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What GM’s Mary Barra asks in job interviews

It’s a simple three-part question, but the answer ends up revealing a lot.

What GM’s Mary Barra asks in job interviews
[Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]
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If you ever found yourself in a job interview with Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, you’d be asked a zinger of a question.

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It’s actually three questions in one. She’d say: “What three adjectives would your peers use to describe you? What three adjectives would your boss use to describe you? And what three adjectives would those working for you use to describe you?”

Chances are you’ll never have to face Ms. Barra and come up with the answer on the spot. (Whew!) But her query is worth thinking about.

It tests a candidate’s ability in a number of areas—all of which are important for you as a job seeker and beyond.

1. Self-awareness

To begin with, this question will test your self-awareness.

Have you ever thought about the words your boss would use to describe you? For example, suppose your boss says one day, “Thanks for getting this report in to me on schedule.” Does that mean she thinks of you as a good worker? Or as organized? What other words would she use to describe you? Can you name the top three qualities that come to mind when your boss thinks about you?

What about your colleagues or direct reports? How do they talk to their peers about you? If you’re unsure, you may not score high on the self-awareness index. It would be good practice to write down the adjectives you believe each of your three “audiences” would use to describe you. This is a good way to determine what qualities you are projecting.

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2. Integrity

Second, Barra’s question tests one’s integrity. As she puts it: “If you’re hiring for integrity, you don’t want people to manage up differently than they manage down, and you want people to work just as well with their peers and superiors as they do with their subordinates. This consistency is the key to empowering teams.”

So the secret is to be able to say that the same descriptors would be used by your boss, your colleagues, and your direct report. If your boss sees you as “a leader” do those reporting to you also see you as a leader? Ideally, yes. You don’t want to project leadership to those above you, and self-importance to those below you or beside you.

Ask yourself, would everyone you work with—above, below, and around you, have the same positive words to describe you? That’s the integrity measurement Barra is looking for. You want to present the same identity to everyone you work with.

3. Collegiality

Third, Barra’s question measures collegiality.

Soft skills are more critical than ever, so think about it: Would these adjectives you’ve identified define good people skills? Suppose your boss says you’re “reclusive,” “focused,” and “reliable.” These are not exactly people skills; they’re more work skills. If a leadership role came up, you might not be in the running.

On the other hand, if you believe your boss, your colleagues, and your team would say you’re “empathetic,” “supportive,” and “inspiring,” you’d have a good crack at that leadership role because you’d have collegiality.

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Defining the adjectives you believe others would use to describe you allows you to know whether you have the people skills that are increasingly important in the business world.

4. Job worthiness

Fourth, the question Barra poses is a surefire way to test whether you’re the right person for the job for which you’re interviewing. So if you get a question like Barra’s, be sure to tailor your answer to the specific role. All the qualities you mention should align with the qualifications that are indicated in the job description. If you’re applying for a job as a software programmer, you might want to say that your colleagues see you as “bright” and “technically savvy;” if it’s an HR job, you’d like to be known as “caring” and “people-focused.” Be truthful, but also be mindful that the recruiter will make the connection between how others see you and your suitability for the job.

5. Charisma

A final quality Barra’s question measures is charisma. Research indicates that anyone who can easily speak in impromptu situations is considered to be more charismatic than someone who fumbles in these situations. Barra herself says that one of the reason she likes this question is that “you learn a lot about a person by the way they answer, given they have to think on their feet.”

If you were to be thrown Barra’s question, you’d have to think pretty hard. But take your time, and avoid the um’s and ah’s that can make you sound unsure. And don’t use minimizing expressions like “Well, let me think,” or “I’m not sure but . . .”

My best advice is to prepare the answer to Barra’s question in advance of any interview. Even though you likely won’t be asked this exact question, there are tons of interview questions that are similar. And even if you don’t have any interviews lined up, your answer will help you understand yourself better.