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  • John Chambers, PhD

Interviews and Seuss -- Mutual Transparency

And Sally and I did not know what to say.

Should we tell her

The things that went on there that day?

Should we tell her about it?

Now, what should we do?


What would you do

If your mother asked you?

Theodore Seuss Geisel

The Cat in the Hat

When all hell broke loose in the kids' house, the Cat made last minute amends, picking up his mess in the nick of time. If only it were that easy to fix business and IT problems. More challenging than the mess was the narrator's and sister's predicament -- do we tell Mom?

When interviewing a potential employee, learn as well as test:

What should we do?

The candidate is sitting there because we have problems to solve. And we want that person to solve them. But oftentimes, based on my many observations as interviewer and interviewee, the 60 minutes flies by, with not enough depth of analysis, on either side.

There's much advice out there on how to answer the standard questions, and most candidates have rehearsed their responses:

How did you deal with an ornery employee?

And what is your proudest success?

Can you tell us of your management style,

How to resolve conflict more or less...?

Getting through the first or second gate depends on passing HR's first-round question packet. Those questions are tried and true methods of assessing demeanor and style. Any employee engagement or new position won't be a "fit" without mutual understanding. Interviewer and interviewee seek that intangible comfort level -- can this person acclimate to our culture? Of course if you need to change the culture, then the question is whether this person can adapt to the present, and help evolve it.

But is your candidate ready to address your present headaches, real headaches -- what to do right now?

A while back a company had major issues with a couple of remote sites. The problems were scattered about the environment like the bedlam in Seuss' poem. From unwieldy technology stacks to IT process absence. Remote customers were unhappy, customers' customers were unhappy. As applications bounced up and down like the Cat's buddies -- Thing 1 and Thing 2 -- the corporate reputation was being affected. The scenarios were unceremoniously dropped before me in the interview, while I was expecting the throw-away, "What about our company excites you?"

I was struck by the CEO's transparency.

This was the head of the company, completely open, and needing fixes. He did not reveal trade secrets. He was not disrespecting his people nor his firm; in fact, he was glowing in his assessment of the firm's talent. But they needed help. If everything was ideal I would not have been invited to the conversation, so he let it all hang out.

While his challenges were profuse, he articulated as expected -- with professionalism but longstanding, waning patience.

On some of the anecdotes, he went granular; in others he spoke strategically.

The discussion was lively, animated and I learned from it. And he wanted to learn from me -- not just on whether I was the right 'fixer' but whether he could immediately use my insights for his firm. He sought value from the interview, whether or not I was invited back.

We spoke of the actions and reactions that had resulted in... well, no results.

I asked of culture, of execution, of technical depth and technical debt. "We tried this," he answered frequently. Or he said, "Well, that aspect is under control." Yet those were the opportunities, the clues for me to formulate an approach, a roadmap and execution plan. He was respectful -- to me and to his team -- awaiting a structured, feasible and experienced way forward.

Not for some fictitious company or prior experience of mine, but rather for here and now.

He paused. Then it came.

"So what would you do?"

Every single firm worth its salt has a maturity assessment, gap analysis, and tactical plan. There's little differentiation there.

"What would you do" is about credibility, your candidate having thoughtfully heard everything that was just articulated, weaving each pain point that arose from the story into a journey of betterment.

It's arresting because on the one hand these broad IT/Business issues aren't ripe for the Cat's multi-handed, speedy clean-up vehicle. They are steeped in changing a culture, and operational model.

How many years did you consult at...? What languages were your team's programming...? What Agile framework was being used...? What service provider contracts did you negotiate...?

Those are table stakes in qualifying for the interview.

And it's understandable that table stakes include the technical weeds. If your dev team is going to make an app, then the dev team better dev. And years of experience count for a lot. The history counts for a lot.

But even in the technical trenches, for those who seek a scrum master or a purchasing manager or operations head, "What would you do?" can elicit a rapid understanding of the candidates' ability to listen and manage. Are they structured in articulation? Could they see both forest and trees?

Whether seeking an executive or technician, you want someone who knows a way, or ways, forward. You want problem solvers, no matter where they are on the corporate ladder. You want someone who's going to start problem-solving right before your eyes!

I'll assume that you are not disclosing trade secrets or subscription costs of your most recent cloud agreement I assume you can speak about the current state without divulging anything that would be used negatively.

The best candidates will, in turn, ask questions that will help refine the problem set. The conversation seeks credibility for the here and now, about what they would do with the here and now. Learn from your employee candidates.

Did they address today's obstacles?

Was something said that could be tried?

Was the discussion an interrogation?

It's better if used as a guide.

Learn from your candidates or providers, even if their services are declined. You and they took time out of the day -- time that should help you and them profit from problem-solving, give-and-take.

As interviewer, your professional and reasonable transparency will lead to transparency from the candidate.

"So what would you do?"

For the kids in Seuss' poem, the question makes for an unsettling dilemma.

And when it was delivered to me, it was always the hardest one to answer.


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