We are Asking the Wrong Questions (Part Two)

 

Last week I went off more than a little bit about the direction many HR departments provide as we try to put together questions we will ask potential candidates. It is my contention that the standard questions we have all seen, been asked, and have been asked to ask, while doing an excellent job at keeping the organization from being sued, also do an excellent job at keeping us substantially ignorant about the people we are interviewing.
 
And so, when I was the one doing the interviewing, I tended to flagrantly ignore much of the HR department's "good" advice. Sometimes this worked out very well. Sometimes...not so much. (When I hired good, I hired very, very good; but when I hired bad, I hired awful.)
 
But, no matter what the results, I struggled just as much as anyone else at designing questions that would provide true insight into the candidate. Recently, I may have accidently discovered another little facet in our search for the perfect interview questions. And it has come from an unusual source – a Wondercon presentation by Barbara Randall Kesel titled "Where do Ideas Come From."
 
I already talked a bit about Ms. Kesel's presentation and you can find that discussion, as well as a little bit of her background, in this post. But there was another interesting little tidbit that came up.
 
She talked about the number of fledgling artists who come to her with their portfolios. Because she works in comics, these portfolios tend to contain grandiose, intricately detailed drawings of such things as dragons battling knights who have come for the gold, grand scale space battles held against the backdrop of spiraling galaxies, or fights with multiple superheroes struggling against unnumbered evil-doers.
 
Her comment was "Don't show me your dragon fight; show me a conversation."
 
She went on to describe how new artists want to show off using the big scenes – the ones that catch the eye and rivet the attention. These are the showstoppers and they are the ones that every artist spends his or her time on.
 
But most graphic novels usually have only one or two of those scenes. Instead, the primary illustrations that are required are the mundane – the person walking, the people talking, the day-to-day activities that actually help move a story forward. (In spite of what you may think, comics and/or graphic novels are plot driven and there are only so many battles that can drive a plot. Are you listening Michael Bay? Sorry. I got sidetracked.) Everyday life is at the core of what occurs in a story. That life and the associated illustrations are what drive the heart of any story.
 
And so, she wants to see how skilled the artist is at doing the thing that will be required the most.
 
And that is where our interviewing techniques go wrong; we are always asking about the dragon fight. What was your most significant achievement? Tell me about a time you overcame adversity? Please share with us some of the "fireworks" moments of your career.
 
We never ask about the truly important things; we don't really ask about how they handle day-to-day activities, we don't focus on their ability to skillfully complete the mundane tasks that make up internal audit, we don't attempt to find if they exhibit the attributes that drive the process forward. Ultimately, we don't determine if they have the skill to take the mundane and make it something more than average. (I'm not even looking for great or grandiose here; I'm looking for the ability to rise above the mediocre.)
 
Now, I haven't put a lot of thought into this, but here are a few ideas of the kind of questions I mean. "What was the most boring audit you were a part of? What about it was boring and how did you rise to that challenge?" "What was the simplest audit you conducted?" "What work was behind the most important effective opinion audit you conducted?" And one that really gets to the heart of it: "How do you handle the tedious days?"
 
Again, these are just off the top of my head and I am not saying they are ready for prime time. But they do represent an attempt to try getting a better understanding of how potential candidates actually do their work.
 
Don't get me wrong – I don't want drones out there, I don't want tic and tie auditors who cannot do more than plod along, I don't want green eyeshades and hand-cranked adding machines. But I do want people who are skilled at the basic skills we require. And then I want creativity.
 
And note that these questions also serve the purposes I discussed in my previous post. I'm willing to bet there isn't a question here the interviewee is prepared for. And they will be thrown by the approach as they try to figure out how to turn a discussion of everyday activities into the chance to talk about that great example they already have prepared. And that is when you will know you've got a good auditor – when they don't try and turn that drawing of a conversation into a dragon fight; they will just show you what you really asked for – insight into how good they are at doing the real job.
 
And an interesting side note: I've kind of answered the question Ms. Kesel posed in the title of her presentation. Where do ideas come from? They come from anywhere; you just have to pay attention.

Posted on May 12, 2014 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Mike,  In my most recent set of interviews, I began focusing on "what I care about" and making sure to ask questions about that.  For example, I am not a great relationship builder, so I made sure to ask questions of my candidates to find people who are.  And I have now hired two people who excel in that area.  I applied the same logic to the more technical areas, but you get the idea.  If you need/ want/ gotta have a tic and tie auditor, SAP expert, manufacturing reporting guru, whatever, I found it was really useful to structure the interview around those points.  Especially in this time when we as a profession are hiring people with varied backgrounds, talking about what we care about makes sure we have diversity of perspectives and talents, but the same purpose and values.

  1. Michael,

    Some very good suggestions.  In particular, I really like your approach of trying to fill the gaps that exist in your own make up.  One of the bigger problems in internal audit is that we hire ourselves, and I think that is part of why we keep getting the same results.  I believe that is why everyone has so much trouble creating creative audit departments - the bosses aren't creative, so they don't hire creative people.  (My problem went the other way - sometimes I focused so much on creativity I missed the need to get things done.)  By recognizing the shortcomings of the department (and the leader), then hiring to fill those gaps, the result is a much more well-rounded department.

    Mike

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