As a former head of human resources at General Motors and now the automaker’s CEO, Mary Barra has interviewed countless executives for senior leadership positions. And like a lot of corporate chieftains with go-to interview questions, she has developed a way to tell if candidates have what she’s looking for.

What Mary Barra is looking for in GM executives

At the Wharton People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia on March 23, Barra explained the four attributes she tests for during the interview process.

“First, I want to make sure person is of the highest integrity, and is going to do right thing even when it’s hard—that’s foundational for me.”

Second, especially when hiring for senior leaders, she’s looking for people who will feel part of the team—something she gauges by how often they talk about GM using the pronoun “we,” instead of “you” or “they.”

“Because GM is such a big, complex business, there have been times in past when we’ve brought in senior leaders and six months or a year later, they’re still talking like outside consultants. They say things like, ‘after analyzing this department, here’s what I think they should do.’ I want to tell them ‘you are the ‘they,”’ Barra said. “I’m looking for people who will jump in the boat, and own our problems. You can tell who these people are on interview, because they’ll talk almost like they’re at company already—but in respectful way, not like they’re not assuming anything. They’ll just emphasize, ‘Hey, this is how we can work together, if I’m given the opportunity.’”

Third, Barra says she is looking for people who “are going to accomplish things through influence, not just hierarchical power.”

And fourth, she needs candidates who have technical ability and passion for the auto industry.

The three questions she asks in interviews

Accurately gauging people in a job interview can be difficult. Barra developed a unique solution to this problem while serving as GM’s vice president of global human resources. At the beginning of the interview, she would tell the candidate that she’s going to ask three questions, in relatively quick succession.

Most candidates would assume the three questions differ significantly. The trick is that they don’t.

“First, I ask people, ‘how would your peers describe you in three adjectives,’” said Barra. Next, she asks how the candidate’s supervisor would describe them in three adjectives. Finally, she asks how people who’ve worked for the candidate would describe them in three adjectives.

“Ideally, you don’t want the adjectives to change much at all,” Barra says, “because if you’re hiring for integrity, you don’t want people to manage up differently than they manage down, and you want people to work just as well with their peers and superiors as they do with their subordinates. This consistency is the key to empowering teams.”

Three-questions strategy, Barra says, “is one of my favorites because it rolls so quickly, and you learn a lot about a person by the way they answer, given they have to think on their feet.”


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