How to evaluate your next job

Come to a job interview prepared to evaluate your potential employer.
Come to a job interview prepared to evaluate your potential employer.
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Boyers
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With job interviews lasting only a few hours, it is very difficult to know what a new role will be like before you accept a job offer. You must put in some work to get as clear of a picture as possible.

Just as your potential employers will evaluate you, I recommend intentionally thinking through what metrics and questions you’ll use to evaluate them. Here’s how.

First, interview yourself

Before talking to anyone, take a moment to reflect on the time you were happiest at work. Visualize what your productive and enjoyable day was like, all the way down to the smallest details. What was the workplace layout? Who was around? How much focused time did you have to yourself? How many meetings did you usually attend? How many hours were you in the office? What time did you arrive at and leave work? When and what did you eat? How was work broken down and assigned? How did you and your manager collaborate? Where were you learning?

Don’t take anything for granted. Try to think of the smallest ways your day was made simpler and write them down. Then prioritize them based on how much you think they contributed to your happiness and productivity.

Having a picture of what a great environment looks like will help establish some guideposts when it comes to finding an opportunity that will set you up for success.

With this picture in mind, now go to those interviews.

Do the company’s processes resonate with you, and if they don’t, can you adapt?

Every company has its own way of doing things. When evaluating a new company, it’s important to understand how the critical processes, such as project planning and execution, might differ from your preferred methods or past experience.

Think deeply about where you can adapt and where you would need to make changes in order to work at your best. If you find yourself identifying a serious process disconnect, you may be walking into a role that is going to cause you a lot of stress and possibly failure. In my experience, processes take a very long time to change. So if these new methods are not something you can see yourself adopting, you should pay close attention to this disconnect.

Questions to ask: How do projects go from ideas to experiences in customer’s hands? What is an ideal development cycle like? How do you get an off-track project back on track? How do you judge project success?

Is there a vision and a commitment to executing it?

Once you know if a company’s processes will support your best work, try to determine if the company has a vision. Working in an organization that has a strong vision is important because executing a vision almost always requires innovation, and innovation grows not only companies, but also individuals. It is a strong attractor of talent and a true product differentiator.

You should also determine whether the company has a true commitment to executing on its vision. Without such a commitment, your projects might drag on or worse, never see the light of day. Execution is a retainer of talent and a growth multiplier for companies.

If you find yourself in a position that is lacking either vision or commitment to that vision, your resume will not look much different in three years than it looks today. Working in organizations that don’t know what they want or how to get it most likely won’t lead to your success. It will lead to frustration and attrition of your team.

Questions to ask: Where do you want this organization to be one, three and five years from now? What projects and people will be the most important to getting us there? What challenges are we going to face? What will it look like if we are successful?

Are you and your manager going to see eye to eye?

Like it or not, your manager is the gatekeeper to your success. Even though companies may advertise adherence to the new servant leadership style, the truth is that it’s just easier for companies to execute the old rank-and-file methodologies. And when push comes to shove, you better believe that managers can and will pull rank on you. Because of this, your success at a new venture will be determined by how well you and your manager work together. So, it is imperative that you understand what type of manager this person is going to be and whether this style will be what you need.

Will they be too hands-off, forcing you to learn the ropes by stepping into a million landmines? Or will they help you become effective as quickly and painless as possible? Will they be too hands-on, stifling your growth? Or will they allow you to explore your own ideas about how the role should be executed? Will they compete with you? Or will they advocate for you?

Knowing how you and your new manager will work together is probably the most important indicator of your potential for success in this new role. Spend the most time asking questions about this new manager.

Questions to ask: How do you onboard your new hires? How do you set them up for success in their first year? Tell me about a time you had a conflict with one of your direct reports, how did you handle that situation?

Is the company being honest about the state of things?

Sometimes companies are filling an open position because they are happy with the path the organization is on and just need someone to execute on the plan. But oftentimes, companies are trying to fill an open position because they are unhappy with the state of things and looking for someone to turn things around. Maybe they are even trying to replace someone who has left or will be leaving and expect you to be their savior. It is important to understand which situation you are walking into.

Depending on what sort of challenge you are looking for, both of these situations could be great.  Plugging into a well-functioning team is a great way to learn and grow. And turnarounds are a great way to build a strong reputation in a company. The trick is to get the full picture so you can make an informed decision.

Interviewers might hide the full extent of a difficult situation and put on a brave face for you to hide the risk of taking on a turnaround. Sometimes, the people filling the position have a hint that things aren’t right but they don’t know exactly what the problems are, so they won’t discuss them. It’s up to you to ask the right questions to uncover the situation.

Questions to ask: How has the team been executing in the last year? What is the sentiment internally and externally of the quality of the product from the team? If you could change anything about the team or the way it functions, what would it be?

Are they hiding someone with whom you’ll be working closely?

Similar to hiding the state of the organization, sometimes interviewers will create an interview panel specifically designed to hide difficult people (or to include a diverse panel that doesn’t necessarily reflect your actual team). Pay particular attention to who isn’t in your interview loop. Are there key players noticeably missing? Ask to meet them.

It is important to meet people who, in big and small ways, will have an impact on whether you succeed. I would recommend seeking out and meeting these people even if it means coming back for additional meetings or meeting over video chat. For me, these meetings aren’t as much about winning people over as they are about gauging each person’s influence and how difficult it will be to work with them.

Many companies have difficult people. Sometimes they are employees who have been with the company a long time but have failed to adapt to the changing landscape. Sometimes they are company leaders with difficult personalities. In any case, spotting a difficult person during your interview process can help you make a decision informed by how you stack up against this person and how he or she will influence your success.

Questions to ask: Are there any conflicts on the team that I should know about? Are there any strong personalities that people encounter? Will I be working with any of them?

How will you be evaluated?

Beyond personalities and politics, there should be some system used to evaluate people in any role. These are the metrics, unbiased and agreed upon, that give you guideposts for evaluating your performance. A rubric that will be used to control your promotion and possibly used to justify a termination. Asking for these metrics ahead of time will help you gauge alignment between the areas you value and the stated values of the organization. What’s more, a hiring manager who states these metrics openly is demonstrating transparency and will probably be more likely to apply them equally to everyone.

Questions to ask: How will you and I know if I am doing a great job? Are there published metrics to guide my performance? Are there any intangibles that are important but aren’t captured in the metrics? How will I get feedback on areas that need improvement?

An old adage goes “the best time to look for a job is when you already have one”. This motto has sometimes been used to refer to the candidate’s attractiveness to employers. But, more importantly, it refers to a time when candidates have the headspace to ask the hard questions and the time to keep searching until they find the right fit. The worst way to make an important decision is out of fear or desperation. Candidates running from jobs will often miss a step and rush past difficult conversations when interviewing only later will they realize they made a bad choice. My advice has always been, try not to run from a job but to an even better one.

Cynthia Maxwell led product teams that helped make it possible to use your phone for making video calls, reading books, communicating on Slack, or browsing Pinterest.