A great interview will often feel like a comfortable conversation and will flow back and forth between the candidate and the interviewer. This is not always the case of course, but helping the interviewer to feel comfortable that they will work well with you is very important. As a candidate for a new position, preparing questions in advance and writing them down to bring them with you should be a given in your interview preparation, but what’s the best way to deliver them? It’s often the case that your concerns & questions as a candidate have a risk of becoming the interviewer’s concerns & questions about your ability in the position, so delivering your valid concerns in a way that avoids that can be critical to your success. But before we address how to ask them, let’s start with what to be asking.
The most effective questions to ask are those that focus on the future and on your success in the new position. Forward-thinking questions, such as “What do you see happening to the structure of this team or this company in the next few years?” show that you are the type of person who plans for the future and takes that into account when making a decision, which wise people tend to do. Other questions that the best candidates ask are about performance, specifically what you would need to do to be performing well and how your performance will be evaluated, such as “What would be expected of me in my first 90 days here on the job that would make me an exceptional new employee?” They also have the added benefit of inviting the interviewer to imagine you already in the job, which can be a very positive visual for your potential candidacy. I’m not going to cover what NOT to ask, but you can find more here.
The example question above, while a good one on it’s own, is not complete if you really want to impress. The best way to ask a question is to first take the opportunity to tell a little about yourself as it relates to the question, or what we’ll call the “Tell-then-Ask” format. Many of your questions as a candidate may address your concerns, but have the risk of becoming concerns for the hiring authority as well, so a lead-in that positions you strongly in the mind of the interviewer and helps the interviewer understand the context of the question can help greatly. The Tell-then-Ask format simply invites you as the candidate to take advantage of another opportunity to brag about yourself while you have the floor.
The Tell-then-Ask format is easiest to explain with an example of a very common question many candidates have: “What kind of training will I receive?” It is important when joining a new company to know you will have the support and training to be successful, but this question has some negative connotations for the interviewer. Training a new employee is a drain on the team’s resources in the short term and managers will only choose to make that training investment in the right person. Add to that the risk that the interviewer is the kind of person who would rather just hire someone who can hit the ground running and this can be a risky question. But if you could hit the ground running in your new job and handle all the tasks without some training then it wouldn’t be that great stretch opportunity that will move your career forward! So, back to the question. To ask this question in a way that furthers the strength of your candidacy rather than diminishes it, and gets you the information you need to make a decision, use the Tell-then-Ask format. When preparing to ask this question, recall (and write down) a time when you were successfully trained and compose it in the Problem-Action-Result (PAR) format I wrote about in my previous article on writing a great resume. Then, when it’s time for you to ask your question, first tell the example in the PAR format, then ask the question. It might sound something like this:
“At my previous position, after the introductory training, I was provided with a mentor who I could ask questions. Knowing who to go to—and that it was part of their responsibility—helped me to feel comfortable and get up to speed quickly. With that guidance, I was able in just my first month there to identify a cost overrun issue that might have been missed because I learned the system we used so quickly. [elaborate here on the results] What can I expect for training coming in the door here?”
This kind of framing to your questions will help reiterate your skills and the results you’ve brought to your employers in the past and alleviate concerns about the investment required to bring you up to speed in your new stretch position. Get creative with the Tell and you’ll find that each question you Ask can be an opportunity to sell yourself just a little bit more. Make sure to prepare the Tell part of your questions in advance, write them down, and bring them with you to the interview. Yes, bring notes to the interview and don’t just wing it and hope to remember in the heat of the interview. Your preparation will impress.
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Mark Tyrrell is the Managing Partner and a founder of Right Resources and has recruited professionals in the DC/Baltimore area since 2004. He graduated from Villanova University with a Bachelors in Business Administration and started his career as an ERP consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. He has staffed positions for some of the most respected companies in Baltimore, including Constellation, Computer Sciences Corporation, Black & Decker, and Edaptive Systems. He lives near Baltimore with his wife and two beautiful children and is humbly grateful for all the opportunities God has provided, including this company.