The quest for better interview questions

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Leadership, whether you're the CEO, chief marketing officer or chief financial officer, can typically be boiled down to three fundamental tasks: Set the vision, build the team and allocate the resources. Arguably, all three are equally important, yet in this CMO-centric column we've focused more on the first and third, closely examining the strategic and budgetary choices that modern marketers are making. But without the right team to implement your vision, all is lost. So how do you build a great team?

As with so many CMO challenges, the answer is in the questions you ask. Better questions = better interviews = better hires. That formula has been mastered by Kipp Bodnar, CMO at Hubspot, who has built an industry-leading team of more than 200 professionals by honing the interview process. And while Bodnar tries to spend 20 to 30 hours with potential direct reports getting to know them intimately, he finds that the questions below are great for an initial assessment of curiosity, marketing savvy and ability to think on one's feet.

Bodnar's first question: Draw a funnel on the white board showing 10,000 visitors, 500 leads, 50 opportunities, and 10 new customers. Let's pretend you're the CMO for HubSpot, and you have to decide what your marketing team should do to improve these metrics. Which areas of the funnels would you focus on, and what would you do differently to change these results?

The thing I love about this question is that it gets people to interpret the problem based on who they are, and there's 100 right answers. It's actually in the justification and the deep dive into the strategy and tactics around those answers that you learn so much about how that person thinks and approaches solving problems as a marketer. I think it's best when the candidates put the question in the context of the business that they're interviewing with.

What would be a bad answer to that question?

A bad answer would be if you pick a stage and don't really have any substance. That answer would be like someone saying, "I want to take that from 10 customers to 20 customers." Well how would you do that? "Well, I would send them some more e-mail, or I would have my sales team follow up with those prospects more." Some bland answers are pretty unspecific and aren't driven from a track record of either trying to solve these problems before or having experience with these types of problems. That's an example of an answer where I'd think that the person just doesn't have the perspective necessary to solve these types of problems.

Bodnar's question No. 2: We have two potential designs for the home page of our website, but we don't know which one to use. The CEO likes this one, and the COO likes this one. Half the company likes one, and the other half likes the other. Which one should we use?

There are a couple different ways you can approach this. The straightforward answer should be, "Well, the only opinion that matters is the opinion of the customer and user of your product or service." But what do they think? Have you done user testing? What does the user testing show? Can you run an A/B test? What are the core variables here that you would want to isolate for A/B tests or multivariate tests? This is basically getting people to think about the customer and the prospect over internal voices and trying to really assess and validate the process that they would go through to actually do that.

Bodnar's question No. 3: Let's say that you have an excel spreadsheet with 10,000 leads from a few months back, long enough that those lead sales cycles have passed. Can you use this information to create a lead score? How would you do it?

If you're hiring a marketing operations leader or a marketing automation person, this is a question you want them to be able to deliver a really thoughtful and analytical answer on. What you're really looking for here is if the person understands math, and if they are going to talk about running a regression analysis on that data set. What are the insights that they can draw from that data set? How much detail can they actually talk about it? I think all these questions are very situational depending on the role that you're hiring for. As a marketing leader, one of the challenges you have is that marketing teams are built of so many diverse roles and different specialties across the board as you grow and scale.

When you're asking someone a question about their hobbies, what are you really looking for there?

Often times, I want them to be interested in something that I don't have a ton of frame of reference for, which happens basically all the time. I want a deep dialogue with them. If somebody said they love traveling and went to Italy to learn to make pasta, I would ask them to tell me how Italians make pasta and to explain it to me. I want to see if people can explain something that they have this intense knowledge about and simplify it in a way that somebody who's new to that topic can really understand. I also just want to know if they have fun. If they're really passionate about something else, and they talk about that in the same way that they talk about marketing, then I know that their passion for marketing is genuine and real. I think marketing today is one of those things where you have to have a deep passion and joy for the work to be really successful at it.

Bodnar's question No. 4: What brands do you like or follow on social media and why?

In asking somebody this question, I just want to know that they like marketing enough to follow brands and have the insight around what good marketing looks like from companies that aren't their own. Then, I want to follow up with questions that ask them to apply those observations to other businesses or situations. I want to see that they can see a good idea in the world, understand how to learn from that, and reshape that into something that they could do.

Bodnar's question No. 5: What do you read, and how do you consume information?

To be great in marketing today, you have to learn and learn constantly. I want to deep dive with people and understand how they learn stuff. How do they consume information? Are they good at consuming information? Do they have certain processes or infrastructure that enables them to learn a lot of stuff and learn it quickly? I find that to be incredibly valuable. I try to have the right infrastructure that enables me to know a whole lot of stuff really quickly and get access to the relevant stuff for me. In an interview, I want to see if candidates have their own set processes for consuming information like that.

Bodnar's question No. 6: Our CEO wants you to evaluate our blog. What would you say?

Firstly, I'm making sure that they have read the blog. Are they up to date on it? What's their perspective on it? Are the ideas interesting? What ideas are missing? Are there any problems they think we should fix? There are a bunch of different things you can interpret by just looking at a blog for 10 to 15 minutes. This question is to understand if they did it, and if they did, what lens did they do it through? Also, depending on who you're interviewing, they're going to have a certain lens on the blog based on the type of role they're interviewing for.

Bodnar's question No. 7: If you were interviewing for a job, what's the one question you would hope they would ask you?

I would want to be asked what I think that I need to be successful in this role. If I'm interviewing with a CEO to be their head of marketing, what I want that CEO to know is that there needs to be a level of commitment and investment from a company to be successful at marketing. The fact that they care enough to ask and hear about what that actually looks like and can make a decision is actually very important.

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