Search executives asked Mr. Stevenson many open-ended questions, such as “How would people describe you?” and “What is your biggest weakness?” However, he doesn’t view such questions as unfair or deceptive and says the recruiters he was introduced to were “particularly straightforward.”
Executives at his level should be able to answer just about any question that’s pitched to them, he says. It’s crucial to know yourself well and present yourself honestly when interviewing, says Mr. Stevenson. Otherwise, while you may convince an employer to hire you, you won’t be suited for the job or enjoy it.
His biggest weakness? “Not getting the balance right between family, leisure and the rest of it,” he says. “At senior-executive levels, we tend to have an on-off switch. I don’t know if we’re very good at balance.”
A Manager’s View
But Phil Timm, division manager, AT&T Solutions, in Florham Park, N.J., says an unexpected question is by definition a curveball. He’s been on the receiving end of more than a few from recruiters and, as a hiring manager, likes to ask them himself.
“It’s a curveball because you’re throwing them off the rehearsed interview process,” says Mr. Timm, 53. “Candidates come in here thinking they’ll just get standard questions, so the idea is to throw them a curve because that’s what happens in business.”
Mr. Stevenson says he doesn’t do much advance preparation for interviews with recruiters, especially when the meeting is an introduction. If he’s being interviewed for a specific job, he’ll do research on the company, he says. When he’s met with recruiters in the past, Mr. Timm says he prepared thoroughly by reviewing books and material on the Internet about interviewing. A half-hour before his meetings, he made a point of relaxing and not thinking about the interview. “The best impression you can make is that you’re composed, you have answers and you trust your accomplishments and communication skills will effectively convey your abilities,” he says.
One question he views as particularly tricky is “Are you the right person for this job?” Answering is difficult because even if you aren’t suited for a position, “you want to say yes, and people would tell you to say yes,” Mr. Timm says. “I’ve said, ‘I would like to know more, I certainly have the talent but would have to explore it,’ ” he says.
The following are some tips from executives and recruiters themselves on fielding their unexpected questions:
Know what the meeting is for. An interview with an executive recruiter is typically different from a meeting with an actual hiring manager. Some recruiters schedule meetings just to introduce themselves to a top executive. But if a specific opportunity is being discussed, recruiters want to learn about your intangibles — if you would fit the company’s culture, get along with your future boss and colleagues and so on. “My goal is to get the candidate in a free-form discussion — to understand how he thinks,” says Mr. Martin.
Understand yourself. To honestly demonstrate who you are and how you think, you must have good insight into your values, interests, temperament and motivators. When you know what you enjoy and motivates you professionally, you’ll provide unforced answers that indicate whether you’d be a good fit. “It’s in your best interest to let the recruiter know what you like and what kind of organization you’d thrive in,” says Mr. Stevenson.
Think before you answer. Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head. Pause for five or 10 seconds or longer before offering your response. “If I don’t get an immediate response, it tells me I’ve asked a worthwhile question,” says Mr. McSherry. “I’ve forced a candidate to think a little bit.”
Consider the underlying intent to the question. Every query is designed in some way to relate to the opening and whether you would be a good hire, says Mr. Martin. “They always relate to the search,” he says. “What I ask depends on what the company is looking for and is tailored to the assignment and cultural fit of the company.”
Realize you don’t have to respond. Sometimes the right answer is “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an opinion,” says Mr. Timm. “People who have an answer for everything often have the wrong answer for everything,” he says, “so sometimes it’s OK to take a step back and say you’d like to think about something.”