Favorite Questions of Executive Recruiters

Helpful hints for hitting a curveball out of the park.

“If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” TV journalist Barbara Walters was widely ridiculed after she asked Katherine Hepburn this airy question during a prime time television interview.

If you sit down to an interview with an executive recruiter, it’s likely you won’t enjoy such a softball question. But you may be asked something equally unexpected that you can’t easily prepare for in advance.

All recruiters like to ask unusual queries in hope that you’ll respond spontaneously and they’ll learn something about your character and how you’ll fit into an employer’s corporate culture. Behind each question is a motive — something the recruiter is trying to learn about you. Yet if you take their questions at face value and don’t think about what the recruiter really wants to gauge, your answer could trip up your candidacy.

Curveballs are tricky, because, like Ms. Walters’ tree question, there’s no right response. (By the way, Ms. Hepburn said “oak.”) Can you prepare for them? Not really, says Chicago recruiter Ted Martin, founder and chief executive officer of Martin Partners LLC. “That’s why they’re good questions. It shows how you think on your feet.” Besides, he adds, candidates shouldn’t be prepared for every question. “If you’re ready for all of them, you’re running a process, versus showing how you think,” he says.

Anatomy of a Question

Mr. Martin says his favorite question to ask candidates is, “If you had to do it all over again, what would your career choice be and why?” If a candidate answers that he or she is in the right career, Mr. Martin follows up with, “Has your career progress met your expectations? Why or why not?”

Regardless of the answer — whether the candidate has met all of his or her expectations or would have chosen another career — Mr. Martin says he gains a surprising amount of insight into how the person thinks. “It’s just an insight gainer,” he says. “It wouldn’t knock them out of the running.”

Is it fair to call such a question a curveball? That implies that the batter — you — can’t hit it. But recruiters want you to be able to answer their favorite queries, says Jim McSherry, managing partner of McSherry & Associates in Westchester, Ill. Those who know themselves and are confident about their abilities will respond with composure to whatever they’re asked and aren’t bothered by questions they can’t anticipate, he says. That in itself says something about a candidate.

Mr. McSherry’s favorite question? “If I were to talk with the people who know you best, how would they describe you?” By answering it, candidates usually give him a thorough self-assessment based on what others have told them, Mr. McSherry says. “It summarizes and confirms what I’ve learned about them during the time we’ve been talking.”

Self-Knowledge Is Key

Larry Stevenson, CEO of The Pep Boys, a 600-plus automotive and aftermarket retail store and service chain based in Philadelphia, met with between eight and 10 search firms while determining his next career step. Mr. Stevenson, 47, began looking for a new assignment after selling Chapters, Canada’s largest bookseller, in 2001, and taking a year’s hiatus. He started his Pep Boys job in May.


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