How are the people in the department going to react to an outsider as a manager?
You may have gotten a hint of this answer in the interviewing process. However, the hiring authority that you were talking to, if he or she is like most people, is so interested in the moment, i.e., getting someone hired for the position, he or she doesn't really care what the reaction to a new manager is going to be. He or she will give it lip service, like, "We are very concerned that the present staff not be upset with hiring an outsider." But the truth is, that's going to be your problem and not his or hers. Trust me, if you are in this situation, there's enough emotion throughout the whole staff that it is going to take a number of months for everything to settle down.
No matter what you're told in answering this question, assume the worst. Assume that everyone is going to be really upset, and they're all going to walk out when you show up.
May I speak with the staff I will be managing?
Unless the present person is being replaced or the hiring is strictly confidential, you should be allowed to talk to all of the people whom you're going to be managing. You will have a much better understanding of what you're walking into after you do this.
I would recommend always beginning with the administrative or support staff. These people always have a very clear idea of what's going on in a department. People will normally tell the administrative support staff things that they would never tell the supervisor or the higher-ups. These people know most everything that's going on, both positive and negative. Should you take the job, you're going to hear it anyhow, so you might as well start now.
If, for some very strange reason, you are not allowed to talk to the staff that you might be supervising, take that as a big red flag. The opportunity might still be a good one but this is a very bad sign.
What are the biggest problems in the department?
The answer to this question will be interesting. If you were told the same things that you hear from the staff you are going to supervise, then you're in real good shape. At least everybody knows what the problems are. Keep in mind that if there were not problems that needed to be solved, they wouldn't need to hire you or anybody else to solve them.
Expect problems. The key here is to find out if everyone from upper management on down agrees with what the problems are. Even if they don't agree, at least you will know what everyone's point of view is.
What condition is morale in and why?
This can be part of the above question. After you've spoken to all the people you will be supervising, you will know what the morale is. The reason you ask this question of upper management is to find out if what they feel and what the subordinates that will be working for you feel are the same. Don't be surprised if they're not.
Who are the "problem" employees?
You're probably going to find this out when you interview everybody on the potential new staff. But it is always better to get upper management's opinion. If you are forewarned about who is going to be your biggest challenge, you might approach them a little differently.
Don't be surprised if you're told that no one is a real problem, but you find out the contrary once you interview the potential staff.
Who are the "stars" that can help my transition go smoothly?
Like the question above, forewarned is forearmed. You'll get a great idea about who can help you and who can hinder you if you interview everyone in the correct way. But it doesn't hurt to have upper management's idea about who will support you the best.
Are there any of the staff members who are in line for a promotion? Did any of them apply for this job?
The first part of this question is asked in order to get an answer to the second part. It's nice to know whom upper management thinks might be good to promote. But it is imperative that you know who of your potential new staff has applied for the job that you are considering.
If you wind up supervising someone who applied for the job that you accept, his or her not getting the job may have a real impact on your relationship with that person. These people, however, can be extremely helpful in your transition as a new manager. They can also be your worst nightmare and sabotage just about everything you do, emphasizing their idea that "You should have hired me for this job."
Your management and people skills are really going to be tested in this situation. Supervising a person who thought that he was qualified to do the job that you got takes a lot of careful communication and interaction. In interviewing this person before you accept the job, it will probably help you to know his disposition. Fifty percent of the time this person is going to feel slighted and leave the company. Just be prepared for it. (Don't be so egotistical as to think that your phenomenal management style is going to keep this from happening.)
If I have budgetary responsibility, how large is the budget? Has the department been above or below budget, presently and in the recent past?
You need to know what kind of an economic situation you might be walking into. Hiring authorities may not want to offer this information. In recent economic times, budgets have been slashed and yet performance expectations have been high. If your two predecessors have left or moved on because they couldn't get their job done with the budget they have been given, you need to know. If the department or group has gone over budget, you need to ask the obvious, "Why?"
What kind of reports am I going to be responsible for? Are they internal, company reports, or governmental ones?
In these days of Sarbanes-Oxley laws, public companies especially, but private ones, too, are much more careful about most everything financial. Departments such as sales, who traditionally didn't have to be much concerned about "reporting," now have to be very careful about how they report sales the company has made. They can no longer easily "report" sales that aren't real just to make things look good for a while, then go back and amend the reports later.
If you have been in financial positions, you are probably familiar with all of the kinds of governmental reports you are responsible for. But it certainly doesn't hurt to make sure you have a clear idea about what you will be responsible for and what you won't.
Does the company plan to make any immediate acquisitions or be acquired or change in any way that might affect the job we are discussing?
Look for hesitancy on the part of the hiring authority when answering this question. You may be privy to information or outright rumors that the company might be sold or be acquired. If so, ask about it. Just be aware that, depending on the level of the position that you are interviewing for, the hiring authority may not know about any plans like these. If you do find out that the company is up for sale or looking to be acquired, think about the kind of position that you are interviewing for and what kind of duplication there might be in another organization. If you are interviewing for an accounting function, for instance, and the company your interviewing with is looking to be acquired, you are certainly aware that your kind of function is at risk.
If you sense that there may be an issue here, it certainly doesn't hurt to just bluntly ask the hiring authority something like, "Look, I really don't want to accept a position and then be involved in a merger or acquisition and have the job I take be at risk. Is there a chance of that happening?" If the hiring authority has any kind of integrity at all and there is some kind of pending event, he or she will tell you.
What is the greatest opportunity facing the company? Its greatest challenge?
Asking this question allows the hiring authority to give a balanced answer. The "greatest opportunity" might be nice to know, but what your real interest is in finding out what the "greatest challenge" is. If the greatest challenge is surviving a gigantic lawsuit, you need to know. The answer to this question will most often be fairly benign, but you just might be surprised at any answer you might get. It might be one that could change your whole opinion of the opportunity. Caveat emptor.