10 leadership interview questions to help assess management potential

A company's success rests on the shoulders of competent leaders, but sizing up an applicant's leadership ability is often difficult to evaluate throughout the interview process. It can't be assessed simply by looking at a candidate's resume, and even a background in management doesn't guarantee the person possesses the personality traits and professional qualities of an effective team leader.

Part of the issue is knowing what to look for. In a study published by the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Sunnie Giles asked 195 global business leaders to choose the leadership skills they felt were the most important. Surprisingly, the top traits weren't related to meeting company objectives, strategic thinking, or self-confidence. Instead, the attributes most prized by leaders related to “creating a safe and trusting environment” for team members to grow within.

The most important leadership characteristics that ranked in the top 10 can be grouped into five major themes. Good leaders promote strong ethics and safety by communicating clearly and demonstrating strong morals. They empower their employees to self-organize by giving guidance, but not micromanaging. They encourage learning in employees and in themselves by staying flexible and open to new ideas. They nurture employee growth through training and by offering new challenges and opportunities. Finally, they foster a sense of connection and belonging through open communication and team building.

When assessing leadership potential, behavior is just as important as past management experience. All candidates claim to possess communication and motivational skills, but behavioral and situational interview questions can help you evaluate whether they know how to use these skills in real-life scenarios.

10 Leadership Interview Questions

You can gather important information about a candidate's leadership ability by asking questions that specifically help you assess their past behaviors and current attitudes about managing a team. The following questions will help you look for the five crucial leadership characteristics mentioned above.

1. Give an example of a time you managed a difficult employee, and how you overcame it.

Effective leaders build strong teams by communicating openly and fostering a sense of connection and belonging, as mentioned in the HBR study. This unity can be disrupted by an employee who is troublesome, doesn't perform well, or causes conflicts among team members. Ask candidates about their experience dealing with difficult employees to assess their ability to handle conflicts within their team.

Their answer should demonstrate their conflict resolution skills, as well as their ability to communicate and compromise. While their solution for dealing with a difficult employee may have ended in termination, that should have been their last resort. You want to learn the steps they took to resolve their issues before it came to that conclusion.

You're also looking into how they manage their own behavior around difficult people. Take note of how they perceive the person they were in conflict with. Are they hostile or empathetic? Do they have the ability to look at things from more than one perspective and find common ground?

Follow-up question: How do you deal with people who disagree with you?

2. How do you motivate your team?

This question is meant to get your candidate talking about their philosophy on people management. Remember that good leaders are able to nurture growth and empower their team by creating a safe and trusting environment.

Listen for well-developed strategies for encouraging career growth and strong performance from their employees. Do they use a carrot (positive motivation) or stick (negative motivation) approach? Do they create a feeling of succeeding — or failing — together for their team? Are they able to provide concrete examples of how they have motivated teams in the past, or does the candidate mostly speak in generalizations?

You are also looking to see if they are realistic in their expectations for employee performance. Use follow-up questions to learn how they get under-performing employees back on track.

Follow-up question: How would you approach a team member who remains unmotivated?

3. How do you set priorities for the different projects you manage?

Prioritization and self-organization are very important skills for senior-level staff. Misplaced priorities, or an inability to rank projects by urgency and importance, can lead to inefficiency and missed deadlines that cause trickle-down effects throughout the company.

The candidate should be able to demonstrate a method for prioritizing their own and their team's tasks. Do they have a mental model for making decisions, and are they able to communicate their strategy well? Can they regulate their time and delegate important tasks to other people when necessary, or do they try to do everything themselves?

Follow-up question: How do you decide what tasks to assign to which employees?

4. Walk me through a time you managed a complex team project. What was your approach to the work, and how did you delegate tasks?

Great leaders foster a collaborative environment by optimizing individual employee's strengths. They encourage employees to “self-organize” by providing encouragement and direction, and by allowing them to achieve their own goals. Leaders who try to control every part of each process will smother employees and burn out.

Look for people who are able to assign tasks based on the abilities of team members. Are they able to delegate tasks, and are they comfortable giving employees the autonomy to self-direct? Kerrie Juels, Technical Recruiter at Formlabs, uses this question to assess whether a candidate's leadership style aligns with their organization: “We are a company that emphasizes lack of micromanagement; does [your] leadership align with that style?”

Follow-up question: How do you deal with team members who fall behind schedule or can't keep up their part of the plan?

5. How do you give feedback to employees?

Communicating your evaluation of an employee's performance is a huge part of being a leader. The candidate must be able to give both positive and negative feedback in a way that nurtures employee growth. Leah Ward, Chief of Staff at Teampay, often asks interviewees how they give feedback because “they'll constantly be required to direct their team and communicate their strategies to other leaders in the organization.

