What Are the Best Interview Questions to Identify Leadership Potential?

Question In my role as a Consultant focused on recruiting, coaching and developing Leaders, I think I know a good Leader when I see (i.e. get to know) one. This super-power comes from a combination of my experiences – I’ve worked with several great Leaders and I’ve also had exposure to some pretty bad ones too – and the formal and informal training that I’ve received throughout my career.

However, sometimes for me – and I’ve certainly seen it with hiring managers and clients – it’s hard to guard against that “gut feel” you get when you just know that someone has what it takes to be a successful leader. In short, we’ve all fallen victim to the “I just like ’em” syndrome that almost never is a predictor of actual results.

Recently, Dan McCarthy shared Three Questions for Potential Managers to Ask Themselves over on his blog Great Leadership. While the three questions Dan posed are good ones an aspiring leader should ponder before pursuing a managerial role (“Why do I want to be a Manager?”, “Do I have what it takes to be successful?” and “What do I want to become?”), I found the listing he shared of predictors of leadership success to be of particular interest. Here’s a snippet from Dan’s post:

We know there are certain skills and attributes that can be demonstrated in a non-managerial role, that if done well, are predictors of managerial success. For example, Development Dimensions International (DDI) has developed a set of criteria that they say will accurately predict executive success, based on their own experience and research, and research by others.

According to DDI, the “right stuff” for future managerial success includes:

  1. Propensity to lead. They step up to leadership opportunities
  2. They bring out the best in others
  3. Authenticity. They have integrity, admit mistakes, and don’t let their egos get in their way
  4. Receptivity to feedback. They seek out and welcome feedback
  5. Learning agility
  6. Adaptability. Adaptability reflects a person’s skill at juggling competing demands and adjusting to new situations and people. A keyhere is maintaining an unswerving, “can do” attitude in the face ofchange
  7. Navigates ambiguity. This trait enables people to simplify complex issues and make decisions without having all the facts
  8. Conceptual thinking. Like great chess players and baseball managers,the best leaders always have the big picture in mind. Their ability to think two, three, or more moves ahead is what separates them from competitors
  9. Cultural fit
  10. Passion for results

Try assessing yourself against this list of criteria. Better yet, ask your manager and others to assess you. If you’re lacking in any key areas, that’s OK – most of these things can be improved with awareness, practice, and feedback. Other management skills are learned and mastered once in the role and with experience.

While I think most would agree that no checklist of characteristics will be a 100% predictor of future success as a Leader, I like using this approach as a starting point for both individual assessment and for developing some interview questions when selecting individuals for leadership roles. I can think of several ways to get at these qualities through the ever popular “Tell me about a time..” behavioral interviewing questions, but I’m not a big fan of interviews that rely solely upon those types of questions – especially with non-skilled interviewers.

I’m interested in your feedback and ideas in regards to the questions that you ask candidates, or have been asked as a candidate, to identify potential for success as a Leader. What questions would you suggest asking in an interview to assess the leadership qualities listed above?

Hit me in the Comments section with the best questions that either you are asking or have heard and let’s do some crowd-sourcing to come up with a great list. And it’s o.k. to share your best “Tell me about a time…” questions too – just be sure to use them wisely.

Question Mark uploaded by Marco Belluco

President & Chief Talent Strategist

Jennifer McClure is a Keynote Speaker, Talent Strategies Expert and Executive Coach who works with clients and companies in the areas of leadership development, communication and talent strategy. Jennifer McClure offers keynotes, workshops and training that inspire and empower business leaders to be more effective in their careers and as leaders of their organization’s most valuable resource – people.

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19 thoughts on “What Are the Best Interview Questions to Identify Leadership Potential?

  1. I think asking them to define words like Excellence, Authenticity, and Perseverance. Looking for answers that are under the surface and maybe inspiring. Leaders need to see the world with different eyes and not just 1’s and 0’s. Answers that show where there character lies and how they might few people.

  2. I think that you can tell a lot about leaders through some of things that they have tried but did not work. My question would be: Tell me about a goal that you did not meet. What happened and what did you learn? Sorry, but I’m from the “old school” Behavioral questions! 🙂

  3. When it comes to identifying effective leaders I like for candidates to explain their leadership accomplishments. What are your leadership accomplishments in your last position and why? Tell me about a time when you had to motivate or empower others to accomplish an organizational goal and what was the result? Leadership to me is helping others or an organization in reaching their best potential. I like to hear stories where leaders had success in empowering or leading others and stories where leaders learned from their mistakes.

