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Your Next Leader Could Be Sitting Across the Table in the Interview

Not everyone is born to lead—while some candidates may not know they have an aptitude for it. Look for the answers and attitude that define your next leader in the making in your next interview.

Your Next Leader Could Be Sitting Across the Table in the Interview

By: Dona DeZube

The right interview questions can help you identify a candidate’s leadership and management potential. 

During the interview, you’ll want to go beyond a candidate’s surface qualities and discern traits such as personal confidence to spotlight traits that your organization values.

The interview questions below are sourced from professionals in companies of all sizes to help reveal a candidate’s management and leadership skills. 

Pay attention to whether people talk about themselves (“I did this”) or their teammates (“we did this”) when answering general interview questions or direct leadership questions.

Sample questions:

What led to your last two promotions? 

Tell me about a subordinate you helped develop. 

Tell me about the leadership training you have received. 

What is the most difficult decision you have had to make in your career?

“If the answers to these questions all point to a person who develops a team, we have a potential leader. If the candidate’s answers are focused on that person rather than on others, the person is not deemed to be a potential leader.”

— John Malloy, president of Sanford Rose Associates – Santee, a South Carolina automotive and manufacturing recruiter.

Good managers find better ways to get the job done. Job candidates who don’t have previous leadership positions can answer hypothetical questions about how they’d improve processes and products. 

Sample questions:

If you returned to your previous job as the boss, what would you do to create a better workplace?

What things were done well there?

“If they tell us how bad the boss was and how bad the place was, that could indicate that they are negative. In each question, we are looking for winners and complainers. Will they bring to us the ability to make a difference, to be able to see areas for improvement?” 

— Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal, a Nashville company that describes itself as Uber for Lawn Care.

Consider how long you have to develop leadership. Match the time frame of your questions to the length of time people typically stay with your firm, and determine if the job seeker would be willing to put in the extra time to eventually take on a managerial role. 

Sample questions:

Where do you see yourself in two years?

Tell me about a time you had to get yourself quickly up to speed in a new role in the past, either at work on outside work? What did you do and how did that work out?

If they’ve had a past leadership role: How long did it take you to get to that position? What did you do to get there?

“In the past, I am sure many organizations would ask, ‘Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years,’ but that leaves things open-ended. We won't pretend that five years or 10 years is a benchmark for employment — we will start celebrating as early as two years.” 

— Sean P. Finelli, Co-owner of travel company The Roman Guy

Quantify job seekers’ past management experience by asking for details. 

Sample questions:

Did you train or mentor (formally or informally) subordinates or peers? How many people and in what ways? Did you develop the training yourself?

Where and how did you save money for your employer or client(s)? How much money total or how did you accomplish unique jobs/tasks to save money for your employer or client(s)? 

What new processes did you install and what were the results? What was saved (time or money) or what did the processes increase (productivity)? How did you personally have a hand in accomplishing those savings or improving processes?

“If the resume has the answers to these questions, then you know the candidate has the potential for becoming a good leader and manager, or perhaps a team lead, then supervisor. Look for objective, provable and documentable information, like ‘I supervised a team of two, and we worked together to do this project,’ and the results were (metrics showcasing how many, how often, and the total of something), rather than subjective language, like ‘I am good with people.’”

— Dawn D. Boyer, Ph.D., CEO of HR consulting firm, D. Boyer Consulting, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

For job candidates with prior leadership experience, including students who’ve led extracurricular activities, ask interview questions that qualify their leadership experiences. 

Sample questions:

Tell me about a past leadership role. 

What was your goal or objective? 

What did you accomplish? 

What was the feedback you received from peers on the outcome?

“When an individual gets into telling the story, you’ll be able to pick up on the nuances on how they lead. Do they say, ‘I did this,’ or ‘I sought out these skill sets in my peers’? Find those individuals who really have the diversity of those experiences, that can articulate what was done, how they made decisions for the team, and areas where the team’s diverse viewpoint was critical.”

— Cheryl Pinter-Veal, head of Deloitte's NextGen leadership development program

Read more: How to Interview for Management and Leadership