interviewer asks, “What questions do you have for me?”, you don’t sit there waiting for him or her to dismiss you, but that you are ready to gain their wisdom through thoughtful, appropriate questions. This is an important part of the interview that Candorful reviews extensively with its clients. Please contact us if you’d like to practice your interview question asking skills or any other aspect of the interview.