The candidate should be able to give feedback that helps employees learn and improve their performance going forward. They should have established methods for doing so often and openly.

In the follow-up discussion, probe their ability not just to give feedback, but to receive it — from their peers and those they manage. Have they established ways for employees to give feedback anonymously, for example?

Follow-up question: How do you like to receive feedback?

6. What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make recently, and why?

Leaders need to be decisive. While it's important to fairly examine all options and hear everyone's perspectives, too much back and forth can look wishy-washy and be ineffective. A leader who can quickly and fairly make decisions inspires the trust of their employees.

In the candidate's answer, you are looking for a few key pieces of information. First, why was this decision difficult for them? Was their greatest worry the impact on the customer? Was it their ego and looking good to others? Was it the well-being of their employees?

Then, you want to hear how they attacked the problem and came to a resolution. Were they flexible in their thinking? Did they consider new ideas or approaches to the problem? How was their solution received?

Follow-up question: How did you communicate your decision to those that might disagree with you?

7. How do you help employees grow and develop in their careers?

The best managers nurture growth among their team members to help create the next generation of leaders. Employees who feel challenged and encouraged often respond with higher-quality work.

The candidate should show a commitment towards helping their employees grow within the organization. Do they expect employees to be internally driven, or do they provide opportunities for training and learning new skills? Do they allow room for trial and error and a safe environment for failure?

Follow-up question: Can you give me a specific example of an employee who you helped take on new responsibilities?

8. Tell me about a time you had to think outside the box to complete a task.

Being open to new ideas and approaches are key components of encouraging organizational learning. With this question, you're asking about the candidate's flexibility and their ability to approach problems in new ways and come up with novel solutions.

Their answer should give you a window into their creativity and problem-solving abilities. First, they should be able to articulate a good example of a time they approached a solution in an unorthodox way. Second, they should be able to walk you through their decision-making process, explaining what choices they made and why.

In the follow-up, ask them to explain how they were able to get buy-in on their new ideas. Novel solutions are great, but can also be opposed by others precisely because they are untested. A good leader should be able to influence others and receive buy-in on their ideas, or they may never be able to act on them.

Follow-up question: How do you get people on board with a new/unusual idea?

9. Tell me about the best leader or manager you ever had. What did you like about them?

This question takes the focus off the candidate directly. By getting them to talk about someone else, you can glean some honest insights into what leadership qualities the candidate personally values. Brian Nolan, co-founder of Sellbrite, likes to ask this question because “I want to know that they have learned from a good manager in the past and are able to apply those traits to their leadership ability.

This is an excellent place to drill down on the traits the candidate believes make for a great leader. Is it strong ethics? Do they emphasize communication skills? An ability to help subordinates grow? Discipline? Creativity?

Conversely, their answer to the follow-up question can tell you what they hope to avoid in their own management style.

Follow-up question: Have you ever had a bad manager? What did you learn from them?

10. In what ways do you demonstrate leadership qualities outside of the office?

By getting the candidate to talk about something outside of the scope of their normal job duties, you can catch a glimpse of their natural leadership abilities. Sofia Quintero, the CEO of EnjoyHQ, likes to ask about a potential hire's side projects: “I want to understand if they can make something happen from scratch. Especially if they have done it with other people, as a team and outside their regular job.

Their answer could encompass anything from a side business they created to their experience as a leader of the PTA. This is the candidate's chance to demonstrate that they are self-motivated, creative and that they can inspire connection and belonging outside the office. Can they organize and inspire a team organically? Do people trust them and want to be around them, even when they aren't required to?

Follow-up question: How do the skills you developed doing that activity transfer into your professional role?

Playing the Long Game with Leadership

The best leadership qualities can sometimes feel counterintuitive to the way humans naturally behave when presented with power and responsibility. Dr. Sunnie Giles acknowledges that the leadership qualities presented by the HBR study can “present significant challenges to leaders due to the natural responses that are hardwired into us.” Honing them requires “deep self-reflection and a shift in perspective.”

Delegating important tasks, explicitly communicating feedback, and demonstrating flexible thinking are all difficult skills to master, even for those with a long history of managing others. You can cultivate new leaders in your organization by looking for candidates who already possess these qualities, even if they don't have years of leadership experience under their belt.

When it comes to hiring candidates with true leadership potential, prioritize character traits like integrity, flexibility, and empathy over institutional knowledge and experience. Asking the 10 questions above will help you determine which candidates are best-suited to manage teams at your organization.

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