Identifying Self-Awareness in an Interview with Claire Hughes Johnson

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This is a podcast episode titled, Identifying Self-Awareness in an Interview with Claire Hughes Johnson. The summary for this episode is: <p>Self-awareness and a growth mindset are the two biggest things Claire Hughes Johnson looks for when hiring leaders—but how does she determine those characteristics within the limitations of an interview process? In this episode of The Daily Bolster, she’s sharing her interview strategy, including a sample of the questions she asks. </p>
❓ What is something new you've learned recently that interested you?
01:29 MIN
❓ Tell me about a project that went terribly wrong.
01:12 MIN
❓ How did you organize your current team?
02:10 MIN
🪟 Are you looking out the window or in the mirror?
01:03 MIN

Intro: Welcome to the Daily Bolster. Each day, we welcome transformational executives to share their real world experiences and practical advice about scaling yourself, your team, and your business.

Matt Blumberg: Welcome to The Daily Bolster. I'm Matt Blumberg, co- founder and CEO of Bolster, and I'm here today with Claire Hughes Johnson. Claire is the former COO and currently corporate advisor to Stripe. She is also the author of a book called Scaling People, Tactics for Management and Company, which I will go on record as saying, having read hundreds of books on management and leadership, is now my favorite book on management.

Claire Hughes Johnson: Oh, wow, thank you.

Matt Blumberg: So welcome to The Daily Bolster.

Claire Hughes Johnson: Thank you, Matt, great to be here.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. So I have an interviewing question for you because one of the things that called out to me in your book was around hiring outside executives, and it's obviously something we get engaged with every day at Bolster. And you say in the book that it's risky but sometimes impossible to avoid and I totally agree with that. But the thing that really got me was, after that you said the two things that you like to look for the most when you're hiring outside leaders are self- awareness, and is the person a learner, do they have a growth mindset? And I'm totally in, those two things are super important. The question for you is, how do you figure those out in a 30 minute, a 45 minute interview? How do you figure them out in a two hour interview?

Claire Hughes Johnson: Yeah. I mean, I'll give you the shorter answer since we only have a few minutes. I think there are a series of... You start to get attuned to the way people talk about themselves and their work and how curious they are, because really learning comes from curiosity. And so, when they ask questions about you, about the company, you're looking for a certain curiosity and I think there's one trick on learning, which is to ask someone what's something new that you've learned recently that you're really interested in? And what's strange is there are people who are like, what do you mean? And you think, well, to me I read an article, you're looking for someone or you ask them to talk... A classic interview question is you ask about, tell me about a project that you were involved in or something you led that went terribly wrong. And so, they tell you, and you're sort of looking, are they taking responsibility? Are they blaming others? Were they resilient? You're looking for all those, and you sort say what was your role in it? And then you say, and what did you learn? What was your big learning? And that answer, to me, is often revealing also of self- awareness.

Matt Blumberg: I was going to say that feels like it hits both.

Claire Hughes Johnson: It hits both because it's here are things... Some people give very concrete tactical answers, which is, okay. Like, I should have started the project three months earlier. I had a dependency I didn't know I had and I identified it too late, and that's fine. But it's like people who actually can step back and say, " Well, turned out I had a blind spot and I thought that the design piece of the project was going to be easy because I didn't really understand design." Something that sort of says, oh, and then you say, " Well, what are you doing now? What do you do differently now?" And you're just watching someone say, " Well, I learned about myself. I learned about this blind spot. I now do things differently." That also shows some resilience. But the self- awareness, one of my favorite things to do, maybe not in the first... When you're hiring a leader, by the way, if you're the hiring manager, which I have been, I hope to meet them more than once, so.

Matt Blumberg: Oh yeah, you got to meet them like three times.

Claire Hughes Johnson: Yeah. I was like so, and even ideally have a meal with them. You really want to spend real time with these folks. So maybe not the first meeting but certainly in the second one I have said to people, "Just do me a favor." Say they're in a current leadership role or they just left one or something. "Whiteboard for me." This isn't a real world, but you can do it on a piece of paper over Zoom or on a virtual whiteboard, "Your current org chart. Just talk me through how you organized your team. You don't have to give me all the names of people, but how did you organize your team and why? And then, tell me about some of the individuals and just how did they end up in that role?" And there's a really interesting thing that happens when people start to talk about their teams and how their teams got formed and why which is, one, you see their level of engagement with their role, their management, them as a manager, them as a leader. But you also learn, did they bring anyone new into the team? Did they inherit the team? Did they have to make a change in one role? How did they make the change? Did they elevate someone who's top talent? But what I'm looking for them to also talk about is themselves, which is, I say in the book building a great team starts with you, which is what do I do well? What do I need to complement myself? And I'm very concerned when someone, well one, if someone says, "Well, I just inherited this team." And I'm like, "Oh really, three years ago, and nothing has changed?" Especially in a tech environment, you're moving quickly. But I'm really interested when they say, "Well, I know that I need someone on the team who really augments me with respect to being more analytical or more..." And that would be... So it's funny because it doesn't sound like I'm asking about self-awareness but what I'm really looking for is a combination of things in how they talk about their strategy, the team they built to honor the strategy, and then those individuals and their engagement with them, and what those individuals represent as a team around that leader.

Matt Blumberg: Yeah. I mean look, I think that question is also great for getting the Jim Collins theme of are you looking out the window or are you looking in the mirror and just see, because they should do both but they should do both for different things.

Claire Hughes Johnson: Yes, yes, yes, exactly. But I think the headline answer is, there's some amount of a scenario type question or whether that's a real life or you give them a scenario where you're looking for tells. You can't say to someone are you self- aware, I think people struggle with that, right? But I think you're looking for signals of curiosity and learning, signals of I learned this thing about myself and now I do things differently. Those humans are humans I want to work with.

Matt Blumberg: That's right. And what you want to look for when you're hiring executives is humans you want to work with.

Claire Hughes Johnson: That's exactly right.

Matt Blumberg: And humans that other people want to work with.

Claire Hughes Johnson: Even more, people who will inspire followership. Always a good question to ask yourself, would I work for this person?

Matt Blumberg: Yes, exactly. All right, Claire, thank you so much. Claire Hughes Johnson, Stripe executive and author of Scaling People.

Claire Hughes Johnson: Thank you, Matt.


Self-awareness and a growth mindset are the two biggest things Claire Hughes Johnson looks for when hiring leaders—but how does she determine those characteristics within the limitations of an interview process? In this episode of The Daily Bolster, she’s sharing her interview strategy, including a sample of the questions she asks.