For my job at Luminoso Technologies, I was on a panel the other day at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, and I think it deserves a post. The panel topic was interviewing and hiring perspectives. Comedy gold occurred, as well as serious work on an important topic. 😉
The purpose of the panel was two-fold, from my perspective. We wanted to help educate and prepare the students for interviewing with potential employers. These students spent last week interviewing for six-month internships, in fact. They ran through 30-minute segments of rapid-fire questions and tried to show themselves in their best possible light while still accurately representing who they are with honesty and humility (one hopes). Goal number one was to prepare the students for that experience.
The second goal of the panel, for me, was to differentiate Luminoso as an employer from the other companies represented on the panel. On the one hand, that wasn’t hard. Compare Luminoso, a startup, with established companies such as Lindt Chocolate, State Street, Raytheon, and Harvard Pilgrim Health? We were different, all right!
I didn’t want the differentiator to be my youth or Luminoso’s, though. I wanted the differentiation to be about Luminoso as a fun place to work, where people can expect to be on their toes and enjoy the challenge.
How does one encapsulate the essential culture of a startup? All startups have some characteristics in common. Running things close to the wire, sometimes by the seat of your pants, is common. Having a flexible work schedule and a collaborative-but-fast-paced environment are also frequently the case in startup companies.
What’s the essential culture of Luminoso? We’re a wacky bunch. We have fun. We like solving puzzles. We face unexpected questions all the time, and want our employees to be ready for the unexpected. Also, we want our employees to be fun and pleasant to work with. We’ve got a team of 20 people as of this week. We’re a 3-year-old company with a 100% retention rate. We do this by hiring people who are clever, competent, and kind. We hire people we think we’d collaborate well with, who’ll be nice colleagues even if things get hectic and stressed.
So on this panel about interviewing and hiring, I had a great opportunity to highlight Luminoso in a way that would be a big differentiation. It was a bit of a risk, but I decided it was worth it. The panelists were asked what their favorite interview question is, and after answering that question, I also told the kitten story.
What’s my favorite interview question? My favorite interview question is to ask someone what your superpower is. Not what superpower you’d choose if you could fly or be invisible or run at lightning speed. What superpower do you already have? What makes you a great and awesome and unique person? This isn’t in the usual arsenal of interview questions (or at least, not phrased this way), and it often surprises people (particularly if they don’t follow me on social media). So it’s also my tendency to offer to tell people what my superpower is, to give them time to think.
My favorite story about an interview question, though, requires more explanation. Thanks to the indulgence of my co-panelists and the moderator, I told the following story, as well as answering the initial question:
Earlier on in Luminoso’s history, we were interviewing a candidate who had very close personal friendships with some of the cofounders. She was a very good potential fit for the job, but due to these personal ties, I wanted to be really sure that we made the right choice in whether or not we hired her. If we chose to bring her on board but personal relationships meant that communications went awry, that would be really detrimental for the company. If we chose not to bring her on board after an extensive interview process, that could have at least short-term impact on some very established friendships, which would be challenging for the cofounders in question, and possibly cause resentment about the choice made. So it was a little tricky.
In order to balance out the risks, I decided to have the candidate meet with every single member of the company at the time, and give everyone the opportunity to talk extensively. It’s possible I went overboard, in my caution. In addition, we hadn’t yet done sufficient interviewing to have the established patterns we have now. People were less certain of what questions they wanted to ask applicants in order to know if candidates would be a good fit, here.
So there came a point in the conversation between this candidate and some of the developers where they ran out of steam and weren’t sure what to say next. Let it never be said that Luminoso employees won’t make something interesting happen when given an opportunity!
One of the developers leaned in, and with a very serious expression, asked the most curveball question I think has ever been uttered during an interview.
“To get this job, would you eat a kitten?”
At the Northeastern panel, the audience erupted in both laughter and awkward looks. It’s a pretty offputting thought once you think about it, right? Obviously, there’s a right answer (not to eat the kitten, lest you be uncertain). And yet, there’s something funny about the fact that it’s been asked, and everyone seems to have a slightly different answers when we tell this story. Some have asked if kittens are kosher. Some have stated an allergy. Some have asked if it’s a question of survival. Some have simply stated, “no.” (One answered, “yes,” but the longer explanation was that there are survival situations in which they can imagine needing to eat a kitten, therefore they can’t answer definitively in the negative.)
I was trying to differentiate Luminoso as being a company where the unexpected question is the one we’re often asked, and I explicitly said as much on the panel. At the time, I could only hope that the right kind of applicants would be attracted by our fun-loving nature. We were definitely different! The question was, were we different in a way that drew more people to us?
Long story short, I got home that evening to another 15 applicants for our internship, in addition to the 15 we’d previously had. The kitten story was the talk of Northeastern’s MBA school for at least a week, or so I’m told. Several students who weren’t actually interested in a marketing internship still reached out to connect on LinkedIn and other media. The kitten story was a small risk, but one that paid off for us, at least so far as I can discern.
And now you know the kitten story, too!