IT leadership: How to spot a collaboration superstar in interviews

If you want to build your team's collaboration power, try using my five telling job interview questions. And job hunters, listen up
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As a collaborative leader, I recognize the importance of using job interviews to find the right people for a successful collaborative team. In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins said, “People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

To that end, consider these questions that I ask candidates regarding cross-team collaboration. This list isn’t exhaustive: I’ve selected the questions with the highest impact on my decisions.

How to identify collaboration skills: 5 job interview questions

1. How do you provide feedback to a colleague who is struggling or performing poorly?

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” - Bill Gates

One of the most challenging aspects of good team communication is providing critical feedback.

You want to see how a person behaves when they have contradicting opinions about emotional issues.

You want to see how a person behaves when they have contradicting opinions about emotional issues. Giving and receiving feedback is frequently uncomfortable, and it is crucial to predict how people will react in these circumstances.

Does the interviewee delay feedback or keep feedback close? On the other hand, do they dedicate enough time to thinking about the inputs, versus criticizing their colleagues without thinking the issue through.

Manager tip:

As an interviewer, observe if the person chose the right timing for providing the feedback and if they identified precisely the root cause for the bad behavior or lack of performance. Good feedback should include recommendations and corrective action, also. Not every bit of direction will be received warmly, and you want someone who has the patience and respect necessary to hold people accountable in a good way. At Red Hat, managers learn these skills using Crucial Conversations training, to foster open, safe dialogue around emotional or risky topics at all organizational levels.

 [ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

2. What project are you most proud of?

Candidates who care most about collaboration will mention their team members and use the word "we" frequently.

This question gives the candidate a main stage chance to shine – to promote their work and their role in bringing that work to life. This question provides a window into both how the candidate works and encourages projects along. Listen and observe: Do they give more credit to themselves or others?

As Harry S. Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Collaborative people focus on targets and goals: They start with the end in mind and then focus on how to get there.

Candidates who care most about collaboration will mention their team members and use the word “we” rather than “I.” They understand that the success of the team is important as their own success. They value innovation and meritocracy. Collaborative people know how important their team is and will mention their team members in answers.

Manager tip:

Consider using the STAR interview format here, emphasizing behavioral questions. You’ll ask the candidate to focus on a situation, task, action and result.

3. Share an example of a team project that failed

Any interviewee should be ready to provide examples of previous successes and projects that inspired pride. With this question, you get the opportunity to discuss examples of personal resilience and overcoming challenges.

Collaborative people have unique capabilities to overcome failures. For instance, they are often more patient than other people. As an interviewer, you need to observe that the candidate stays calm during a troubled process and focuses on analyzing and solving the problems.

Collaborative people also know how to handle conflicts when they encounter them. They usually react fast and think about possible ways to mitigate the issues. Try to observe the interviewee’s part in overcoming the challenges they faced and how they did it. Also essential: Explore what they learn from the failure and how they perhaps prevent it from recurring.

You want to observe whether candidates are willing to take risks and try new things.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks about failing quite often: “I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew that one thing I might regret is not trying,” Bezos has said. Without risks, there will be no creativity, innovation, or growth.

Manager tip:

In Red Hat and IBM, we believe in the fail-fast approach. The key to failing fast is to develop enough of your idea to determine whether it helps customers. Failing fast requires a culture where the team has the freedom to fail but can learn something from each failure: This helps the team succeed faster the next time.

4. How do you influence people who do not report to you?

Is the interviewee a subject matter expert who can convince others of their ideas?

It is easier to influence people working with you or reporting to you and harder to influence others in your organization. One of the surest methods is to develop strong expertise in your area. When asking this question, you want to observe that the interviewee is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in their area and can convince others of their ideas. Earning trust and credibility is a critical aspect and should be included in the candidate’s reply.

Other traits that matter here are flexibility and respect for diversity of opinions. Collaborative people need to ensure they’re breaking down the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, age, and any other factors contributing to discrimination. When people think outside of the box and know how to use a collaborative decision-making approach, they will influence other teams.

The candidate needs to show that they can listen to other opinions and not be stuck with a solution.

Does the candidate show leadership skills even when working with people outside of their team and authority? In the book: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, Clay Scroggins says “Leaders don’t sit back and point fingers. Leaders lead with the authority of leadership…or without it. The authority is largely irrelevant – if you are a leader, you will lead when you are needed.”

Manager tip:

When I try to influence without authority, I get to know the key influential people and stakeholders for a project. For instance, suppose I’ll be leading a project that will involve managers from several other functions, and I’ve scheduled a formal kick-off meeting in a month. I seek out those managers in the weeks before the discussion and ask them for their thoughts about the upcoming project. Does your candidate speak of similar behavior?

[ Are you recruiting diverse teams ? Read also: How DBS Bank is improving gender diversity in technology. ]

5. Tell me about a time you had to work with a colleague with whom you didn’t get along

This is another critical question I ask – to identify that the candidate assumes positive intentions from the other person and stays aware of their own emotions. You want to see that they do not take things personally and express feelings calmly.

Still, the most important thing is to see that the interviewee doesn’t try to hide from collaboration opportunities when they do not get along with someone – but tries to solve the problem in the best possible way. Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” It is essential to observe that the interviewee has made exemplary efforts to connect to that person and learn how to work with them efficiently, without involving emotions.

Manager tip:

According to psychologist Dr. Susan Krauss, it can be a good idea to use another person as a mediator in these discussions because they can bring a level of objectivity to a situation. You may not end up as friends, but you might find a way to communicate and work together effectively. Learning to work with people you don’t get along with is fulfilling, and it could become another way to show your excellent skills as a collaborative leader. How does the candidate stack up here?

Building your collaborative team

If you want to act as a leader of successful collaboration initiatives, you will need collaborative team members alongside you in order to do it properly. That’s why spotting collaboration ability is critical in a job interview. As an interviewer, try examining all five issues explored above, including issues of feedback, failure, and influence. These questions should help you infer the candidate’s communication skills, even with difficult people. Take these aspects into consideration and you will make great strides finding the right people for a collaborative organization.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Oded Ramraz serves as Senior Manager, Quality Engineering, Global for Red Hat. He has more than ten years of experience in Red Hat building tooling and infrastructure teams from scratch, establishing in-house quality standards and procedures, and using Red Hat Portfolio products. He has a strong passion for open source, collaboration, and innovation.