Melinda French Gates’ Ex-Chief of Staff on the Most Important Interview Question

  • Jeffrey Spector is the cofounder of Karat and the former chief of staff to Melinda French Gates.
  • He says applicants should be more thoughtful when answering, “Do you have any questions for me?”
  • His top interviewing tip is to knock the “question” question out of the park.

At the tail end of almost every job interview, when you’re probably relieved that it’s over, the person across from you asks, “Do you have any questions for me?”

I get why so many people consider it a throwaway. Job candidates are focused on giving the right answers. It’s the interviewer who’s supposed to be asking the questions. But precisely because most people don’t give it much thought, “Do you have any questions for me” is the greatest missed opportunity in the job application process. 

I’m the former chief of staff to Melinda French Gates and the cofounder of Karat, a technical interviewing company. We analyze data from the many tens of thousands of interviews we conduct each month to glean insights about what distinguishes good candidates and good candidate experiences.

In addition to spending my days talking to interviewers and hiring managers, I also personally interview people for our team all the time, and I have drawn my own qualitative conclusions. 

My top interviewing tip is to knock the “question” question out of the park

Sometimes, job candidates say they don’t have any questions. Maybe they’re exhausted after a long day. Maybe it feels impolite to pry. Unfortunately, taking a pass can give the probably false impression that you’re incurious.

Some people ask some version of, “What is your company’s five year plan?” It’s a real question, but it could be asked of any person working at any company. Consequently, it doesn’t show that you’ve done any research or given the business much thought. 

Another thing that happens is candidates cycle through a list of great questions but don’t seem to listen to the answers. The interviewer will say something that should change the way they ask the next question, but they plow ahead until they’re finished with the list. In that case, they’ve shown they’ve done research and given the business a lot of thought, but not that they collaborate or think fast on their feet.

Here are three things you might think about when you get the question. 

1. Can you prove that you did your due diligence and have the competencies needed in the job you’re applying for? 

Interviewers want to see candidates think specifically about this sector, this organization, and this role. What are the skills someone in this role should have? Prove you have them with the questions you ask.  For example, if you’re interviewing to be a benefits HR manager, research the company’s package online, look over the Glassdoor reviews to see what employees think, and ask the hiring manager the philosophy behind their most controversial policies.

2. Can you demonstrate your growth potential? 

I get excited when a candidate asks questions beyond the role they are applying for. If they can put themselves in the shoes of the person who is interviewing them, or their boss, then it suggests that they might be worth considering for promotion sooner than later.  It’s worth finding out who’s on your interview loop and coming up with questions that are relevant to the work they do. If you don’t have differentiated questions for each interviewer and you have asked your questions to others on the loop, ask them again to see how people answer differently. It’s better than saying you have no questions. 

3. Can you show how well you collaborate? 

I love it when candidates engage me in a give and take, because then I can see them take on new information and sharpen their thinking in real time. My favorite questions are ones that I don’t know how to answer — questions that make me think about how I do my job. If you want to go really bold, ask, “Is there anything I have told you today that gives you pause about my candidacy for this role?” That way, you can hit any critiques head on.

Think of it as an opportunity to show your best qualities

Nothing about a job interview is easy. You’re always afraid of the question you can’t answer. You’re never sure how candid you can actually be. There are serious power dynamics at play. Your interviewer is bringing subjective attitudes into the room that you can only guess at. And you’re just not 100 percent comfortable — and getting more tired moment by moment. It’s stressful.

But if there is a reliable part of the interview, and one you can always prepare for, it’s the question, “Do you have any questions.” It also just might be the most important part because it’s a bonus opportunity for you to show the initiative and creativity that all employers want.

Jeffrey Spector is the president, and co-founder at Karat, a technical interviewing company. He is the former chief of staff to Melinda Gates.

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