How to Rise to the Top: Ace Curveball Questions

People sometimes complain to me about the questions they’re asked in interviews. A recent article rather irked me, because it missed the point of the interview process. I wrote this response to address the idea of curveball questions so both employers and candidates can make the most of the process of catching someone (and being caught) off guard in an interview.

In his LinkedIn post, John Byrne asserts that people lose jobs by incorrectly answering strange questions. A sales candidate, he writes, didn’t get the job because, when asked what kind of animal he’d be, he answered shark.

I seriously doubt just choosing shark lost him the job. Chances are he showed during other parts of the interview that he wasn’t right for the job. But if shark was completely out of line with the corporate culture, sales process, and needs of the company for which he wanted to work, yes, maybe calling himself a shark did cost him the job. And it probably should.

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Why Are They Doing This to Me?

Keep in mind, as I’ve said before, interviewers are trying to find an easy way to disqualify you, to see if you’re self-aware and honest, and to discern what qualities might keep you, your projects, your teams, and the company from success.
Sure, telling the Wolf of Wall Street that you’re a shark might work. But even if they don’t want a shark, an employer surprising you with an unusual question wants to hear is you pause, consider, and come up with a reasonable answer that fits the rest of your interview.

So-called curveball questions aren’t intended to frazzle you out of contention. They’re constructed to see how you handle being knocked off your game. Every interviewer knows you’ve prepared, you’ve rehearsed, and you’re putting your best face forward. (If you’re not, go back to this refresher on interviewing.) “Sure, she seems ideal,” they think, “but what happens when she starts working here and the day isn’t something she can rehearse?” Enter the seemingly ridiculous questions. Life is somewhat ridiculous, work can often be ridiculous, so asking you what kind of animal you are is honestly not that ridiculous.

Want to know why? Because interviewers are looking for problem solving under pressure.

How Do I Prepare?

The LinkedIn post I referenced above includes other curveball questions, cited by recent MBAs from their interview processes. And honestly, most of them aren’t really all that outrageous. Most of them have simple answers that will vary for each person based on their approach, their decision making process, and their personality type. And that’s exactly why some employers use questions that seem outrageous. The key to handling them well is to take a breath, tell the interviewer it’s a good question and that you need a moment.

Then think.
Really think.
What is the question asking?

Save Me from the Lions

A question like, “What would you do if a lion entered the room right now?” is testing your reaction of high-stakes situations. And the only answer is to assess the situation before you react. If you announce that you’d use your rock-climbing skills to get yourself to a comfy perch on the ceiling, you’ve just lost because you haven’t asked any questions about the lion. It would be nice, from an interviewer perspective, to hear you say that you’d try to ascertain the lion’s mood before you acted. A hungry or agitated lion is very different from a lonely lion cub in need of affection. Explain that, before you create a plan of action, you would collect a few facts. Even if that process takes place behind an upended chair. The answer to the lion question (and almost every other curveball question) is, “It depends.” So explain what it might depend on, and do some problem solving out loud. Assessment and planning? That’s what they want to see.

Am I Really Worth That Much?

Another question on Bryce’s list is, “Why should we pay you $100,000 a year?” Seemingly arrogant questions about why the company should pay you a high salary deserve a reasonable answer. What do you have to offer that’s worth so much? Don’t just spout the going rate for your role. You can do better. You know why you’re worth so much. Articulate your value.

When Can I Lie?

“When is a lie okay?” If you’ve really never considered this before, do so now. Quickly. And walk the interviewer through your process. Because you can argue in absolutes or you can argue in nuance. Knowing into which camp you fall is important, as is the why you then argue in your answer. As with the lion, “it depends.” Now get to the part they want to hear: what does it depend on?

What Is a Good Answer Worth?

I personally laughed at the financial services interviewer who asked, “How would you value a dinosaur?” Easy, if you’re applying for a job in finance. You know on what principles monetary value is based. Talk about market pricing and rarity and value for fossil vs. live creature. Talk. Reason. Think. Explain. “It depends.” Of course it does. Talk about that.

Thinking on Your Feet

All of these questions are actually reasonable, if you think about what an interviewer needs to know about you. What do you know, how do you work, how do you perform under pressure, and is your persona in this room all an act?
And by the way? If you can’t “explain your last job to a 10-year-old”, you’re worse off than the salesperson who aligned himself with sharks. Humility, communications, and an awareness of the reason behind questions will lead to a great interview, and to a 10-year-old who actually understands what you do.

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