I was a bit surprised by how thoroughly Google tested my management and leadership skills. Three out of the eight interviews were about management and leadership. That gave me a strong hint that these interviews are similarly important to Google as the technical interviews. I had to reflect about my past leadership experiences in the army, about management in non-profit organizations and my team leading in the realm of event management. I also had to think about how I approached education (which I am passionate about), coaching and mentoring. If I wanted to demonstrate those skills in an interview I knew, I’d better have my story straight and be aware of what I am and am not good at.
The first group of recruits [blurred] which I had the honor to lead. We all make an angry face to scare the photographer. Shot with a potato cam during an exercise.
I started my self-explorative journey by writing down two or three STAR-formatted stories for each of the following questions:
- How did I handle conflict in the past? Which situations did I approach understanding, democratic, decisive, thoughtful, or with clear priorities that are in line with my values? How did that work out for each of them?
- How did I approach performance management in a team? How did I deal with under-performers in my team?
- How do I lead? How does my leadership style work in different situations? What does “being a leader” mean to me?
- What are my values? What are the principles that guide my decision making when push comes to shove?
- Looking at past challenges: What went well and what went wrong?
- How did I ensure safety? In a tech job this is primarily about psychological safety but when I served my country this often included the physical safety of my team as well.
- How did I develop a vision (pro tip: never alone) and how did I share the vision with a group of people.
- What opportunities did I have to inspire people and how I (often unconsciously) did inspire people? To be honest, I do not really understand how it happens but I have been told to be inspiring to some.
- How did I overcome a difficult situation?
- What is a tough problem I solved? What aspects of leadership and management did I apply to the situation?
- How did I create, establish, or support a healthy culture? What makes a healthy culture in my opinion anyway?
- How did I assess critical situations?
- How did I drive impact in the past? How did I measure the impact? How did it turn out in the long run?
- How did I foster creative thinking?
- How did I drive improvements, influenced, and took ownership?
- And lastly, what are some success stories of mine showing communication skills, working under pressure, working in a team, and executing complex, technical projects? You gotta self-advertise a little in those interviews I thought. It didn’t hurt. 👍
That left me with a large bank of thought-through answers. I went over the bank a couple of times to make sure I remember the key facts and have them ready when needed. My idea was to not start reflecting during the interview but to have pre-reflected signal ready to share.
Regarding the craftsmanship of management I revisited popular project management frameworks and methodologies and thought about what I liked and disliked about each of them. I spent some time thinking through challenges that may require a particular framework.
Another topic that I brushed up my knowledge about was German labor law. Just enough to make sure I don’t come up with crazy off-the-table solutions to hypothetical questions. I wasn’t asked anything in that direction in the actual interviews. 🤷
Finally, I thought about common questions and how I would answer them, including:
- Why did I want to leave my old job? (I did not really, although I wished I had more budget and autonomy)
- Why did I want to work at Google? Putting aside all the typical “it is considered so cool” reasons, what exactly did me get excited about the company and the mission? I wrote about that extensively in The Organization, culture, and me article of this blog series.
- What were my salary expectations? I found this hard to answer and provided a ballpark number only. Google was, unlike Facebook, happy to meet me there. Maybe I low-balled myself? 🤨
Knowing that I am a capable engineer I could easily find fulfillment in engineering work. So why did I want to move to management and give up the joy and satisfaction of working with technology all day long? That turned out to be a tough question and I’m not entirely sure I have found the answer yet. Let me try to sketch out my thought process for your entertainment.
Management was always a bit out of my comfort zone, yet, I did lead or manage small groups from my early days in school up until now. Whenever I went out of my comfort zone I learned a new skill or improved on something unexpected. I enjoyed those moments and find they are worth the struggle of being slightly uncomfortable at work.
The crucial question was: Am I ready and willing to give up the technical work I love to serve as a manager? 🤔
Please note that this section is a rant. ☝️ According to the all-knowing dumpster fire the Internet is, a particularly popular question in interviews reads: What are your weaknesses? Some experts advise answering the question in a mildly manipulative way by making it actually about a strength. For example, by saying something like this:
My weakness is that I am not very patient and that I want to get things done.
I call bullshit! 💩 If you really think that is your greatest weakness I command you back to self-reflection class 101. Let’s assume that after spending a while with yourself you came to the conclusion that this is really your greatest weakness. Then please elaborate on how it affects your team, your stakeholders, how you raise awareness of your weakness. Also, I would hear about the measures you plan to put in place to prevent your impatience damaging the team, the culture, or the organization’s goals? If you can’t honestly talk about your weaknesses, how will you be able to manage them? Why would you be afraid of self-reflection but willing to take over responsibility for a whole team?
Here is what I believe represents much better answer:
One of my weaknesses is something I would call a decision making muscle memory. I sometimes have a hard time re-thinking a challenge from a different perspective. I have to constantly remind myself to listen to other people’s opinions and think a seemingly understood problem through from their perspective. This has to happen before I make a judgement call otherwise I limit my own thinking. I mitigate this by reminding myself to pause and think before making a decision. It is this short pause that I need to gain perspective.
Or even this one:
A constant challenge is to overcome introvertism. Many human interactions are incredibly stressful for me. Even day-to-day interactions like making small talk to the barista while getting a coffee is draining my people battery. I learned to overcome my shyness and fear but it does not come easy. Additionally, I learned how to recharge quickly and efficiently. Fitness and strength training is one of the me-time activities that energize me. Another activity I enjoy is cycling alone on a summer day and reflect on the past days. Just as much as possible without causing a road accident. I also deeply enjoy flying in a passenger jet without anyone talking to me while I look out of the window and imagine going beyond the stratosphere one far away day.
I believe it is important to know ones weak spots. Once known, weaknesses can be worked on, self-awareness can be increased, and the possibly negative consequences more effectively dealt with or mitigated. Tech companies love their employees to be creative on the process and mindful regarding their actions. Showing self-reflection skills in an Interview is a positive signal to the interviewer. Honesty and self-awareness is the only way to turn a weakness into a meaningful strength in an interview situation.
Leaders are Readers
I love to say readers are leaders and leaders are readers. There’s just so much truth to that. Here’s a list of books that influenced my management style and that I can recommend:
- Five dysfunctions of a team by Patrick M. Lencioni
- The seven habits of highly effective people by Steven R. Covey. It is my strong believe that leadership requires constant critical reflection and self-development. This old, but very applicable book helped and still helps me to shape my personal values, principles, and eventually myself. It’s one of the books one should read every 5 to 10 years.
- First 90 days by Michael Watkins. It’s full of hands-on support for getting traction after a transition. That applied to me as I was seeking a role change from Tech Lead to Manager
- The Trillion Dollar Coach by Eric Smith, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. An easy read, something for the summer vacation, but full of truths and interesting stories about Silicon Valley legend Bill Campbell.
- The Managers Path by Camille Fournier
I maintain an album of book cover photos containing all the books I want to read if time allows…
- Here’s How Google Knows in Less Than 5 Minutes if Someone Is a Great Leader
- re:work guides on topics like goal setting, management, and unbiasing. It also includes research results on managing under-performance, career development, handling conflict within a team, creating a psychological safe workplace, culture change, dealing with overload situations, balancing work and life, delegation, and escalation.