  4. I’ve noticed that quite a few folks think they are good to great at leading others….and reality is, maybe – maybe not.
    Using a behavioral assessment we can identify a candidates’ desire or willingness to lead, responsibility, empathy, etc… But still, whether they are good at leading… I think basically comes from the people they have lead.
    I have also been asked about using “styles” leadership assessments during the hiring process, which is something that should not be done. The problem being, successful and unsuccessful people often have the same styles!

  5. I would try some version of the following:
    Define Leadership.
    Describe the most effective leader you have ever encountered. What behaviors did you see that made them effective?
    What characteristics do you share in common with this leader? How would I know this to be true if I was a fly on the wall?
    How are you different from this leader that you described?
    I enjoyed Dan’s post this week and would use the “right stuff” criteria as a filter through which to view their answers. Thanks for making me think through this topic!

  6. IMO, what passes for “leadership” these days is largely a big paycheck coupled with a law degree, a thesaurus, and a designated fall guy. “Leadership” has become a joke in the American corporation. That said, here are the questions I’d ask of a potential “leader”. Cheers.
    Which is more important, the caliber of Executive Leadership within an organization or the caliber of the people within the organization?
    Would you be willing to take a 40% pay cut before laying off underlings?
    Do you support overseas outsourcing as a long term business strategy?
    Have you ever worked on Wall Street?
    Do you believe that corporations have simply become places for individuals to avoid personal responsibility for decisions which negatively impact large numbers of people?
    If you had to personally sign off and publish a list of every decision you make, would you take this job?

  7. How often have you had to let people go?
    If a frequent thing follow up with: is it because they failed? Because the recruitment process failed? Or did you fail as a leader?
    A leader needs to know when she/he is failing so corrective action can be taken. Anyone who answers yes to the last question is potentially a good leader if a lesson was learned.

  8. @Jared – I like your approach of seeking answers to how the person thinks in terms of character traits.
    @Bonita – Since I know you’re a skilled interviewer, you get a pass on starting your questions with “tell me about a time…” but I encourage you to think of new ways to ask a similar question. As you’ve probably seen, more and more candidates are creating “canned” answers to the behavioral interview questions that are becoming as standard as the old favorites – What are your strengths/weaknesses?
    @Matt – Great idea to get candidates to tell stories. Skilled interviewers can uncover additional areas to pursue in questioning by listening well to these.
    @Garrick – Thanks for stopping by! I like your compare and explain approach. A good way to the answers you’re interested in while getting the candidate to think about them in a different way.
    @Reality Check – you mentioned on Twitter that I’d be surprised by your answers. 🙂 Actually, I think you’re on to something with a couple of your questions. For example, if the core values of a company included humility, “people-first”, etc. types of values, asking a candidate if they’d be willing to take a pay cut before laying off underlings could be a great question to identify if the person is the right cultural fit. So I think you’re on to something here…
    @Lyndsay – Thanks for commenting both here and on Facebook! I’m an assessment junkie myself and love to take them/use them any chance I get. As you’ve pointed out though, it’s important to use the right types of assessments for the situation at hand, and not all are appropriate to use in the hiring process. That can be fun to explain to clients at times who insist on using their favorite assessments that aren’t good predictors of future performance in the role they are hiring for!
    @Doug – I really like your question and agree that a potentially great answer could be to admit to a personal failure, but share what was learned. We’re all human and have failures. Sometimes sharing them wisely and appropriately in the interview process can be very effective.
    @Rob – You’ve mentioned one of my favorite questions to ask in an interview – the tell me about the best boss you’ve ever had and why question. I also ask them to explain the flip side – worst boss. I find that I get really good information from candidates by asking them to pick an actual individual they’ve worked with and to explain their answers versus getting the standard – I don’t like to be micro-managed – which I believe every single person in the world would say to “tell me how you like to be managed” question. I’ve yet to meet a candidate who says – “I LOVE to be micro-managed!”
    @Joe – kinda sneaky approach – but I like it! 🙂
    @Karen – Lou Adler (www.adlerconcepts.com) refers to your project question the “one question performance-based interview”. He advocates asking this one question and then having the candidate really, really flesh out their answer while listening for many of the things you’ve mentioned. A good strategy – but does require a skilled interviewer to keep the candidate talking since they’re typically trained to give short answers. I think your integrity question is a good one too. Thanks!

