Interview Tip: Ask About Innovation

job interviewOnce in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.

So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description.   You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.

For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?

Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity.  It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.

Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.

You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.

And remember…..

  • In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
  • Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
  • The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
  • If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.

Joan Baldwin

 

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One Comment on “Interview Tip: Ask About Innovation”

  1. Cassidy says:

    This is a great suggestion! I never remember the questions I intend to bring to this part of an interview, but I’m going to try to keep this one in mind.


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