The best job interview questions

Experienced executives share the go-to questions they pose to finance candidates to reveal how applicants think and act, and whether they've done their homework.
Best job interview questions

In today's competitive landscape, hiring executives must sharpen their recruiting skills to find that rare gem — a candidate who's smart, creative, and a good fit in the workplace. That means there's a lot of pressure during interviews — both on the candidate and on the hiring manager. Questions that hit the mark or uncover a blind spot can be valuable tools.

Finding the right balance is tricky. A study conducted by Glassdoor Economic Research in 2015 showed that more challenging job interviews are linked to higher employee satisfaction across the six countries that were studied in Europe and North America. But the study also found that a hiring process that is too difficult can backfire by discouraging candidates. The optimal interview difficulty level is an interview experience that is difficult but not overwhelming.

With that in mind, we asked experienced executives around the world to give us an example of a go-to question that they pose to finance candidates either because it is essential or because it can reveal a good match.

Carola Mengolini, vice-president of Investor Relations, Royal Caribbean Cruises (US)

I work in the cruise line industry. When I interview candidates for a finance-related position who have never been on a ship before, I like asking one simple question to gauge their analytical skills, something that they are not likely to know beforehand. Something like: "How much does a ship cost?" Or, alternatively: "How many people do you think we carry on the megaships?" I'm able to see many things here. There are those candidates that shoot from the hip and quickly answer "about 2 million". Then there are those that justify not knowing because they have never been on a ship before. Others will take forever figuring out thousands of variables and get lost in the question, and then there are those that say something along the lines of: "If the ship has 12 decks and you have 150 rooms per deck with an average occupancy of 2.5 people per room, you carry about 4,500 guests." Hired! It is very difficult to figure out if a person has analytical skills. I have found that asking simple questions such as the ones above has helped me to quickly see how people think and also how they react under pressure.

Kate Grangard, CPA, CGMA, the CFO and COO, Gehring Group & BenTek (US)

My favourite interview question is: "What would I find on your nightstand or coffee table?" It might seem unusual, but the response provides great insight into the discipline, interest, and mindset of the respondent, and it almost always leads to a great discussion. My goal through this question is to gain insight into the type of person I am interviewing, how they use their free time, and what they choose to represent them. Answers have varied from industry periodicals (which are especially important for finance and IT candidates), newspapers (of course, I ask which one), Kindles, magazines, puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, candy, alarm clocks, and, of course, my favourite answer — leadership books.

My goal in an interview is to assess where the candidates fit. Where will they help me? What specific skill will they add to the team? Is this a career to them? And where do I see them growing with us? Most candidates we bring in to interview already have the technical skills; I want to assess if they will be a good fit for the needs of our growing organisation, a collaborative member of the team, a partner for management in contributing ideas, and a fit for the position in question. I also like to ask candidates to give me an example of a work-related problem they had and how they worked towards resolving it. Are they collaborative? Did they pick up the phone? Did they avoid conflict? Did they take the blame, give the blame, or share the blame in the scenario? Did they offer a solution, mediate a solution, support a solution, or have others solve the problem?

Christopher Garner Smith, FCMA, CGMA, executive director, EMEA/APAC SSC, The Walt Disney Company (UK)

I have just returned to the UK after working for Disney in China. For my team in the Accounting Shared Service Centre in Shanghai — where there are around 100 talented accountants working at the regional centre responsible for US GAAP reporting for media, studios, consumer products, and retail — we developed the "10 C's", highlighting values such as communication, collaboration, career, culture, continuous improvement, and commitment. Throughout the recruiting process, these C-values are always on the checklist for fit, as we consider these qualities essential to success in the fast-growing environment of the centre. It is a rapidly expanding place, and the top talent are highly engaged, which leads to a dynamic and high-performing team.

The "team charter" including the 10 C's is posted outside my office, and so whenever internal candidates in Disney's Asia-Pacific region were interviewing for promotion, I would ask them to give examples of how they matched the specific culture: in other words, to tell me how they were "C-engaged". This question was very revealing on several fronts. It told me whether the candidate was alert, familiar with the centre, and had done the research legwork before the interview. It also told me about their engagement and whether they were a good fit with the fast-paced culture of the centre.

