Interviewing? Ears wide open, please…

Some interviewing comments from Ruth Simmons, the President of Brown University. Her pointed words on what she looks for when hiring should be read carefully by both management and those looking to interview. Wise words from a wise woman:

I look for people who are supremely self-confident, very secure, but also profoundly interested in other people. And I look for signs of that. How curious are they about other people, and about new things outside their own area of specialization? If I’m hiring for a central role in the administration and I’m interviewing a physicist, I want to know whether the physicist reads poetry. Or perhaps they are interested in opera. I think something outside of their immediate sphere of interest would be very important for me to know.

I look for signs that they are ambitious. There’s nothing worse than a leader who lacks ambition. And if they don’t have some ambition to do more than what they’re doing, to go far beyond where they are, then that’s probably not a good sign when you’re hiring somebody if your organization is seeking to be better than what it is. And which organization is not seeking to do that?

I look for people who are strong enough to be critical of things that are not very good. And more than being critical of things that are not very good, they have to have the capacity to tell people that. Because many people are critical, but they can’t sit in a room and look someone in the eye and say, “This idea is not very good.” In senior positions, you have to be able to do that.

I keep going back to this fundamental idea of being able to respect other people, especially if you’re in a senior position. You can get a lot more done if people have a sense that you respect them, and that you listen to them. You would be surprised at the number of interviews I’ve done where the person never stops talking. If I’m interviewing someone and if they never stop talking, I will never hire them, no matter how qualified they are. If you cannot listen, you can’t be the site of welcoming, nurturing, facilitating new ideas, innovation, creativity, because it really is ultimately only about you. So I look for people who listen well and can respect the ideas of others.

I like open-ended questions that give people an opportunity to go in the direction they want to go, because you learn a good deal more when you do that. You learn what’s important to people. So if I say to you, “Tell me about your experience growing up,” you get to choose anything you want to talk about. If you reach down and talk about something that is deeply meaningful to you and not intended to impress me as a future employer, that’s what I care about. That helps me see what your character is, what you’re made of, how you were formed as a human being. You’re trying to get at whether they will be a good member of the team. You’re trying to get at whether they will care about people.. whether they will have very high standards… or whether they will just be trying to please people.

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