  9. Great topic! One of my favorites is to ask the candidate “what accomplishment are you most proud of?” The answers can give a great insight into the core of the individual. For example, I had a 41 year old candidate tell me he was most proud of his high school baseball accomplishments. Another that I genuinely loved (no sarcasm), was the guy who told me he was very proud that he did not give the finger to the driver that cut him off on his way to the interview.
    Another that I really like is “tell me about your favorite boss, teacher, etc… and then ask why they are their favorite?” This tells me how they like to be led, and odds are, how they will lead.
    Ultimately, leading is easy when the “P” in P&L is rocking, manpower is near or at target, turnover is low, and the “C-Suite” is smiling and telling jokes. The key is getting to how they will respond in times of adversity. I think rapport, rapport, rapport is the key!! If you have not done so, read Jennifer’s article,-“What Would Happen If Goldilocks Interviewed At Your Company?” Hopefully, you will not see yourself in her story!

  10. Hi Jennifer, I’d ask a candidate about their strengths and later on in the interview ask “Can you tell me what attributes a good leader has.” Then evaluate from both ?’s if that candidate’s answers have synergy. If they do, you just might have a good leader. Joe

  11. Most candidates are prepared to describe accomplishments, so (similar to Bonita’s comment), I like to ask leadership candidates to describe a project or assignment that failed. I’m interested in learning to what extent they take responsibility for the failure, as well as what they learned from it. I also like to ask them how they model integrity. The answers can provide some real insight to how the individual operates.

  12. Thanks for adding some good questions Andy – and also pointing out that a good manager and good “leader” may be two different things. I agree with your assessment. You may also be interested in Wally Bock’s point of view (he definitely has one) on the matter in his post today: “More Leaders vs Managers Nonsense” http://is.gd/1CbNL He makes some great points as well!

  13. 1) “If I called one of your colleagues or peers right now, what would they tell me about you?” A variation may be, “If I asked one of your colleagues for a one sentence description of you, what would they tell me?” Knowing that it’s not what they say about themselves but what others say about them, you could also review their LinkedIn profile for recommendations or do some cold calling based on colleagues you’ll find of theirs on LinkedIn.
    2) What good books have you read lately? What books are on your recommended reading list to others? Why have you selected these books?
    3) Every great leader is a great follower. Who do you follow, and why?
    I’m not going to expound on why I would ask these. Hopefully it’s obvious that these are conversation starters and can quickly reveal character and behavior patterns while providing a path to dig deeper. The leader will probably totally engage you in this conversation and quickly pick up on why you’ve asked these questions.
    At the risk of being picky, the post says, “an aspiring leader should ponder before pursuing a managerial role.” Traits of a good leader and a good manager could be different, and you may or may not find both sets of traits in one person. The risk is that a good manager may be defined by his or her boss and may positively affect the company’s bottom line and may get all the promotions and recognition for doing so while leaving a disgruntled group of top performers in his/her wake. Average performers probably don’t care. A good leader is defined by his or her followers.

  14. Great post by Bock! Thanks for pointing that out. A quick reflection of my experiences tells me more folks in managerial roles have some conscious work to do to improve their leadership ability.
    And, as a counter to Wally’s point, sometimes leadership skills are not necessary in managerial roles, because sometimes organizations simply don’t care. Now that’s an entirely different issue with its own outcomes. But I’m guessing we’ve all seen it.

  15. The question to ask the hiring manager is “What keeps you awake at night?” Now you have made an opportunity to address his needs with detailed stories of your accomplishments. Tell me what manager won’t be interested in your responses.

  16. That’s a great question Paul! I used it recently at the beginning of a consulting engagement with a CEO. His response framed the nature of the engagement and helped me to know what the true measure of success with our project would be. When he can sleep at night, I’ve done my job!

  17. Nothing to worry or get nervous, just be confident and never tell any lie.. answer what you know.. are the first principles while attending an Interview. I had lot of experience in this area, so collected a big list of interview questions and answers sites (more than 220 sites) on wide variety of areas. This doesn’t cover just interview questions but also has information related to how to dress, how and what to ask the person who is interviewing you like if it is HR, you might want to know about the work environment, about the overtime rules, about the holiday structure, any medical benefits, insurance coverages etc.,. Thought it will be useful to all, so sharing them at the below link — might be of some help to you… today and even in future..

  18. Jennifer –
    Thanks so much for the mention!
    I agree, you should be able to develop SBR interview questions to uncover evidence of these competencies.

  19. What are appropriate questions to ask of a current leadership team, where answers will be publically communicated to the entire organization (as part of an internal communications effort)

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