The surprising reason you should consider talking less at your next interview

Janice Bryant Howroyd, who is the first black woman to build a billion dollar company, says what you ask during a job interview speaks volumes about you.
Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO of ActOne Group.
Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO of ActOne Group.Courtesy of Janice Bryant Howroyd.

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By Janice Bryant Howroyd

The following is adapted from "Acting Up."

If you’re a business owner, how are you running your interviews with prospective employees? Are you asking all the questions, or are you allowing the employee to ask questions of you? I’d argue that the second approach is far more effective at finding employees who will be a good fit for your company. Allow me to explain.

Whenever I interview someone for a position in my organization, it’s a pretty good indicator that they have a shot at being hired into the company. So when I’m meeting with them, I’m more interested in what they want to know.

My interviews are often, therefore, a series of opportunities for them to ask me questions or to share with me what they’re questioning in that moment, as opposed to me questioning them. Job candidates tend to focus too much on talking about themselves instead of asking the bold questions of the hiring organization.

This truth hits at a larger point: What you ask speaks volumes about you.

I want employees who are unafraid to ask questions because that’s a critical skill in my company. Unless you ask questions up front, you’re not going to get the information that fully enables you to deliver the best product or service to that client.

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RELATED: 5 secrets for success from the first black woman to build a billion dollar company

You owe it to your employees, you owe it to your customers, and you owe it to yourself to ask the questions, no matter how difficult they may be, no matter how big they may be, and no matter how entangled they are or how long it may take for you to get the answers. Ask the right questions, then listen, listen, listen for the right answers.

As the person doing the hiring, there’s no measuring stick for which is the better question for someone to ask you. If I’m in the position of interviewing someone, what matters to me is that they’re asking questions that are relevant to the opportunity they’re seeking and that dig a little bit deeper than the surface of who we are. Usually, they’re asking about how we do things rather than what we do. They should know what we do once they get to me, and if they ask that question, they’ve not been well vetted.

As a leader, if I’m expecting employees (even potential ones) to ask big, important questions, I must create an environment where my people feel safe to ask those questions. Sometimes people will not ask the real question nor the big question that’s on their mind because they may see it as a violation of protocol or etiquette. It becomes important for you to let the person know all questions are safe for them to ask.

If you are a business owner or leader and you’re interacting with a potential or current client, reverse that expectation: let them know you would like to ask some pretty bold and frank questions. All of your questions should be aligned around offering better service. When you’re interested in a company’s best outcome, they’re going to be much more open to giving you the honest answers you need to ensure that occurs.

The best way to get to know people is to ask questions and then listen. When you do this in business, companies will know you’re smart, capable, and invested in their best interests by the questions you ask, not just by the answers you give.

In meetings, one of the things that gets under my skin the most is when someone repeats what someone else has just said for emphasis, and then says, “I agree.”

“Bob just said we need to look for ways to grow that account, I agree.”

That’s wasted time and wasted energy. If you don’t speak up, you are in agreement.

Inclusion and diversity of thought is something I encourage in the meetings that I run. So those people who are going to impress me, who I’m going to think about long after that meeting is over and invite to the next meeting, are those people who actually added something to the discussion, not those people who simply dittoed something.

If someone is offering something relevant, something that drives the business forward, or something that provokes us to question ourselves or our processes better, then they’ve added value to the meeting, and they’ve added value to the business.

That’s where innovation can occur and where personal development—and business development—will happen. And it’s not possible without the right questions.

For more advice on managing your personal health as a business leader, you can find "Acting Up" on Amazon.

Janice Bryant Howroyd left her hometown in 1976 armed with $900. Two years later she founded ActOne, which she grew into a multibillion-dollar global organization that now manages 2,000+ employees across more than twenty countries. She is also the bestselling author of Acting Up: Winning in Business and Life Using Down-Home Wisdom.