Leadership interview questions

Leadership interview questions was originally published on RocketBlocks.

Leadership interview questions

Mandy Giacchetto, Director at Gingko Bioworks, ex-BCGPublished: February 23, 2022

Experience | Attributes | Sample questions and answers

Leadership abilities and experience is a key area assessed in behavioral interviews.

Even if you are early on in your career and the roles you are applying for are entry-level or associate-level, don’t be fooled! “Leadership” will be considered in your hiring process. If you are seasoned in your field, and you have a proven track record in managerial or leadership roles, don’t be fooled! There’s more to “Leadership” than touting a resume with the title.

Bottom line is that top companies want to hire leaders. In this post, I’m going to walk you through the different aspects of “leadership” to consider during the interview process and how to be prepared for each.

Leadership experience (Top)

One aspect is leadership as a skill, for which companies will be seeking a proven track record in specific areas of leadership – some examples include:

  • effectively facilitating a team through a project
  • mentoring colleagues and aiding in professional development of others
  • having ownership / being held accountable for key outcomes
  • developing or growing an internal discipline

The scope and the specifics of leadership skills should map directly to the type of role in play. We all read the job description of roles that we are interviewing for. It’s important to re-read it and re-read it with several different lenses. To discern the leadership skills required, you should be looking for two things: (1) the role level, often found in the title of the role itself; and (2) role requirements and responsibilities, such as “lead a team of…”, “lead the efforts around…”, “manage and oversee…”.

Create an outline of the type of leadership skills required for the role. Start identifying threads from your five core stories that best exemplify these skills. An additional step you could take is doing a little bit of research about the leveling of the role. For example, is a “senior director” at this company comparable to a “senior director” at your current or previous companies? If the title or leveling is not one that you’re familiar with, then how does it map to what you’re used to? And how will you build that bridge in your interview? (HINT: through your stories, of course!)

Now let’s look at some specific roles, and how they may articulate leadership skills.

  • Consulting role (e.g., Associate Consultant at BCG): Lead a significant work-stream (e.g., cost driver analysis) with minimal supervision, collaborate with teammates as needed and problem solve on the fly.
  • Product management (e.g., Product Manager at Google): Lead a team of 5-10 engineers in development of a new feature, including creating requirements, bug triaging and working with marketing to roll it out.
  • Product marketing (e.g., Product Marketing Manager at Salesforce): Lead the go-to-market efforts for a new enterprise product, including owning external website copy, sales enablement training and coordinating with PR.
  • Strategy & BizOps (e.g., BizOps at Gusto): Lead an analysis to determine headcount needs for the customer support organization over the next year, and work with Support leads to implement and measure results.

Next you’ll want to practice taking the threads from your core stories and spinning these into potential interview responses. From a “skill” and “track record” perspective, these are the type of questions you can expect:

Example question #1: Tell me about a time you led a project that achieved a great result.

Example question #2: Tell me about your leadership style and how you motivate others.

Leadership attributes (Top)

This one is my favorite, because leadership attributes don’t have to do with your skill level or years of experience; it has to do with you. These are things like:

  • Are you a visionary?
  • Can you move a (virtual) room?
  • Do people come to you for advice?
  • Do you raise the standards on everything you touch?
  • Do others raise their standards around you?

Leadership as an attribute is nuanced across different companies. Look at their mission statements and their manifestos, which are often found on the About pages, Company pages, or Jobs/Career pages of company websites. Most likely, the company will find great leadership potential from folks who can embody the company mission and articulate novel ways to deliver on that mission. Some companies have explicit literature on their definitions of leadership.

Companies will also use the job description itself to include broader sweeping notes on leadership qualities that the company values. In the job description of a role you’re interested in, look for section headers such as “additional qualifications”, “preferred capabilities”, and “who you are”. Beyond the necessary technical skill requirements, these sections will indicate other attributes that will make a candidate attractive for the role.

