Three Clever Ploys for Dealing with Dumb Job Interview Questions From the CEO

Don’t get tripped up by daft interview questions, by moving the conversation towards your ability to do the job.

An article that promises “We got 10 CEOs to tell us their one killer interview question for new hires” ought to be full of impressive questions that directly connect the behavior and past performance of the candidate to the job, right?

Unfortunately, no.

As it happens, the ten CEOs that Quartz assembled have the usual mess of dumb questions, self-important nonsense, and bizarre voodoo rituals.

And while there’s a good explanation for how even the top dog at a company can end up asking the worst interview questions, the important outcome for you is to make sure that dumb questions don’t keep you from landing a great gig.

These bad questions shouldn’t cause you concern, and in fact, they’re an opportunity for you to shine by gently moving your answers to the core of what really matters — your likely success in the job.

Interviews are strange, of course. It’s tough for you to get a feel for whether you’re supposed to be buddies with the person across the table, or be trying to impress them, or puffing yourself up. That’s why it’s so common to have a bit of sympathy for anybody who’s going on a job interview — almost everybody says “good luck!”

But we should also have a dash of compassion for the person doing the interviewing. As these CEO questions confirm, most interviewers in the United States are horribly trained — if trained at all — and are often just thrown into interviewing without preparation, education, or practice.

That’s how you wind up on the receiving end of questions like these — and let’s face it — these are terrible questions:

“Talk to me about when you were seven or eight. Who did you want to be?”

A key test comes early in the meal: “I give them the wine list.”

“I told him to sing for us”

“Would you rather be respected or feared?”

The reason they’re terrible is they have nothing to do with job performance.

And I don’t just mean directly. There are plenty of questions that are not directly about how you did your job that are nonetheless effective in assessing future job performance (Ken Moelis’ Monopoly question being a good example of assessing analytic skills via non-job-related subject matter.)

What I mean is that these questions are not predictive of future job performance. There is nothing about what you wanted at eight years old, how well you know your way around a wine list, or your propensity to sing in public that has any ability to determine whether or not you’ll be good at the role you’re interviewing for.

So let’s get to the practical matter: how should you handle dumb questions from the CEO, or anybody else, in an interview?

Here are your three clever ploys for dealing with interview oddities. You can use some variation of these responses, always delivered in a pleasant, accommodating, welcoming way, to move the conversation to the substance of your ability to do the job.

The “But What About Me?” Move

“What are you trying to understand better about my background with this question? Perhaps I can help clarify something I haven’t made clear.”

The “Let Me Highlight What I *Am* Good At” Gambit

“I think what you’re trying to ask is whether I’m good at ___________ [fill in the blank with something you’re good at]. Let me share with you the time that…”

The “Jiu Jitsu, Turn-It-Right-Around-And-Send-It-Back” Action

“I know this job is important for your team / group / company. What would be the answer you’re looking for from somebody in this role, and I can tell you if I match up with that?”

Each of these moves, alone or in combination, can help you keep your interview flowing in the right direction. So rather than frittering away valuable interview time on answering daft questions, or getting annoyed with an amateur interviewer, turn the conversation towards something that puts your abilities in a better light.

For example:

“Would you rather be respected or feared?”

“Help me understand what are you trying to assess about my experience with that question. Whether I’m effective at motivating people, right? Well, let me tell you about the time that…”

“Sing for us.”

“I think what you’re trying to ask is whether I’m comfortable in front of audiences, and the answer is definitely not! That’s why I’m applying for this economics analyst job. Numbers sing to me, I don’t sing for them!”

“What did you want to be when you were seven or eight?”

“Great question, and I know this job is important for your team. What kind of answer are you looking for from the candidate you’ll hire for this role? And then I can tell you whether I match up with that.”

In every case, turn the conversation back to the job, your experience, and how your background indicates that you’ll be successful in this role.

And with that, have a great week in the job search!

I’m rooting for you!

Marc Cenedella

Marc Cenedella Marc Cenedella is the Founder, Executive Chairman and CEO of Ladders, Inc., the comprehensive career resource dedicated to helping professionals ‘Manage, Market and Move-up’ in their careers. Over the last decade, Ladders has transformed the way job candidates and recruiters connect online. Follow Marc on Twitter at @Cenedella.

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