Interviewing Your Replacement

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

I'm fortunate that my boss was open to my conducting the first round of interviews for my replacement. After 9 and a bit years, I will be leaving New Zealand to go back to Texas, and being a part of finding the next leader for my team is important to me.

I conducted interviews with someone else from my team and the focus of the questions was on Leadership, Relationship Skills, Empowering Teams, Customer Service, and then Projects. Some of the questions were a bit out there, my goal was to cause people to think on their feet and not immediately jump to the scripts of the stories/examples they had been preparing to discuss.

Here are a few of the questions and what I was looking for:

  • What is the biggest decision you had to make this year and why was it so big? I was looking for what people consider to be a big decision and how they worked through it. To me, it didn't matter if it was professional or personal. I wanted to understand their process for decision making. A mistake a lot of the candidates made was trying to fit a story into this question and claim a decision that was clearly a decision they wouldn't make on their own. Some people did great with this question, others just couldn't provide a response where I knew it required higher-level approval.

  • Can you provide an example of how you gained commitment from your team? In this question, I was looking for examples of how they were able to create buy-in from their team. This could have been through projects, through change or just a difficult time where things needed to be completed. I wasn't looking for getting everyone to agree, just getting them on board.

  • What kind of criticism do you most often receive? This question may sound harsh and that is how it was meant to sound. I wanted to see how they reacted to a question that is usually lobbed like a softball. Then I was obviously looking to see if they were self-aware.

Yes, this job was for the Head of an IT department and it probably seems weird that I didn't ask any specific technical questions. My goal was to find someone who would fit in with the culture of the team, could navigate the complexity of the company, and ultimately was a Leader. I was expecting to glean the technical examples through the interviewee's answers.

We had quite a few people apply for the role and I chose to interview 15 of those applicants. I know that is a lot, but you can't really see, feel, or get a sense of someone's leadership style from a sheet of paper. So, I thought the only way to get a true sense of the applicants who clearly have the experience on paper was to actually meet them.

Through those 15 interviews, I have listed my thoughts that might be useful for those of you who are currently interviewing or thinking of interviewing:

  1. Prepare but be flexible: Yes, you should still prepare your solid 4 or 5 examples of success stories that you wish to get across to your potential employer. However, you need to enter the interview mentally prepared to pivot. That way if your examples don't fit the question then you won't have the "Oh Crap" look all over your face. An interviewer is not expecting you to answer every question perfectly. If you don't have an experience you can draw upon, give an example of what you WOULD do.

  2. Answer the question: This seems obvious and it's probably the one area that irritates me the most. Quit trying to shove your examples where they don't fit. Answer the question. If you can't answer it through an example or what you would do, then give a brief answer or ask the interviewer if you can come back to the question. That is perfectly fine and it allows the interviewer to ask the question in a different way or get in an extra question that you could answer beautifully.

  3. Be confident, not arrogant or pushy: Sometimes this line can be fuzzy. When applying for a Leadership role you do want to come across as confident, but you also want to show a bit of humility. This can be done in ways that show both you and the team are successful, don't always make the example all about you. Remember today's leaders empower and they earn their respect, it's not just given because of a title. Lastly, it's ok to be transparent in saying something isn't a strength of yours, and "this" is how you would mitigate that gap. Also on the pushy part, don't go on for 10 minutes answering a question that you could have wrapped up much more succinctly. If the interviewer wants to know more, they will ask for more details.

  4. Check your body language and while you are at it....check the interviewers: Are you slouching in your chair? Are you looking down? Are you fidgeting? Do you have a smart ass look on your face? Seriously...that last one...happened more than once. And to tie in my statement about being pushy above, recognize when the interviewer has had enough of the answer and is trying to push on. Pay attention.

  5. Smile, Laugh- behave like you are excited about the opportunity: I'm not saying to act like a buffoon, but it's ok to smile even when you are nervous. Trust me, even when you force a smile it will help you to feel better. It definitely lightens the mood for everyone.

The interview process isn't completed yet for my role. The top applicants have moved on to round 2, meeting with the person who would be their manager and a representative from HR. I am hopeful that the process of allowing me to do the first round of interviews proves to be helpful in hiring a person that will take the team and department to the next level.

What do you think? Have you hired your replacement before? What do you think of completing a Leadership assessment type of interview? Do you agree with my recommendations for being prepared? Would love to hear your thoughts.