At my current company, Ginkgo Bioworks, and its newly branded business unit, Concentric by Ginkgo, we have a section in all of our job descriptions called “Notes on Culture”, in which we imply key leadership attributes:

Notes on Culture: Concentric by Ginkgo is a high-energy, positive and fast-paced environment where new challenges and opportunities arise every day. This role is ideal for people who thrive in this type of setting and for people who appreciate variety in their days. There are many opportunities to learn, grow, and think outside-of-the box. At the end of the day, the team is motivated by doing high impact work in service to society, and we are united under that purpose. To get a sense of the culture at Ginkgo more broadly, read some articles in Grow by Ginkgo, the company magazine we produce, which tells the story of synthetic biology in a Ginkgo-authentic way.

Each company has its own twist. Here are two excerpts from Amazon and one from McKinsey.

Amazon: “Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.” – Amazon’s Ownership Principle (part of the 14 leadership principles)

In the above examples, Amazon is highly focused on taking ownership and holding teams to a high standard of production.

As a contrast, let’s look at how McKinsey currently defines the leadership trait they look for in their personal experience interviews (PEI):

McKinsey & Company: Harnessing the power of diverse thinking to drive results requires the ability to lead teams of people with different backgrounds and create a sense of belonging where everyone can be at their best. – McKinsey career page

There are some similarities (e.g., one could read driving results as similar to taking ownership), but there are clear differences as well. McKinsey puts a lot of emphasis on diversity (e.g., “diverse thinking” and “lead teams of people with different backgrounds”) whereas Amazon’s principles are very focused on output. (NOTE: It’s hard to get a true apples-to-apple comparison here given Amazon has a whole set of published leadership principles of which two are quoted above but, nevertheless, these can be loosely compared to see what a company places emphasis on).

Between company literature and job descriptions, create a map of key words that indicate the leadership attributes that the company values. First ask yourself, do they align with your values? Does this feel right? If so – let’s get to it. Look across your core stories, and pull out threads that bring these attributes to life. Then, of course, take the time to flesh out some practice stories with example questions.

Leadership interview questions and answers (Top)

Example leadership interview question #1: Tell me about a time you had to lead in a team centered environment?

Answer: I was once invited to represent a 10 man Goldman Sachs team for an all night puzzle hunt challenge In London that aimed to raise funds for a charity. I recognized that the team’s success depended on building mutual trust very quickly. As the youngest member of the team, I decided that it was easiest for me to let my guard down and I shared some of my strengths and weaknesses upfront, and this encouraged others to follow suit. We realized that I was the most tech-savvy member of the team, so I decided to step up to take on the coordinator role – I created a Slack channel for communication, set up group tracking on everyone’s phones, and also volunteered for some of the more physically demanding tasks. Given that the team had to split up to tackle several tasks in parallel, I also delegated specific roles for each sub-team while serving as the central coordinator for the entire team.
Mukunth Raghavan, McKinsey & Company

Example leadership interview question #2: Tell us about a time you led a team to an important milestone

Answer: While at BCG Digital Ventures, I was the lead strategic designer in an investment pitch, responsible for representing the customer impact portion of the case. To give you some context, we were working with one of the largest providers of Alternative Financial Services in the US and Latin America to identify a viable new business opportunity to “self-disrupt their declining business”. I led the ethnographic research recruitment, design, and execution. I advocated that at least one of the client executives (who was seconded onto our team) joined the in-person, in-context interviews as an observer. I also spent several hours across a few key retail locations of our client, observing their current customers and running intercept interviews in the context of their most recent transaction. This immersion generated a rich body of behavioral observations; things you can’t glean from stats and white papers about the “underbanked population”.
Mandy Giacchetto, Director at Gingko Bioworks

At the end of the day, when it comes to behavioral considerations in the interview process, you should always fall back on yourself. Being true to yourself and leading with that will show what type of leader you are or can become. Companies want to get to know you and see whether you will be an asset to the company because of your unique attributes in addition to your hard skills. With a little bit of rigor around the tips outlined above, you’ll be able to present yourself with confidence – which is more than half the battle.

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