Not long ago, a college classmate shared with me an Inc. magazine article called “The One Interview Question You Should Ask.” I read it with great interest, and I chuckled when I saw that the question was a version of one I have asked for about 10 years. I appreciated the question even more, because I know I have a reputation for being a tough interviewer.
I think that label’s a bit undeserved. The reality is, I simply ask several of the questions I was asked by professionals at Goldman Sachs during my summer associate interview process back in business school in California in 2000. I also throw in a couple questions to understand if my work style has a good chance of “syncing” with the candidate’s.
Here are some of the questions I like to ask, and why:
• Describe yourself in a single word. The answer is followed by: Give me an example either on or off your resume that demonstrates you are _______. I was asked this one on the 44th floor of 555 California. I like it because you are getting the candidate’s best shot at describing herself. And you’re seeing how she thinks on her feet.
• What happens to bond prices when interest rates fall? The candidate’s answer is followed by: Why? I showed up to Trammell Crow Co. in 1995 with a psychology degree, and Mike McVean handed me his Brealey Meyers finance textbook shortly thereafter, told me to learn it, and suggested that the sharpest people in industry understand it backwards and forwards. And although I don’t think the highest level of finance understanding is crucial to success in our industry, it doesn’t hurt.
Because candidates have a 50-50 shot at the first part of the question, the “why” part is critical to understanding how they think about a stream of cash flows. And our business is about streams of cash flows. Parenthetically, I think the best answers to this question keep the response to less than four sentences, and in my experience, it is economics majors who have the greatest tendency to answer correctly.
• Pick a complex topic you understand well, and explain it to me in a simple way. Look, our business isn’t rocket science, but you do have to be able to explain somewhat challenging concepts, such as SNDA’s, expansion rights, and expense stops to clients who are in our world only once every five or 10 years. Especially for candidates who haven’t been exposed yet to these concepts, I want to see how they demonstrate a capacity to explain something else that is relatively challenging. Plus, I typically learn something new. I don’t remember exactly where I picked up this question, but I like it, and it’s almost identical to the one Inc. described.
• What do your parents do? What are your siblings doing? They didn’t ask me this at Goldman, but they did want to know how much money I had made in my previous job. I want to know how candidates grew up and about the things and experiences that shaped them. Answers here tend to divulge some of that. This is especially important to me as, given the choice, I would prefer to have an intimate work environment rather than a distant one. Depth and intimacy are simply more engaging to me.
• What’s building in the real estate market most like you? When I was interviewing at Goldman, they asked me to describe the stock I was most like. I was stunned. But I recovered quickly and gave an employable response to how I was just like Polycom (at the time, the company was making some fantastic speakerphones and expanding into other technologies, too). I haven’t found a consistent response from people on this one, but I always enjoy discussing the answers. You get good perspective into a candidate’s passion for the business during it.
Those are some of the interview questions I like to ask. I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments section about questions you have developed that result in particularly insightful responses.
Jon Altschuler is a partner at Altschuler and Co. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.