Back in 2008, when Facebook’s users were still predominantly college students and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was a new hire just recruited from Google, Lori Goler saw an opening.
At the time, Goler was a marketing executive at eBay. She’d been an early Facebook adopter, and the news of Sandberg’s arrival there made the social network even more enticing to her. She didn’t know Sandberg well, though she’d met her at a few events. Convinced Facebook was the future, Goler took a risk, and cold-called the new COO. She picked up.
“I was oddly surprised when I was able to reach her,” says Goler, in a post on LeanIn.org. “I had no idea what Facebook needed. I only knew I wanted to do something that mattered. I figured I didn’t have much time, so I launched right in: ‘Sheryl, what is your biggest problem and can I help solve it?'”
Sandberg responded with equal directness: “Recruiting,” she said. “We have amazing people, and we need to continue to build the team.”
Goler had never led a recruiting organization, “a fact the little voice inside my head repeated dozens of times,” she says. Nonetheless, Sandberg offered her a recruiting role, and she took it. Months later, Goler got promoted to head of HR, the job she’s held ever since.
Reflecting on the experience, Goler tells Quartz At Work that she still thinks “What’s your biggest problem, and can I help solve it” is a good question for job seekers.
“Asking about an organization’s biggest challenge shows you are the kind of person who is ready to tackle hard problems and wants to make a personal impact, which is something we encourage at Facebook,” she says. “Find and approach the person you know the best at an organization if you want to get hired, regardless of level. And if you don’t know anyone, scour your network and start attending industry events to start building relationships.”
Especially at progressive, young companies, it’s true that boldness can pay off. What’s your biggest problem and how can I help solve it is “a great question to ask of a direct, no-nonsense person,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. “What I love about it is that it shows you’re focused on their business and on adding value. That is a much better approach than trumpeting your personal qualifications.”
But as opening lines go, the one Goler used successfully with Sandberg isn’t necessarily right for everyone—you have to know your audience.
“In a more conservative environment, some would bristle at this straight-to-the-point approach,” says Davey. “Even the use of the word ‘problem,’ which implies a company doesn’t entirely have it’s act together, would be objectionable to some.” Moreover, the question could be interpreted by the interviewer as you, the job seeker, not having a clear sense of your goals, and being wishy-washy in your willingness to take on any problem, Davey warns.
Instead, she suggests turning Goler’s single question into a strategy, starting with a statement about the company gleaned from research, followed by a question to test your hypothesis. For example: “I’ve been reading about how fast Facebook is growing—how is that affecting your recruiting efforts?”
After this discussion, you can share your enthusiasm and qualifications to help address the company’s issue, says Davey. For example: “I would love to help you come up with a scalable approach to hiring Facebook-calibre people. I’ve got some ideas based on my work in two other high-growth companies.'”
It’s maybe not the bold stroke you’re aiming for. But unless you’re applying to a startup or querying leaders like Sandberg with a documented appreciation of boldness, you’re probably better playing it at least somewhat safe.