Ludovic Bessière, business director, France & Belgium, for Accountancy & Finance Division, Hays (France)

Today we seek to identify the candidate's entrepreneurial and "financial future telling" capacities. So we choose descriptive questions, like role-playing, and ask them to tell us how the candidate is going to "change our world" or how we are going to take up a slice of the market together. Or we could ask the candidate to explain the business model of their business or latest employer, and ask the candidate to place themselves in the role of the business owner or boss, to explain to us what he would have done differently. This kind of role-play plunges the conversation directly into an operational aspect.

For a long time in France we referred to finance as "business partners", but today we just refer to business, full stop. Finance within a corporate structure is no longer an advisory or support function; it has much more exposure today to the operation and management of the whole. So among all other questions that may be asked during an interview, we always circle back around to the business, either the business model or the strategy to capture a share of the market.

One day I interviewed a candidate who was a management controller for a high-profile luxury leather goods brand, and to my question, he answered that he had put in place an IT process to connect the arrival of large air contingents arriving from Asia and stock in key retail outlets and manufacturing centres. Their revenue had increased 25% in those key outlets as they were able to automatically adjust stock levels to the demand from large groups of tourists. This is an example of why I like this question and why my clients also love this question — because it reveals if the candidate can think out of the box.

Andrew Pullman, managing director, People Risk Solutions (UK)

I am looking at the recruiting process from a human resources perspective, as I run an HR consultancy specialised in helping firms in the financial and professional services sectors. A question that I like to ask is a classic, but it's always a revealing open question: "OK, so you've come to interview for this job, where do you see yourself in about five years' time?" What I'm also asking is, "What are your aspirations?" What this tends to draw out from people, more than their specific career plan, is an understanding of what their expectations are in terms of the type of work that they'll be asked to do. Do they want to become a manager, run a bigger team, work overseas? It really starts to give you an idea of what direction the person is going in. If they have a very limited answer to that, or haven't really thought about it, you also get to find out that the individual hasn't really got a plan. They may be jumping from job to job. It tells you something else about the candidate, where their head is, how ambitious are they, so it's quite revealing.

I've had people that we were considering for management roles, and then they answered that they didn't enjoy leading people, that they would rather enjoy becoming a specialist. I also had people who had unrealistic expectations, saying they'd like to be a director of the firm in a five-year time frame. That wasn't going to happen at the level they were coming in. At the senior level, the question also gives you an idea of whether they want to take on a bigger role and become head of a division, or CFO, whatever the case may be. It's a really useful question at every level and can save time and aggravation for all involved.

David Wu, CPA (Canada), founder and CEO at GMPTALENT International, a member of IMD International Search Group (China)

As an executive recruiter, I often ask this question during my interviews with finance executive candidates: "What do you know about our client's business, their competitive advantage, and the industry they are in as a whole?"

Asking candidates to describe our client's company and show industry knowledge will give me an indication of how much homework they have done prior to coming in for the interview. It is often a reflection of their degree of motivation and of how serious the candidates are about this particular job opportunity. Candidates who blank or mumble their response to this question may be either unfamiliar with our client's business and the industry as a whole, or they may have applied for the role on a whim. Also, we carefully track the candidate's body language and reactions to the questions we present, always reading between the lines, as these nonverbal cues are also effective indicators. After all, you want a candidate who is truly passionate about the opportunity, and not just browsing around to "test their value" in the market.

Andy Mensah, FCMA, CGMA, human resources partner, IBM Ghana & Central Africa (Ghana)

When we recruit for finance department roles, at some point in the interview process I will ask: "To what extent would you go in order to close a deal?" I tend to ask this question because of the particular environment we operate in, where perceptions of corruption and kickbacks are high in the marketplace. As an organisation we are looking for individuals with a very finely tuned moral compass and a high level of honesty. The response to this question helps gauge the candidate's likelihood of going against business conduct guidelines.

Sylvia Edwards Davis is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a senior manager for FM magazine, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.