Monday, January 21, 2013

How Curious Are You?

I’ve been spending time with our students who just completed a Career Preparation class in the January Term, and talking with them about interviewing particularly for that first internship or job. So naturally, I’m looking in the press for things related to that topic that I can pass along to them as well as to our more experienced alumni. On that topic, take a look at yesterday’s New York Times, The Corner Office by Adam Bryant and his interview with Kon Leong, the co-founder, president and chief executive of ZL Technologies, an email and file archiving company located in San Jose, California. From the article:

Q. How do you hire? If you were interviewing me for a job, what would you ask me?

A. I would want to know your goals for the job. Is it money? Learning? Fulfillment? What is it? I would try to figure out if our environment suits your goals. I would not try to sell you to get you to take the job. I also will ask, “How curious are you?”

Q. I imagine that most people simply say, “Very.”

A. But then I’d ask, “Outside the headlines, what were some of the most interesting things you’ve noted in the last couple of weeks, and tell me why, and what did you do about it?” That would reflect what you think is interesting, and that tells me a fair bit. If you can cite many disparate topics, that’s a step in the right direction. The point is, we’re trying to find the right fit. In a fast-changing environment, you need to learn more and more and more. There’s so much to learn, and you can’t be taught all the permutations and combinations of the answers, so you have to learn on your own. And to learn on your own, you need curiosity.

Q. What other questions?

A. I’ll ask: How willingly do you accept stuff, and how willing are you to question things? How creative are you in finding your own answers? For example, everyone knows in school that you cannot divide by zero. Why? I try to find if they’ve actually questioned things like that at any time. The point is, we’re usually handicapped by our own borders, and we will not think beyond them. I think there’s one rule of thumb in creativity: when you’re brainstorming, you have to suspend disbelief. That’s a key ingredient. There’s time enough to challenge it and poke holes, but not at the time of generation.

I’ll also change the subject to one where they have some expertise. So I’ll ask what their passions are, and then I’ll ask questions. If it’s ornithology, I’ll start talking about the evolution of birds and ask questions like, “How do you think reptiles got feathers?”

Q. What else do you look for when hiring?

A. Brains and drive. Those are the basics. Without them, it’s probably going to be a long shot. After we work through that, then it’s curiosity and attitude.

Q. How do you get at the question of attitude?

A. Are you willing to learn from your mistakes? Do you do that automatically? Are you willing to set the bar higher? Are you able to deal with failure? Can you bounce back from it?

Q. What’s your take on the standard interview question about strengths and weaknesses?

A. I never really ask about weaknesses, because it’s meaningless. I ask more about strengths, but I ask it from a different angle. I’m more interested in the answers from a more personal perspective as opposed to a professional environment. I’ll typically ask: How would you describe yourself in three words outside the work environment? And then: What do you consider your natural strength? What do you do that comes without any effort, that your peers struggle with and can’t even match? What is natural for you? Other skills emanate from that natural core. Someone once answered that question by saying, “People tend to just come and talk to me.” That really intrigued me.

For the rest of the article:

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