We sometimes forget that even the highest-ranking executives have gone through job interviews. Recently, CNBC posted an interesting article with the provocative title, 15 years ago, Google’s CEO had a brilliant response to a tricky interview question – and it helped him get hired, which offered insights into the questions that leading companies such as Google sometimes ask and what they hope to hear from candidates.
At an interview for a Vice President position at Google, Sundar Pichai was asked an unexpected question which he could not answer; his response provides a useful strategy for job seekers: early on in the interview process, Pichai was asked about his thoughts on a Google product that was launched earlier that day. A little confused, he answered honestly that he hadn’t yet seen it yet. Undeterred, he proceeded through multiple interviews where he was repeatedly asked that question, and continued to explain that he had not seen it yet. Eventually, at the fourth interview, the interviewer took the opportunity to demonstrate the product, which allowed Pichai — at the fifth interview — to finally share his viewpoint of the product.
Not only was Pichai hired for that position, but he went on to become Google’s CEO.
So, what did he do that was so effective?
The article goes on to highlight the impact of Pichai’s decision to be honest and direct when faced with a question about a product about which he had no knowledge. This approach kept him as a contender throughout the lengthy interview process.
Pichai’s honesty and directness in answering this seemingly impossible question was the key to his success. He remained focused and continued calmly during the interview. The article describes this as “intellectual humility” — the value of honesty and curiosity in an interview, rather than pretending to be knowledgeable and perfectly skilled. Job seekers sometimes underestimate employers’ interest in character and soft skills, such as the ability to handle an unexpected question with grace.
Employers know that employees can learn a new skill or gain new knowledge, such as the recently launched Google product in Pichai’s case, whereas honesty, willingness to learn and humility cannot be learned.
Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google is quoted in the article saying that,
“Successful, bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure. They instead commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved.”
Job seekers need to remember that during an interview, there’s no need to rush into answering every question quickly. When presented with a difficult question, take a moment to consider your reply. Ask a clarifying question that may show a willingness to learn or thoughtful analysis. Keep in mind that getting to the interview stage means the employer has read your resume and decided that you have a lot to offer. In addition to demonstrating your skills and knowledge, an interview also provides the opportunity to show personal integrity, honesty and confidence. Respectful, curious and genuine employees make much better colleagues and contribute to a positive company culture.
To impress interviewers, not only should you prepare your knowledge of the job, the company, and of yourself, make sure to rehearse honest and clear responses to questions. This will allow employers to get know you as a thoughtful, critically self-aware candidate, who is open to new learning — which are highly valued characteristics.