Curiosity: Your Most Valuable Interviewing Asset

Rubiks CatNote: The following post is by a friend and former colleague of mine, Jon Matejcek.  Jon is President of Dashe & Thomson, a Minneapolis-based firm that provides training and communication services for Fortune 1000 firms.  He is unusually wise…

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to interview dozens of smart and experienced job candidates.  It seems to me that college graduates and early-career job candidates  get better every year at rounding-out their limited experience with relevant internships, volunteer positions, and coursework.

One thing that never seems to change, however, and that I continually find surprising and disappointing:  most people are tremendously bad at interviewing.

It’s not because they aren’t good at selling their qualifications; it’s fairly easy – and common – to list one’s strengths and experience. And, most interviewees do a serviceable job of it.

The trouble is, most people lack what I have concluded may be the single most important attribute for an interviewee: the inclination – even compulsion – to ask questions.  Put simply, the best interviewees are curious.

Just to clarify, I’m not just talking about getting information, or even active listening – although those are essential starting points. Active and critical listening skills are imperative, as my friend Phil (this blog’s owner) writes in this post from last year: Don’t Get Lost in Translation.

Why is curiosity so important?  Because curiosity leads to genuine, two-way conversation – and conversation is required to make a human connection.

If you’re not engaged in a conversation with your interviewer, you’re performing a sort of monologue, which can quickly become the equivalent of what salespeople call “selling features.”  This approach leaves your interviewer no choice but to rigidly evaluate your qualifications, (or “feature-set” in procurement terms) head-to-head against your competition.

Of course, the trouble with the head-to-head comparison is that there’s almost always a competing candidate with a better feature-set than yours.  Think about it realistically: chances are good that your competition includes at least one person who is smarter, more experienced, less expensive, better looking, or all four.  If you haven’t engaged the interviewer in a conversation, you’re allowing yourself to be lumped in with all those amazing, hard-working, gorgeous candidates.

So, your job is to completely derail this cold, hard, objective evaluation. Your job is to actually connect with your interviewer.

Everyone knows that it’s a good idea to come to an interview prepared for the inevitable moment when the interviewer asks, “So, do you have any questions?”  This is a pivotal moment in the interview.  When this moment arrives, remember these three rules:

  1. This must not be the first question you’ve asked up to this point in the interview.  If you haven’t asked one yet, you’re not engaged in a conversation with your interviewer, you’re performing  monologues.
  2. Your first question must not be about details like job duties, titles, or even reporting structure.  These questions are about you.  At this point, the interviewer is tired of talking about – and listening to – you.  (It should go without saying that questions about compensation and benefits are completely out of the question at this point).
  3. Finally, the most important rule:  You must ask a question to which you genuinely want to know the answer.  In short, ask a question that satisfies your curiosity.

That’s great, you might be thinking, but genuine curiosity can’t be manufactured. And it’s true, it’s hard to fake curiosity – either you really want to know something, or you don’t.  In fact, it’s entirely possible (even likely) that you are not genuinely curious about the company you’re interviewing for.

What you are more likely curious about – at least to some degree – is people. How do I know?  Because everyone is curious about people. This is why we gossip.  And, it is the fundamental truth behind the alarming proliferation of wildly successful reality TV shows in recent years.

This natural curiosity about people is handy for you, of course, because there’s a person sitting right in front of you during your job interview.

Of course, a job interview is not the time to satisfy the same prurient curiosity that drives your guilty attraction to reality TV (you’ll have to wait til you get the job to find out what makes this person cry like a baby, for example).

There are, however, a wide range of questions available to you that make you sound both smart and personally engaged at the same time.

Let’s say, for example, that the company you’re interviewing with has just announced that it is merging with, or acquiring, another company.  Here are two possible lines of questioning:

Questions you think you should ask because they make you sound smart
(But that everyone is asking)

Questions that you’ll want to ask because they’re personal
(and sound smart at the same time)

What impact do you think the merger might have on company growth? What are you most worried about as the merger becomes more imminent?
What competitive advantages will the company gain as a result of the merger? What impact do you think the merger might have on your career?
Which departmental functions will be most affected by the merger? When you started in this business, did you ever think you’d be facing a situation like this?

Sure, questions about company strategy, market conditions, and industry trends are fine.  In fact, all your competitors came prepared with a tidy list of questions like this.  But it’s much better to ask the less obvious questions – those driven by your natural curiosity about people.

Just in case you’re wondering about the power of personal connection and relationships in business, this excerpt from Harvard Business Review sums up why relationships are so important in sales (and after all, a job interview is really just a special kind of sales call):

People do business with people they know and like. That means a sales call is a success if it … builds the relationship, not just if it closes a transaction.  This won’t be news to most salespeople, who excel at building relationships. What can be hard for many sales people is turning the ongoing conversation of a relationship into a [sale].  The good news is that transactions [sales] often happen as a matter of course when sales teams focus on building great relationships …

So, try it during your next job interview.  Don’t be afraid to satisfy your natural curiosity by asking about something really interesting: the person sitting right in front of you.  You will immediately set yourself apart from your job-seeking competition, and might even start making a friend in the process.

For more on interviewing, check out the interviewing series here: http://www.phils-career-blog.com/topics/

2 thoughts on “Curiosity: Your Most Valuable Interviewing Asset

  1. It is so true that interviewing is similar to the sales process. You need to take the opportunity to build rapport, establish and understand the employers need, and focus on how you can be the answer to that need.

    The bottom line is, you have something to sell (yourself, your skills, abilities, qualities etc), and the employer is your buyer. You have to convince them that the benefits they will receive from hiring you are worth it. Rather than “feature dumping” all of your experiences and training, you should take the opportunity to ask questions about the company and find out what makes the employer tick, why they are trying to fill the position, and so on… Once you have established the situation and the problem they are trying to solve, you can begin to connect your skills and experiences as resolutions to those problems.

  2. You are absolutely right but I am sure the reason interviewees don’t ask questions is that they don’t want to mess things up with one question they shouldn’t have asked. At least that was my personal experience. I have never valued asking questions in interviews till after reading this. It shows that you are pretty much interested in the company which is a tangible and a positive attitude.

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