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There is a distinct difference between interviewing a candidate who has a formal leadership role and those candidates who do not.

When a candidate has reached a position of formal leadership, their technical skills become relatively less important to their ongoing success. The critical factor that has the candidate consistently deliver high performance in a leadership position is, overwhelmingly, their competency in establishing and developing effective relationships. Unless a leader can use relationship building and influencing skills to get things done through others, he or she will fail at their job, regardless of how well they may perform in other parts of their job.

Consider the four primary types of work relationships a leader typically has that tests that leader’s influencing capability:

  • The person(s) who report to them
  • The person they report to
  • Their internal peers
  • External stakeholders (including customers/clients, suppliers etc)

A resume is, in almost all cases, spectacularly ineffective at helping a  recruiter understand just how competent the candidate is at leadership, compared to exercising bureaucratic power, which is done through having a job that includes one of ‘chief’, ‘director’, ‘manager’ or ‘leader’  somewhere in the title.

Gary Hamel and Polly LaBarre explain this distinction brilliantly in their Harvard Business Review article from last month, How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge   (HBR, 2013)

“…too many leadership experts still fail to distinguish between the practice of leadership and the exercise of bureaucratic power. In order to engage in a conversation about leadership, you have to assume you have no power — that you aren’t ‘in charge’ of anything and that you can’t sanction those who are unwilling to do your bidding. If, given this starting point, you can mobilize others and accomplish amazing things, then you’re a leader. If you can’t, well then, you’re a bureaucrat.”

If you want to be a recruiter who can consistently identify a genuine leader from a bureaucrat then you will need to be using a range of behavioural interview questions to uncover the relevant evidence.

Here’s a selection of behavioural interview questions I suggest you consider using when interviewing a candidate who is in, or aspires to, a leadership role to enable you to distinguish a real leader  from a  bureaucrat:

Questions for people in a formal leadership role:

  1. Describe an instance where you have been required to set specific  goals for your team. What methods or techniques did you use to ensure that your team understood goals that they were working towards? What was the outcome?
  2. Sometimes we develop a vision or a strategy that does not always meet everybody’s expectations. Can you tell me about a time where you encountered resistance from key stakeholders? What did you do?
  3. Describe an instance where you needed to involve your team in making a decision. How did you decide what information to share, which would assist them in achieving their goals?
  4. Open communication and sharing of ideas is integral to running a successful team. How have you encouraged team communication and the sharing of relevant information in the past? Which techniques have you found to be most helpful?
  5. What was the most recent important project that you delegated to a person or a team? What did you do to ensure that the person or the team would be successful?
  6. Describe a time you disagreed with an important decision made by your boss. How did you communicate this disagreement? What was the outcome?
  7. What up-line relationship do you regard as the most successful of your career? Why? What did you do to make that relationship so successful?
  8. What sorts of things have you done to motivate others to demonstrate the company’s vision and values?

Questions to help understand leadership capabilities, regardless of position title:

  1. Getting people from outside your work area to cooperate often requires them to commit time for your benefit. Tell me about a time when you asked someone outside of your work area to commit time for your benefit. What did you say to gain their cooperation
  2. Successful partnerships promote value for both parties. Describe a time when you have worked to clarify mutual benefits with another organisation, department or team.
  3. Successful external partnerships often depend on support from internal stakeholders. Tell me about a time when you obtained commitment from others within your organisation to support an external partnership.
  4. Tell me about a time when you used networking at an industry conference or event to initiate a relationship that then turned into valuable business for you or your company. What steps did you take to convert that prospect into a customer?
  5. Often we need to sell the benefits of a particular project or plan before it has any chance of getting off the ground. Describe a time when you had to demonstrate the benefits of a plan or idea to gain someone’s commitment. What happened?
  6. Have you ever worked with others to develop new and innovative ways to solve problems? What were they and how did you do it?
  7. Can you think of a time when you were required to partner with someone on an important project/assignment, where their goals and objectives were quite different from your own? How did you go about managing the relationship? How successful was the outcome?
  8. Detail a time when team morale was at a low. How did you restore the spirit of the team? What was the result?
  9. When working as part of a team, we sometimes find ourselves having to work with difficult team members to accomplish team goals. How have you managed conflict with a fellow team member in the past? What did you do or say? What was the outcome?
  10. Have you ever noticed someone on the team doing things that were inconsistent with your company’s values? What did you do?

Are the candidates you are referring for leadership roles real leaders or merely ladder-climbing bureaucrats, and where’s your evidence?


Related articles:  

Interview questions to avoid and what to ask instead

Why You Should Use Behavioural Event Interviewing

Personalities don’t conflict – people have communication issues

Lessons in Business Leadership: Gordon Ramsay


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