Rare, but Appropriate Interview Question: “Do You Know How to Make Money?”


One of the many highlights of my Sears PR career was the company’s sponsorship of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  Before the tour started, I joined other marketing and PR colleagues at a meeting with Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of the Feld Entertainment, which includes the circus and Disney on Ice.  I was impressed with Feld’s devotion to the Ringling brand and to the animals and troop that travel to some 45 cities every year.  As I met more of the Ringling team, I realized Feld was able to put on the “Greatest Show on Earth” because he surrounds himself with smart people who live the brand and know how to deliver a consistent product that make a bundle of money.  

So, today’s New York Times CEO Corner was a great flashback that also provided insights into how Feld and his family succeed while so many other circuses are relegated to the county fair circuit.  Feld’s questions underscore why job applicants have to be prepared for questions of all types.  Feld says he generally asks applicants if they know how to make money–a great question I’ve never asked or been asked before.  Here are some additional insights into how Feld hires and how you should always be prepared for unconventional questions:

Q.  Do some people have trouble answering the how to make-money question?

A.  Let me tell you, nothing kills an interview like that.  So they have to stop and think. “What do you mean?”  And I’ll say:  “Like when you were a kid growing up, did you have a lemonade stand? What have you done?” And then I try to take them through their career, because I need them to understand that if they’re going to come to work for our company, it’s great that you have all this knowledge, but how can you translate that into something that is absolutely going to make money for us?  Can they think unconventionally?  Can they think outside the box?

Q.  What quality are you testing for with this question of, “Tell me how you’ve made money.”?

A.  It’s a drive I’m looking for.  I don’t need to hire college professors in my business.  We’re grinding it out and I need to know that the people that we have involved in the business are focused on sales, on the bottom line.

How do you make money?  How do you take this crazy idea that somebody has and how can you monetize it?  And if you’ve done that before in a couple of situations, then there’s a good chance you’re going to be very successful in our company because we’re demanding. We’re out there day in and day out.

Q.  If you could ask somebody only two or three questions to know whether you might hire them, what would they be?

A.  It depends, obviously, on the position.  But one is: “What is your style of working with people who report to you? How do you work with them?  What do you do on a daily basis?”  That’s important because you can put the wrong person in a job, and you can take a great department and just decimate it in no time with the wrong person.

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