How do you approach your work from the standpoint of balancing your career with your personal life?

Why Ask This Question?

This is an open invitation to engage in a person-to-person values session. No work-related accomplishments. No self-admitted weaknesses. No What was the last time you had to bring bad news to your boss, and how did you handle it?'' This is a purely human communication that transcends everything business-y'' about an interview. Although it borders on getting a little too personal for a typical business meeting, it does open the lines of communication by taking the interview to a deeper, more humanistic plane.

Analyzing the Response

Because of the lighter nature of this question, it typically won't turn into a knockout factor in the candidate selection process. However, because certain companies do expect employees to live for their organizations, this query might reveal certain expectations toward commitment that could hinder your relationship. For example, some companies expect their employees to come in to work before 7:30, leave after 8:00 at night, and come to work on Saturdays. A staunch reply from a candidate intimating that My private time is not to be messed with'' might cool off an otherwise hot interview.

In contrast, a self-proclaimed workaholic might leave you feeling ambivalent about an otherwise successful interview if you personally believe that work is a means to an end and that working to live is preferable to living to work. Again, in case you strongly espouse either theory or find yourself working in a company with stringent expectations regarding employee time commitments, then add this query to your arsenal to see whether any extreme emotions will surface that could eventually clash with your personal expectations or corporate culture.

Paint a picture of the corporate culture you'll create if we hire you. Do you operate under a more centralized and paternalistic agenda with power centralized in the hands of a few, or do you constantly push responsibility and accountability down the line?

Why Ask This Question?

You often hear of a company's corporate culture when in fact any given organization will have multiple cultures in different departments. The marketing manager may be well schooled in progressive human resource principles like empowerment, quality circles, and cross-functional teams. The manufacturing manager may have come from an environment where you're expected to do your job, say yes to your boss, and collect your paycheck. Trying to describe a single corporate culture in such a company would be well-nigh impossible. Labeling the marketing or manufacturing unit's cultures, on the other hand, should be fairly easy to do. The bottom line, therefore, is that individual managers dictate the way a unit does business. You need to know a candidate's vision of how work will get done and how people will interact in order to avoid surprises down the road.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. If a candidate has trouble putting her hands around this question, you could follow up with a brief explanation to clarify what you want to learn:

''Mary, what will life as we know it now turn into ninety days after we hire you? How will the work flow, how will people react to one another in your unit, how many weekly meetings will be going on, and how will our customers know that there's been a change?''

Obviously, the answers you get will be cast in the most positive light possible. Still, by requiring specific answers, you'll generate details regarding the candidate's personal style and expectations.

Let's take the case of Emma White, a candidate for informational technology (IT) manager at a plastics manufacturing organization outside of

Springdale, Arkansas. She was applying for a position that would oversee a staff of ten programmer analysts, technical writers, and PC-user support reps. Her mandate, if hired, would be to increase morale in a department with lots of tenure but very little enthusiasm for change, and within one year transition the department from an HP3000 to a Windows client-server environment.

Here s how Emma responded to the query:

''I like to hold a lot of meetings. It's important to me that everyone in my unit feels tied in to the bigger picture, and without that added element of human interaction, I find it difficult to bring a staff of people together in a coordinated effort. Not only do those meetings keep us all abreast of what's going on at a more global level, but they also give the staff a chance to surface new and creative ideas to make operations run more smoothly. After all, a round-table brainstorming session gets my creative juices up and running, and I've found that it works well for others, too.

''In terms of increasing morale, those two or three roundtable meetings each week would make up step one of a plan designed to improve morale. I would also designate certain members of the department to lead meetings-depending on their areas of expertise—and depend on them to raise others' morale. Finally, I would propose holding companywide meetings to sell our IT services to the rest of the organization. For example, we could train company employees in word processing, spreadsheet, and e-mail skills. We'd cost out how much an outside service would charge for such training, and then we'd deliver those cost savings to senior management as part of our formal proposal to begin training.

''In the meantime, I would enroll my own staff in Windows client-server courses that would enhance their own technical skills, so that by the time we came to the conversion start date next year their confidence and competence would smooth the transition process. That plan should work to increase departmental morale; have spillover, morale-boosting effects for the rest of the company; and simultaneously ease our transition to the new software applications.''

So how did Emma score? She made an excellent case for empowering her staff by pushing responsibility and accountability down the line. Her desire to tie staff members into the more global picture seems attainable because she'll get her IT people (a staff function) focused on profit and loss line considerations by having them cost out external training programs and then delivering a cost-benefit analysis. And her commitment to her staff's broader educational goals shows that she'll make good use of her first year on the job, because the planned transition to the client-server platform won t begin until her second year.

The response to this question can provide some valuable insights into a new and improved departmental corporate culture that may be very compatible with the company's style of doing business. And if the candidate's answer isn't compatible, then this detailed picture of life ninety days into the job should provide you with enough information to confirm that you want a different style of manager at the helm of your IT team.

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