We often get the chance to interview our future manager, but usually it’s while being evaluated for a new job. What do you do when you find yourself getting to interview your current manager’s replacement?

Know your priorities

When we are considering a candidate as an individual contributor on our team, we’re most successful if we first identify what attributes are most important to consider when making this hiring decision. Knowing these attributes helps us figure out what questions to ask, and what a successful interview experience looks like. The same holds true when we are interviewing a candidate to be our future manager.

Here are a few different characteristics that different people might prioritize:

  • Checks in regularly and engages in what I’m doing
  • Leaves me space to tackle our agreed-upon work and deadlines and doesn’t bug me about it until it’s done
  • Shields me from ad hoc changes to my work tasks introduced by others in company
  • Trusts me to ask for help when needed and lets me prioritize my tasks against what others ask me for

You may have noticed that some of these priorities are mutually exclusive.

What you need out of your manager may be different than what your colleagues, your friends, or your peers need – and that’s ok!

The important thing is that you identify what you need out of your future manager for you to be successful. Once you know what that is, you’ll be able to figure out what questions to ask and what signs to look for. For me, I thrive relative to the amount of responsibility I’m given, so that’s the single biggest factor I look for in my manager. I succeed under managers who give me opportunities to step up to a challenge.

Here’s my manager-interviewing strategy for finding managers I’ll thrive under. Your list might be different, and that is a wonderful thing. Find what works for you.

A few of my interview questions for manager candidates

A few things I might learn from the answer:

  • Are they a micromanager? will they swoop in on things I don’t want them to swoop in on?
  • Will they be mostly absent from my work life? will this be a benevolent neglect?
  • How much do they like to communicate? what drives them to want to communicate?

Follow-up questions I might ask:

  • Is your current team and size your ideal team and size?
  • What’s the gender and race makeup of your team?
  • How much of this team did you build?
  • Is anyone on the team someone you’ve worked with in the past?

Notes about this question:

Your candidate might not have experience managing a team that looks like yours. Maybe your team has a dozen people, and they’ve only techlead-managed teams of three or four. Try to think ahead of time to questions you might pivot to that will capture how they have worked in the past with structures similar to your own. Remember that specific examples are more likely to tell you how a candidate will behave once hired. Idealized philosophy only tells you what the candidate imagines might happen, not what they’ll do when confronted with reality.

A few things I might learn from the answer:

  • Do they actively work to retain their reports?
  • How much do they value their reports’ personal progression?
  • How much will I need to actively advocate for myself? how much will they advocate for me without my asking?

Follow-up questions I might ask:

  • Tell me more about the last time you promoted someone
  • How many people did you promote on your last team, and over what time period? How does that rate compare with other managers/teams at that company?
  • What about at previous teams you managed? what did promotion under you look like earlier?

Notes about this question:

Promotions might not be commonplace in your workplace, but if you value having your manager be your champion (or the champion of your teammates), find a way to dig in on what they’ve done in the past to champion a report. Asking about past promotions is an easy way to start, and you can prep some follow-up questions in case your candidate hasn’t navigated a promo system on a report’s behalf.

A few things I might learn from the answer:

  • What kind of boundaries are important to this manager candidate?
  • What kind of culture will they want to create? will they create a culture of blame or fear?

Follow-up questions I might ask:

  • How did you feel when you realized your report had messed up?
  • Would you do anything different? did you change anything after this happened?
  • How did the rest of your team react after this? was their reaction what you expected?

Notes about this question:

Answers to this question are a little tricky to interpret because most candidates won’t say something like “I SHALL BEGIN A REIGN OF FEEEAAAR”. The warning will be much more innocuous, maybe something about excelling or meeting expectations or duty to the shareholder. Pay close attention, listen to what your gut is saying about how this candidate is communicating about their priorities, and dig in with follow-up questions.

Closing thoughts

Use 3-5 main questions to get a picture of who your candidate is, what they value, and how that relates to the attributes you need in your manager. Dig in with follow-up questions to get some details, but keep an eye on time so that you can ask enough main questions to get an idea of the broad strokes.

Think about your interview as a canvas, and you’re using your time with the candidate to paint their portrait. If you concentrate all your time on capturing the set of their eyes, you might forget to note the color of their hair. Make sure you get a sketch of the person, and fill in details as time allows.

Finally, one of the most important interview questions happens outside the interview room: how does the candidate treat the person who greets them at the door? If your candidate is rude to your receptionist, or assumes the woman walking to meet him is the receptionist instead of the tech lead, that mindset will not magically change on joining your team.

Learn what makes you successful. Find the questions that will tell you if your manager candidate has those attributes. Remember the interview starts before you enter the room.

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