The Most Important Interview Question When Hiring Leaders

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May 10, 2022

We all know that lots of employees are burned out and disengaged. A Leadership IQ study found that only 25% of leaders feel that their employees are thriving emotionally and mentally. Another study found that 60% of employees say the frustrations they face at work are so severe that they want to look for other jobs.

Clearly, the stress is real and leaders need to do something (or many things) to make it better. But what should they do? Before you answer that question in your head, let me suggest that your default answer is both right and wrong. That sounds strange, so I’ll explain.

Imagine that your employees are burned out because your operations are a chaotic mess: rework, mistakes, missed handoffs, you name it. In a case like that, employees are most likely to benefit from a leader who’s methodical, regimented, directive, and highly structured. This is known as a Steward leadership style.

Alternatively, imagine that your employees are disengaged because they’re bored out of their minds. Your operations run so smoothly that people are no more than button-pushers; they’re not learning, growing, or expanding their brains. In this situation, employees will benefit most from a leader who believes in everyone’s positive potential, who’s open-minded, and who prizes creativity from oneself and others. This is an Idealist style of leadership.

You could imagine a cutthroat workplace, where the company cares not a whit for the emotional well-being of its staff. Employees are assigned shifts and projects with no regard for their personal preferences and desires. In this workplace, employees would likely value a leader who builds deep personal bonds with their employees and understands their unique motivators (a Diplomat leader style).

I could go on, but hopefully, you get the point that there is not one perfect leadership style or solution to the rampant burnout, frustration, and disengagement facing today’s employees. That’s why the most critical quality for today’s leader is adaptability.

How many companies hired leaders suited to leading in 2019 only to realize that the world was radically different in 2020? The most successful leaders haven’t employed one particular leadership philosophy; the best leaders have been those quickest to adapt and adjust their approach to the changing realities around them.

The data is very clear that every style works in some situations and not others. Sometimes that highly-regimented leader brings order to the chaos; other times, that approach is stifling. The warm and friendly leader can reawaken an embittered workforce, but this can also be understimulating for ambitious high performers.  

One of your primary goals when hiring leaders is finding managers and executives with the flexibility to adapt to any and all situations. To that end, ask leadership candidates a simple interview question: Could you tell me about a time when your leadership approach wasn’t working with your team?

Depending on the level of leader you’re hiring, you can adapt that question in myriad ways. You could ask them to tell you about a time their leadership style wasn’t motivating their team, when their leadership approach wasn’t well-received by the company, when their approach wasn’t leading to good results, and so on.

The key thing you cannot do is ask them to describe how they solved those issues. As the report “6 Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions” found, most hiring managers add words to the end of their interview questions that ruin the questions’ effectiveness.  

For example, never ask candidates, “Could you tell me about a time when your leadership approach wasn’t working with your team and how you changed your approach?” Those words at the end give away the right answer that they’re supposed to have altered their approach when faced with difficult circumstances. 

If you ask a prospective leader about a time their approach wasn’t working, and you don’t give away the answer, some candidates will literally say things like:

  • Not every employee was cut out for that company.
  • Some people just needed to grow up.
  • You can’t please everybody.

Yes, those are real-life responses, and they instantly tell you that this is a candidate who isn’t capable of adapting their leadership approach. The reality is that we don’t know which type of leadership will be required over the next few years or decades. But if you hire leaders who can adapt their approach, you’ll be far better positioned for success no matter what happens next.

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