What To Look For When Hiring Managers

A reader asks:

What are the most important things to look for when hiring managers? Especially if I’m looking at promoting a current staff member who hasn’t managed before, are there particular things I should be looking for or assessing as part of the hiring process?”


The most important trait to look for in any potential manager is an intense determination to get results – someone who will do what it takes to have an impact and therefore will make hard decisions, persist when they encounter roadblocks, be rigorous in identifying ways a team could perform better, care about the real impact of their work (not just appearances), and display a deep commitment to learning and continuous improvement.

Of course, you’d want these traits in any role; what’s different for managers is that they have to get work done through other people. That means that managers also must have the interpersonal and communication skills to influence others, particularly from a position of formal authority and across many kinds of lines of difference – in short, they must be able to build “followership” from a diverse set of people. They should be at least reasonably strong critical thinkers so that they can grasp the challenges that their staff members are facing and serve as a helpful resource. Ideally they would have at least some ability to see the forest beyond the trees in order to establish a vision for the future. And culture fit is especially important when hiring managers because their values and behaviors will permeate the culture due to the breadth of their role and visibility.

When assessing candidates without management experience, you can get useful insight into the above by probing into how they’ve pursued specific goals and navigated obstacles, and how they’ve influenced, motivated, and coordinated others, including people different from themselves in meaningful ways. You should also look for evidence of critical thinking and fit with your culture.

With candidates who do have management experience, in addition to the items above, you can also probe into specific examples of how they’ve managed – such as how they’ve set goals and monitored progress against them, given feedback, built a strong team, and addressed performance problems.

A Few Suggested Interview Questions

Questions for candidates without management experience

  • What was your biggest achievement in the past year?
    • How did you go about it?
    • What obstacles did you run into along the way? How did you approach those?
  • Tell me about a tricky problem you had to solve in the last year.
    • Why did you choose that approach?
    • What was most challenging about it?
  • Tell me about a time that you had to motivate someone to do something or move a group to action.
    • How did you go about it?
    • What was the result?
    • Would you do anything differently?
    • If moving a group to action: To what extent was it a group of people from different backgrounds, and to what extent did that shape your approach? If not applicable here, tell me about another time that you worked with people from different backgrounds.
  • Which of our core values (refer to your list) resonate most with you / sound most like you?
    • What’s an example of a time that demonstrates that value in action?
    • Which value from our list might be less something people would immediately describe you with, and what makes you say that?

Assuming the person has managed projects, you might also probe with questions like the following:

  • Tell me about one of the most important projects you worked on in the last year and how you managed it, from start to finish.
    • What was the vision for it?
    • What happened?
    • How did you ensure that happened?
    • What lessons did you take away?

Additional questions for candidates with management experience

  • What were the big things your team was trying to achieve in the past year at ___?
    • How did you settle on those goals?
    • To what extent did you meet them?
    • How did you measure whether or not you met them?
    • What’s an example of a goal you didn’t meet? How come? How did you respond to that?
  • Tell me about one of the organization’s most important projects and how you managed it, from start to finish. I’m interested in something where others were doing the work, but you were overseeing it.
    • What was the vision for it?
    • What happened?
    • How did you ensure that happened? (You’re looking for managers who leave little to chance: either they have good reason to rely on the person in charge of the project, or they keep their hands in things enough to ensure success.)
    • What lessons did you and your team take away?
  • Tell me about a difficult management decision you had to make. Walk me through the problem and what your thought process was, and how you ultimately handled it.
  • Tell me about an employee who became more successful as a result of your management.
  • Tell me about the last time you let someone go or coached someone out.
  • Tell me about a time you were managing someone whose background was different from your own. How did or didn’t that affect your approach?
  • Tell me about a management mistake that you made in the past. What would you do differently?

See Candidates in Action

Don’t forget to find ways to see candidates in action! For management positions, you might consider asking candidates to do things like the following:

  • Have candidates simulate giving positive and corrective feedback to a staff member.
  • Give candidates a written scenario ahead of time (for example, about a campaign idea), and then ask them to role-play with the hiring committee as if they were running a team-wide meeting based on this scenario. Be clear with candidates that you’re more interested in how they lead the group than in the campaign idea itself, and watch for things like whether candidates set up a clear outcome for the meeting, whether they are clear on who will make the decision, and how they respond to comments/process suggestions form the role-players.
  • Ask candidates to provide two or three “management artifacts” – past samples of work that show the candidate in the act of managing, such as a particularly substantive memo, an email she sent to her team or project members, or other materials that will give you a lens into what you’d see if you could watch her at work.
  • Invite them to spend part of a day sitting in on meetings and participating. You’ll get a sense of tone, interpersonal, and ability to keep up. (Of course, factor in that they’ll lack huge amounts of context.)

We’ve got more advice on asking candidates for exercises and work samples here.