Job Interview Questions — How to Uncover Someone’s True Potential

Job Interview QuestionsYour ability to ask great job interview questions is key to running a professional service firm. As a partner you have 3 responsibilities: business development, creative leadership, and recruiting. Recruit the best people and both of these other two jobs become fun.

Standard interview prompts and questions like “Tell me about yourself” or “How did you hear about this position?” are not sufficient lenses into the interviewee’s life. This is especially true at creative agencies, where critical thinking is a daily assignment. Standard job interview questions don’t shed light on someone’s cognitive mapping abilities.

3 Goals for Recruiting the Right Person

Technology allows you to leverage intelligence and education. It pays to find the right person. They will be more productive than average. A college degree isn’t enough. Also, their is more variety today. People are changing careers at 30, 40, 50, and 60+. Their unique work experiences provide different perspectives — use this to your advantage. Leverage the fact that the median tenure of employees in the United States decreases 2 years every 10 years.

Investing in your employees isn’t cheap. As an employer, your hiring goal is not only to find someone qualified for the position, but someone who will stay long enough to make their hire worth it. But finding someone who will stay at your agency longer than the average Jane may be a challenge.

And there’s a lot of pressure to find someone quickly. When you have an open position at your agency, you lose money everyday that work is not done or allotted to someone else. Your agency invests funds into advertising for the new position and loses money taking time to interview the applicant. Your agency also invests in training the new hire. And then, after all that, they may not even be a good fit into your company culture, or they may leave for another career after just one year.

The stakes are high in the interview process to find the perfect candidate. At creative agencies, where personality clash can make or break a project, this is especially true.

How do you curate job interview questions to get the information you need to make the right choice? Let’s explore.

Job interview questions should be a guide to conversation

We’ve all had those kind of interviews.

Those interviews where you sit in a conference room meant for 20 people with just the interviewer and yourself. Where the interviewer has what looks like a worksheet in front of them, and they ask question after question, stone-cold in the face as they write down your answer word for word. Those job interviews are very information focused. The goal is to get as many facts as possible in a 15 minute period. Does anyone ever feel good after these interviews?

We’ve also all faced better job interview questions. Maybe you stayed up late preparing answers to standard interview questions, but the interview turns out to be a great dialogue. You get to share about yourself, and the interviewer seems engaged with your personality. This type of interview is very individually focused. These interviews seek to find out if the interviewee can relax and talk freely about herself in a professional environment.

The first type of interview, with fact-based interview questions, aren’t inherently bad. They can be useful in assessing skills with questions like: How many years of experience do you have in inDesign? What sort of cameras are you comfortable using? Etc.

But creative work is about being good at applying knowledge and facts to different situations, not just stating facts at random. Job interview questions designed to gather facts don’t hold up as a critical thinking examination.

Paradigm shift for a better interview

Job interview questions remain the foundation of a successful interview, but think of them more as a tool to guide a conversation rather than a tool for immediate answers.

A fitting metaphor for the shift from fact-based to conversation-based interview questions is comparing the old university lecture-style classroom to the new round-table discussion forum seen in many American universities today.

Quick history lesson: around the tumultuous year of 1968, students and professors began to tire of the traditional classroom. This is where the professor stands at the head of the class, lectures most the time, and asks questions from students that receive one-word answers. They decided to start something radical. Instead of the old style, the professor now sat at a desk in a circle with the students, and guided a conversation where every student got to voice his or her opinion on the subject. Turns out, for certain subjects, this is a superior way to assess a student’s knowledge.

Think of the questions you ask your potential hires in this circular, everyone-at-the-same-level, conversational way. How can you decrease intimidation to get them to speak more freely? What questions can you ask that guide the conversation rather than rule it?

Conversation points to guide the interview

Before you come up with specific questions to prompt the dialogue, make a list of areas you’d like to steer the conversation toward. You’ll probably have a standard list that you use for all interviewees that assess the interviewee’s knowledge of your creative agency, like:

  • What does the interviewee know about your clients?
  • How well can the interviewee describe your company culture?
  • Did she research the position?
  • Does she know who she’ll report to is he/she gets hired?

And then you’ll have another list of talking points that is catered to the individual applicant. Look over their resume and cover letter, what interests you most?

Here’s a tip: you may feel inclined to focus on the areas of her resume that directly relate to the position to which she’s applying, but don’t hone in only on those areas. Remember, you’re trying to guide a conversation that reflects her critical thinking. Perhaps the way she frames the three years she spent as waitress end up a more interesting reflection of her personality than the five years she worked at another agency. Or maybe she spent a semester in Central America in college. Ask her about that and see what sort of insights she has on travel.

Inquiring about other parts of her life give her an opportunity to tell you about a different range of skills that may set her above other applicants. Passion is the foundation of creativity. Applicants who speak clearly about passion and dedication in all aspects of their lives are more suited for creative work than those who look good on paper.

Creative Job Interview Questions

There are generally two types of job interview questions: theory-based v. behavior-based.

Theory based interview questions present a theoretical situation where the applicant must detail what she would do if it happened to her. For instance, “If someone came into our business and was lurking strangely in the corner, what would you do?”. These job interview questions are increasingly unpopular. They tend to make applicants freeze up in panic, and, unless applying for a job in security, don’t necessarily say anything about how the applicant could handle the position.

Answers to behavior based job interview questions reflect what the applicant already accomplished. Questions like “Tell us about a time when you made a mistake, and how did you handle it?” are behavior-based questions.

Behavior questions pull from the past, and make for great conversation starters. To really get to know an applicant, ask a behavior-based question and roll with it by asking related supplementary questions. The less the subject changes, the more glimpses you get into the applicant’s critical thinking abilities.

5 rockstar creative questions to start a fantastic conversation with a stranger you might hire

Adapted from Lindsay Kolowich.

  • What single project has been the most challenging for you? How did you plan for it? Did you work with others? Note how the applicant frames her answer. Does she only focus on what she did well? Admitting mistakes and articulating them with grace is a reflection of honesty.
  • Tell me about a complicated subject that you know well. This is a great prompt to get a glimpse into the cognitive mapping abilities of the applicant. Does she have the social skills to articulate the subject for the layman?
  • What does it feel like to be successful? What does it feel like to work hard? Most creative people have a state of “nirvana” they retreat to when they’re at their peak creativity. What does this feel like for the applicant? This is a good way to gauge her passion for the industry.
  • Tell me about a time you did something completely wrong. What did you learn from it? Does the answer show humility or self-hate? You’ll likely look for someone who works hard to fix mistakes but who is also not be held back by them.
  • What is something you’ve accomplished that has nothing to do with your professional career, but that you are proud of? Like we mentioned earlier, life experiences beyond the professional realm can be the most interesting lenses into personality.

Like relationships, everyone knows that job interview questions are a psychological game. Ease the tension by researching fun behavior based conversation starters. If you can prompt the applicant to keep the dialogue going with a few supplementary questions, you’ve succeeded. If the applicant can’t relax in a more conversational interview setting, a job at a creative agency probably isn’t suited for her. However, if she relaxes, and you end up learning not only the facts, but the quirks of their personality and their critical thinking abilities too, you’ve found the pot of gold.

Rethink the old methods of job interviews. Use conversation as a tool to find unique traits in each applicant.