For our 2021 Women in Power series, we asked top executives what their favorite question is to ask in an interview.
Here, 14 execs weigh in — and some of their answers might surprise you.
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Diane Sullivan, chairman and CEO, Caleres Inc.
“‘What are you most passionate about?’ Passion is one of our values, and passion is what has propelled our company for more than 140 years. I love hearing how people answer this.”
Susie Mulder, global brand president, Timberland
“I like to ask, ‘What is your relationship with Excel?’ I believe that problem solving is critically important to all roles and if you ask about the relationship, you get a variety of revealing answers. Some of the best answers I’ve had is why people hate or struggle with it!”
Mimi Vaughn, chairman, president and CEO, Genesco Inc.
“‘Give me three adjectives your friends and family who know you best would use to describe you. Tell me, are they right?’ This question tells me a lot about the interviewee that is hard to discover in a relatively short interview. Importantly, a candidate’s view of her or his skills and traits may be different than what others perceive. Self-awareness and teamwork are incredibly important in the workplace, and if I can assess a candidate’s strengths in those areas, I’ve accomplished what I have needed to as an interviewer.”
Sarah Mensah, VP and GM, Nike North America
“I like to move past the ‘resume’ and hear about a candidate’s story in their own words. Every person, every life has a unique story. I’m interested in what they’ve learned as a result of their experiences, and what they value. What is their purpose, their why?”
Tamara Mellon, founder, Tamara Mellon
“’What was the catalyst that got you here?’ I like to know more about someone’s trajectory and their career path that led them up to the moment of our interview. I believe it helps me understand them better and gives me insight into their way of thinking.”
Sophia Webster, founder, designer, Sophia Webster
“‘What are your values?’ I always try to elicit what the candidate’s values are, and whether they match with the company’s. It’s obviously interesting to learn about their experience and ability, too, but I know we can train a team member to gain the skills they need for a role.”
Felicia Mayo, chief talent, diversity and culture officer, Nike
“‘What attracted you to this company and Nike? Why did you pick up the phone?’ Because we’re a storytelling company, I get very good and intimate and personal stories, which helps me get to know the person a bit better. They know the answer to the questions I’m going to ask. I really try to make it more conversational: I got my first pair of shoes when I was x years old.”
Titi Adesanya, creative director & founder, Titi Adesa
“We love to get a snapshot of the people we work with and how they overcome challenges so our question will be, ‘Tell me about a time you had a difficult task or working relationship with a colleague. What was the challenge and how did you overcome it?’ I think the answer is important to uncover and adapt to various personalities and ever-changing environments.”
Marisa Sharkey, co-founder, Birdies
“What is a risk you have taken?”
Bianca Gates, co-founder, Birdies
“What excites you most about this role?”
Susie Kuhn, SVP and GM, Foot Locker Europe
“What value will you bring to us, and what value will we bring to you? I am a big fan of symbiotic hiring/choosing.”
Wendy Yang, president, Deckers Brands Performance Lifestyle Group
“What gives you joy?”
Britt Olsen, GM of North America, On
“I try to get at the core of what makes people feel alive (or not) as quickly as possible. I like to know what puts people ‘above the line’ — moments when we feel in the flow, and at our best. Also, I want to know what puts people ‘below the line’ — times when we feel concealed and in defense of our ego. The goal is to get a sense of how in-tune people are with themselves, their emotions, their somatic self and how they jump from below to above. It’s been a quick way to see if people are willing to go a bit deeper than the level of a typical interview.”
Emily Newman, executive director, Camber Outdoors
“I am an advocate for skills-based hiring practices, and skills can be built through a variety of experiences. In that context, my question is: ‘Describe an experience where you directly contributed to building an inclusive culture on a team or in your office. What did you do? What were the results? What did you learn?’ There is no one answer to the question, but I always find it illuminating to see how comfortable a candidate is in this space, how much thought they have given to this, the depth of their response and sometimes the conversation that ensues. My goal is to create a workplace of thoughtful, curious people who are open to learning, willing to sometimes be uncomfortable and committed to a future where everyone is valued.”
— With contributions from Samantha McDonald