Good Research Question: "What advice would you give someone to succeed in ... (your position / situation)?"
The advice someone gives gives a fuller picture of their organization, their role, and who they are.
“What advice would you give someone to succeed in ... (your position / situation / etc)?” is a great question for understanding an organization’s structure and the people who operate within that organization. It’s also a good question to ask if you’re creating service designs, redesigns, or org design efforts.
When you ask ‘What advice would you give someone to succeed in your position?’ you’ll most likely get answers that tell you about:
- the organization or company (operations, culture, situation)
- the role (more universal)
- the person (individual specific)
A note: Because the question mentions ‘success’, the interviewee will naturally tell you about how success is defined. Probe further to get an interviewee’s sense of how they individually define success in their job, and how the company or business defines and measures success.
Part 1 - What are key parts of the organization? How does it operate?
Asking this question is going to reveal things about an organization that only an insider would know. They’re answering within the context of that organization so naturally, their answers will be framed with it in mind and reflect how things are done to that specific place. You’ll probably hear about the culture and structure - if it’s a matrixed organization (where employees work on multiple projects across various departments) or if the structure is siloed. You’ll also get a feel for what the organization is focused on - innovation, sustainability, customer experience, etc.
You’ll also start to understand the organization’s maturity. If the advice giver says something along the lines of, “Always be on the lookout for change, because leadership won’t be the one to tell you if things are changing.” Might indicate that change management is an issue or the organization is not matured to a place of standard SOPs around change management. Change Management says a lot about an organization, read more about it in our previous blogs. Doing some preliminary research on how long the company has been around, how it’s changed, what is it’s reputation - all of these insights will help you understand the organization’s maturity and how it affects your interviewee.
Lastly, this question also reveals aspects of the work culture. If the advice sounds like this, “I would advise someone taking this position to become comfortable saying no to extra commitments outside of this role….” it’s likely that the position comes with a lot of added responsibility and long hours. With a little probing, their advice might also show the people dynamics at play. For example, “Don’t go to management with problems.” begs the question, “Why?” The answer might reveal a tense relationship between manager / team members, an incompetent manager, or self-starter or self-management culture. Ask a few “whys” and you’ll probably find out what’s really going on.
Part 2 - What is the role and how experienced are they in it?
This question will give you a deeper understanding of the role and someone’s expertise, experience, or lack thereof will become clear as they give advice. Seasoned professionals often give advice that’s rooted in years of hands-on experience. It’s usually practical and shows an understanding of how their role fits into the greater org. On the other hand, those newer to the role may rely more on theory or textbook knowledge and their advice might be more generic.
Note: this is NOT ALwAYS the case! Surface level advice does not always mean someone is new or more junior! We’ve all met senior professionals where you might scratch your head wondering how they got there. It’s a spectrum, of course, where seniority doesn't always mean knowledge. We believe as an outsider-insider, you can gauge a member’s knowledge of a subject. After all, there’s only so much bullshiting one can do. Similarly, someone might not be well spoken, but you can still achieve a sense, a ‘gut feeling,’ about their level of expertise.
Keep in mind - the role itself will impact someone’s advice around it. If the role is long-standing and well defined, then it might be easier to give advice around it. “My advice to someone taking this role, read the guidelines thoroughly.” For a more nascent or newly established role, the idea of guidelines might be laughable, especially if it feels like the role is being redefined every day or with each new responsibility. Going forward - keep an ear out for what the advice says about a person and their level of expertise, what it says about the work culture, and lastly the job itself.
Part 3 - What can you learn about the person giving advice?
The advice someone gives is going to offer you a glimpse into their personal emotions and motivations. Separate the person from the role and listen to what their advice says about them as a whole person.
From the very start, they’re communicating about themselves. Listen to their tone. What’s the emotion behind their words? Enthusiastic or skeptical, their tone might mirror their viewpoint. Someone who believes in the vision of the org might share optimist advice, while someone who has some doubts might give cautionary advice.
The motivations behind their advice can come into focus. Those who prioritize job security might be motivated by a fear of job insecurity, prompting them to advocate for actions that mitigate that fear. Someone whose role is up in the air every other week is going to have very different advice than someone who literally can do anything except get fired. On the other hand, individuals who stress networking may be motivated by a desire for recognition and advancement or maybe they have made great friends at work and want others to have a similar experience.
Even though it doesn’t come across on the surface as a deep or hard hitting question, asking an interviewee about the advice they’d give opens the door to much deeper conversations and insights. Keep your ears open to the deeper message beyond the advice. Listen, absorb, wait, and ask why.
If someone says, “My advice is to build a strong network.” Ask why! “Why is that important to you? Did you have that when you started in the position?”
However they answer, you’ll have a better understanding of their role, who they are as a person, and how it all fits together in the organization.