Startup interview question: What kind of manager are you?

Identifying your Management Style

By: Jeff Patterson

The idiom says “it takes all types,” and this is certainly true in technical environments.

Some managers are at their best when on the floor with the staff, getting involved with the workflow. Others are more comfortable behind the scenes, prepping procedures and fine-tuning contingency plans. There is a broad spectrum between those two examples, and most technical companies need a variety of types. If you have landed an interview for a management or supervisory position, your goal is to communicate your management style.

One effective way to do this is by illustrating your strategy when things go wrong. Most interviews will include at least one opportunity to recount an episode from your career. You can describe a successful recovery from an error or technical issue, and use the specifics to draw attention to your style. Were you assessing the problem? Delegating tasks and coordinating portions of the workload? Bringing back-up procedures up to speed? If so, you have a penchant for managing the front line.

Did you use the problem as a chance to review procedures? Did you post-mort the specifics of the issue to tweak the practices already in place? If so, you thrive behind the scenes. Conveying these details shows your talents in the face of adversity, and tells the hiring manager where you fall on the spectrum. If you have never held a management position prior to the interview, but were part of a team responsible for recovery, you can give the details of your role under your manager to similar effect. Describing what you learned from your manager as a result of a successful recovery also demonstrates an understanding of the demands of the job.

When I interview candidates, I directly ask them to give an example of a bad day at work, or describe a successful recovery from an error. I am not only trying to determine their style of management, but listening to hear if they took ownership of the problem, instead of getting defensive about working under procedural constraints, or minimizing the impact of the failure. This speaks volumes about where on the spectrum they fall.

Another method for highlighting your style is describing your approach to staff morale. Most candidates will note the need for good morale (although I’ve encountered a few that didn’t), but how you address it matters. If your approach involves regular feedback, active appraisals, and dedicated face time, you’re saying you are comfortable on the floor, engaging in direct interaction. If you stress the importance of regular communication via email or web updates, determining best practices, and providing staff with important information, you do your best work behind the scenes. In broad strokes, out-in-front managers are needed for real-time interaction and decision-making, while behind-the-scenes managers give staff the tools the need to get the job done. But be cautious not to pigeonhole your talents or define your comfort zone too narrowly.

All of the above requires knowing the specifics of the job you are interviewing for, and having an idea of the make-up of the existing team helps as well. Exhibiting your personality and track record are vital, but using them to demonstrate a well-established managerial style helps make you a standout candidate.



Jeff Patterson has conducted over six hundred job interviews as hiring manager. He is a contributor to SF Signal and

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