“Do you have any questions for us?”
It’s usually the last question in a interview, and for many job seekers, one of the toughest — but it’s also rich with opportunity. Good questions will not only seek information but also reveal the candidate’s insight and intelligence, depth of research into the prospective employer, and enthusiasm for the position.
Echoing the thoughts of several CFOs we spoke with, Lawrence Winkler of Washington, D.C.-based InPhonic Inc. maintains, “The most impressive interviewee is one who is prepared and has researched the company.”
Melissa Cruz, CFO of Waltham, Massachusetts-based BladeLogic, certainly took note when one young staff accountant asked, “Since BladeLogic intends to go public in the next year, how are you handling the valuation of stock options relative to cheap stock rules and 409A?” Less important than the answer and follow-up (the company is using an independent contemporaneous valuation) was the question itself, explains Cruz, who was impressed “he knew that this is a hot topic in my world, even though he had only been working in accounting for two years.”
Sometimes sheer assertiveness and ambition can win over a finance chief. “Please tell me what things I will need to accomplish over the next few years so I will be capable of taking over your job,” said one prospective hire to Jeff Marcus, CFO of public-relations firm Hill & Knowlton. The delivery, says Marcus, “was not cocky at all. He was just matter-of-factly letting me know that he felt, with his background and potential, that it was not an option for him not to be in [the top finance role] in five years.”
Take heart: Good questions don’t need to be so detailed, complex, or daring. “It’s definitely a red flag if a candidate doesn’t have good questions,” says finance recruiter Michael Kelly of Highland Partners, but it’s perfectly OK to do without the more unusual queries. Dan Hedeen of Portland, Oregon-based Harry’s Fresh Foods is one finance chief we spoke with who didn’t recall any questions by job seekers that “made me ponder anything special.” Hedeen focuses simply on candidates who themselves are focused on the conversation: “If they don’t have questions, then they aren’t attentive, and it certainly does not show initiative.”
Some standard but nonetheless effective questions, suggests Kelly, include:
• “What would be the top three priorities for this position?”
• “How would you define success in this position for the next person who holds it?”
• What did the last to hold this position do well? Where was that person less successful?
• “What organizational values are emphasized in this company?” (Winkler of InPhonic recalls a more detailed question in that vein: “Does the company embrace Sarbanes-Oxley as a compliance effort or as an opportunity for process improvement?”)
Remember that “a good interview is a dialogue,” says Kelly. Often good questions aren’t prepared in advance; they arise from the interview itself. Questions that have impressed Tim Mullany, CFO of the Connecticut-based Mystic Aquarium Institute for Exploration, “are almost always derived from a problem given to them in a ‘case interview.’ For me, if a candidate demonstrates creative problem solving by asking questions that efficiently progress towards the solution, I am impressed.”
A good question can even breathe new life into an interview that’s not going well, observes Donald Janezic, senior vice president of finance and administration for Fairfield, Connecticut-based Bigelow Tea. “When a candidate has sufficient insight to see that an interview is going south,” says Janezic, “the question, ‘What areas of my background need further development in order for me to be seriously considered?’ is always impressive. It can help to reopen the discussion.”