Save a Weak Interview, Ask Targeted Questions

The best interviewees also mess up. However, it’s in those ever critical, final five minutes – when it’s their turn to ask questions – that they recover from an initially weaker performance. You too can recover by asking the right questions to the right person i.e. achieving “the perfect match.” You achieve this perfect match when you ask a subject matter expert a narrow question that is properly framed to evoke a useful answer.

I recall interviewing for the Chase Smart Start Scholarship. It was during the third interview out of six that my responses started to blur into one another. I was nervous! I was speaking with a senior executive and being evaluated against a merciless selection criteria, then those final five minutes cropped up. “Do you have any questions for me?” I asked, how does the scholarship program fit into the bank’s plans to retain its position as an employer of choice?. Beforehand, I had researched and learned that the scholarship program existed to give back since Chase had displaced workers by closing down a pencil factory to build its offices in Brooklyn. I was asking an HR Generalist whose domain expertise was cause marketing and this turned my interview and day around. I later learned, that in those final 5 minutes, I asked the right question to the right person and eventually landed the scholarship.

The New York Times #1 best seller The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman (co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn) is a phenomenal resource that teaches you how to enhance any question. My greatest takeaway was that asking the right person the right question can forge lasting impressions about your worth. The way to prove your worth in a single question is to strategically frame a question that supports your candidacy, proves your intelligence as well as your interest.

The first step to achieve the perfect match is by defining and understanding the interviewer’s domain expertise. The Start-up of You defines “domain experts” as seasoned professionals who are well-versed in a particular topic. For instance, a human resources expert will likely know about professional development training programs or the firm’s philanthropic work. As a result, draft questions that he can uniquely answer rather than what others within the team can tackle. One sample question is: In my previous firm, I had the opportunity to refine my customer service skills (a great point to mention if the job calls for solid customer service skills), can you please tell me about the professional development courses that this firm offers?

The second step in that perfect match is the right question. The Start-up of You suggests that you ask questions that are optimally framed to elicit great answers; this requires homework. For instance, you may want to ask a VP of Sourcing and Procurement: What do you look for in a prospective vendor?. However, this question is too broad. Instead, investigate how a peer company evaluates vendors. You can then frame the question. For example, “I spoke with a sourcing and procurement expert within Ernst & Young. E&Y applies a strict criteria around the number of years that a firm has been in business when they evaluate any vendor. How does your firm’s evaluation criteria compare? This question not only illustrates that you did homework, but shows that you are resourceful – a critical competency.

Comment below if you need help brainstorming and refining the questions you’d like to ask during the final five minutes of your next interview – my clients have benefited from my guidance and I’d love to help you too.

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About Melissa

As a career coach, my plan is to share what I have learned from having: dissected 1,000+ performance evaluations, reported to 20+ bosses, lived in 7 zip codes, worked in 2 foreign countries, transitioned directly from financial services to advertising, started a career coaching firm as a newbie mom, coached lawyers that no longer desired to practice law, helped a plethora of clients with compelling raw materials yet lackluster interview performance skills, earned 2 full rides to top academic institutions, and left law school. View all posts by Melissa →

4 Responses to Save a Weak Interview, Ask Targeted Questions

  1. Chetan says:

    What would be some appropriate questions to ask a CFO who is interviewing a candidate for Financial Controller position?

    • Melissa says:

      Research how the CFO has managed the firm’s financials. Provide your POV on what you learned and then ask for his opinion. Again, homework is critical.

    • Melissa says:

      You have to do homework. Answer these questions first: What skills are critical on the job? How have I demonstrated them in the past, successfully? What can I ask about this role that would give me the opportunity to showcase that past experience?

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