The power of your first question

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, and on Friday I did a power day, with six screens for the same position. (I do love it, but if you’re a great recruiter, I need your help.)

Each screen starts the same: an ice-breaking joke or two, then a monologue – 60-90 seconds about Rooster Park, 3-5 minutes about the job and the company. I pause just once to see if they are familiar with the company to inform the rest. At the end, I always say something like “that’s the overview. What else can I tell you?”

So here’s the pro tip of the day: your first question reflects your level and highly predicts your likelihood of going forward for this position. In that first question, I’m learning about what’s important to you, what level you’re at, (often) if you were listening, and (sometimes) how insightful you are. This is all in your first 20 words.

Here’s a real-world example. I’ve been working on hiring the first IT manager for a rapidly-growing local company – a role that’s a mix of leadership and hands-on systems work. In those few minutes, I’ve told the candidate what the company does, how they’ve grown without this manager, what technologies are in use, and a few sentences about the culture. Here are some paraphrased first questions that I’ve gotten for this position, ordered by approximate quality, with my thoughts in parentheses:

  • “It sounds like they’ve been building the company without this manager, so I’m guessing that the role has been filled by a range of people. Who’s been doing this work, what’s their skill set, and what’s been left on the table?” (Clearly listened, trying to map the organization and the past in his head, thinking more like a leader than an individual contributor – so I’ll know to ask or listen for the tech skills later.)
  • “What’s the biggest problem they have?” (Relevant, but generic.)
  • “Which version of Linux are they using? I’ve been working with Debian.” (What you’ve told me here is that you’re thinking first like a systems administrator, which is not the level of the job: you’ve effectively leveled yourself down with your first question.)
  • “So they’re in what part of town? How do people get to work?” (A fair question at the end of the conversation, but not focusing on the important stuff first.)
  • “I don’t have any questions yet.” (You just missed your first chance to make an impression. OK, off to your resume.)

Of those five, it’s very clear that one of them made a very strong initial impression, and the others didn’t do anything to help their case. The first questioner is, in fact, the candidate I’m presenting at the top of the list (when I work on that instead of writing blog posts).

Now, obviously every decision isn’t made by the first question. But if you’re talking to an interviewer who isn’t working from a script, just checking skill sets off a list, that first question matters – it impacts the followup questions you will get (and what you’ll learn), the focus of the interview, and the mood of the interviewer. (I “knew” the part-of-town candidate wasn’t going to get me excited to present him, and he didn’t.) It might be cognitive bias, but I’ve found it to be highly predictive of how the rest of the interview will go.

Your job, then, when you’re listening to the recruiter blather on at the beginning of a call, is to

  • Listen to what they’re saying closely, and jot down questions you might have, either factual questions or conceptual questions
  • start with specific, conceptual questions – questions that reflect that you understood what you heard and you’re trying to put the whole story together. Generic questions (“what’s the future of the company?”) are fine in a pinch, but even those can reflect some detail of what you heard.
  • Care about the answers! Just like you can tell if we’re reading from a script, we can tell if you haven’t been listening. Go back and forth until that’s at a natural pace.
  • If you have specific detail questions that help you qualify yourself for the job, do ask them, but try to wait.
Good luck – and if you have any other guidance (or topics you’d like to see covered), please post about it.