Choosing The Right Boss Is Just As Important As The Job

angry boss

Most job-seekers aren’t just looking for the right work — they’re looking for the right manager, too. To a large extent a manager will control your assignments and your work environment, so it makes sense to try to learn more about her long before you’re hired.

But in an hour-long interview with a hiring manager, you will be lucky to get fifteen minutes to ask your own questions. For this reason, as a job candidate you should not only be concerned with your answers to a hiring manager’s questions, and but also a potential manager’s answers to your questions.

It was early in my career when I first used this technique. I was the interviewee, and let’s just say the hiring manager reputedly had a management style akin to that of a Mafia boss — ruthless, and obsessed with loyalty. I asked if there was someone working for him that he considered a real star that I could learn from. He was quick to answer:

“That would be Barbara. One time, I gave her an assignment and she came back to me pleading that I give it to someone else. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and said that in all the years she had worked for me she had never asked for anything but this. Of course, I told her that I had given her an assignment, and expected her to do it. Barbara said, ‘Yes, boss,’ and did it. And that is why she is the star on my team.”

I learned more about his management style in that answer than if I had asked him directly. I had enough information right there to make my own decision.

To make an informed judgment about your potential boss, it’s important to ask the right questions during the interview:

  1. Start out by asking about a past project or accomplishment in detail. Get into specifics. Instead of hearing responses like, “I believe in delegating to my people,” you’ll want to get to, “We had a weekly meeting on the project, and people came to me between meetings with something they wanted my help with…” Make it a point to find out what the manager did, not just what she read in the latest issue of HBR. This way you’ll begin to understand how she actually conducts business in practice, and whether or not that’s a culture you want to be a part of.
  2. Ask about customers or colleagues. A good starting point is, “Can you give me an example of a typical customer, and what they are like?” Not only do you want to know what the customers are like, but also the manager’s attitude toward customers. If you are great with customers and your manager doesn’t respect them, your manager probably won’t like you. And if you treat customers the way your manager does — i.e., without respect — your customers won’t like you either.

Even before the Q&A section of the interview, look for repeated patterns of unconscious behaviour. This will help you predict future behaviour. Notice how the interviewer is saying things, not just what he is saying. Does he spend a lot of time talking about himself? Does he often use the word “I,” and never use “we” to describe his department? You can expect that manager to be pretty self-focused. Or, does the manager talk about “the team” and compliment or refer to others on the team? If you are a team-oriented person, you probably will have an easier time working for the second manager, regardless of what the job is.

Listen carefully during the interview. Does the manager grill you? Challenge your answers? Not let you get a word in edgewise? You can expect that to continue on the job. Or, does the manager welcome you? Show you around? Give you a chance to present yourself? You can expect that in the future, too.

Just as in my interview with Mr. Mafia Management Style, get the data on your potential boss early on — then decide if he’s the right manager for you. This way, when you accept an offer after you have learned what to expect from your manager, you are much more likely to be secure in your success.

And if you’re wondering if I answered “yes” to the offer from the “boss” — well — that’s a topic for another time.

This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.

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