Learn to ‘Lead the Witness’ During Job Interviews


Skip Freeman

Skip Freeman

While it’s a big “no-no” for attorneys to “lead the witness” during a trial, i.e., try to “put words in a witness’s mouth” to shape testimony, learning how to effectively use this little-known, though very valuable skill can pay BIG dividends for a job seeker during a job interview.

You might suppose that most hiring managers would be really good at conducting job interviews. You would be wrong, though. Because the typical manager hires relatively few new people over an entire career, he or she usually doesn’t have the skills necessary to be great interviewers. Most, though certainly not all, really don’t even know where to begin an interview, what to ask of the person being interviewed, or even the direction in which to take the interview. So, as a job candidate, you’ve got to learn how to “lead the witness” and direct them where you know they want to go—even if they don’t know themselves!

Let me caution you here, however, “leading the witness” is NOT the same thing as taking over (or hogging) the interview!

What is it that a hiring manager instinctively wants to learn from you during an interview, again, even if they themselves are not consciously aware of it? Virtually all hiring managers want you, the job candidate, to answer essentially FOUR questions for them:

• Can you do the job?
• Do you want to do the job?
Will you do the job?
• Are you a good cultural fit?

So, knowing this, carefully craft your answers to questions not only to address the specific question(s) being asked, but also to directly or indirectly address any (or all) of these four implied questions. In other words, feel free to “lead the witness,” i.e., the hiring manager.

Let’s suppose, for example, that you are applying for a technical sales position and the hiring manager asks you (in an attempt to determine if you can actually do the job),

“I notice from your résumé that you had increased sales of over $2 million during the last three years. Tell me how you were able to accomplish that.”

A good answer, and equally importantly, one that incorporates the principle of “leading the witness,” might be this:

“I firmly believe in the necessity to continually prospect. For example, I have identified all of the potential buyers of my company’s products within my geographical territory and I call on them on a regular basis. With some prospects you have to make many calls over time to win their business, while with others, you just happen to call on them at the right time to win their business. The key is that you are calling, so that when they have a ‘pain point,’ you are there.”

“Consistently taking this approach has allowed me to steadily increase sales.”

Even though the hiring manager’s question was relatively straightforward and ostensibly designed as somewhat of a “warm up” question, your answer not only addresses the implicit question of can you do the job, it also amply demonstrates that you want to do the job and that you will do the job as well.

A perennial favorite question asked by hiring managers is this one:

“If you are the successful candidate for this position, where do you see yourself in, say, five years?”

This apparently “innocent” question is anything but, so be particularly alert when answering it. Again, even though the hiring manager may not consciously be aware of it, the question actually is designed to determine if you want to do the specific job for which you are being interviewed.

If you’re at all like most candidates, you likely will perceive this question to be designed to determine how “ambitious” you are, how motivated you are to “grow” beyond the position and within the company. Nine times out of ten, that’s really not the case at all. For example, let’s assume you are interviewing for a position as a chemist and you answer the question this way:

“I really think, with my qualifications, education and skill set, that I could easily be supervising the entire department in five years.”

It’s highly unlikely that you will endear yourself (or be the successful candidate!) to the hiring manager, who probably will feel you’ve way over-stepped your boundaries, not to mention be perceived as arrogant and presumptuous. He or she may even feel personally threatened by thinking that the job you really want is his or hers!

A much better answer, and again, one that allows you to “lead the witness,” would be one like this:

“Over the next five years, I want to become known as the person who can develop new, novel surfactant technology that makes the company money. I see myself hitting the ground learning the processes and procedures that you follow, understanding the mission of the group and how it aligns with the company goals, then immersing myself in new product development, where I can apply my creativity and help the company make products that customers want so we all make money. I would love to be able to help write some technical papers, help patent some products and do anything possible to make this lab team world-renowned in what we do.”

Wouldn’t an answer like this allay most fears or concerns in the hiring manager’s mind that you want to do this specific job?

Assuming that you have satisfactorily answered (and implemented the tactic of “leading the witness,” where appropriate) the questions of Can you do the job? Do you want to do the job? Will you do the job? you can then expect to be asked questions to determine the final criterion for acceptance in the hiring manager’s mind: Are you a good cultural fit (for the hiring unit, the company and the hiring manager himself/herself).

That question usually is phrased along these lines:

“What do you do if you have a conflict with a co-worker?”

While there are a number of ways to correctly answer such questions, here is one good way:

“Unfortunately, in life there is conflict, and that includes in the workplace. What you must not do is become offended. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. You respect the opinions of your co-workers, ask questions and work to iron out any differences.

“If it is affecting the project or the goals of the company and we can’t work it out, then I will take it to a trusted colleague to see if she can offer some helpful advice. If that fails, then it may be time to have a confidential conversation with my boss. I only will do that if indeed it is having a negative impact on the company’s performance.”

How can you become adept at providing such well-thought-out answers and, at the same time, directly or indirectly answer the important FOUR questions in the back of every hiring manager’s mind? Anticipate the questions you’re likely to be asked during an interview, then create—and memorize!—stories and “word pictures” so that the hiring manager not only “hears” what you’re saying, but also “see” what you’re saying. Then, finally, practice, practice, practice! Believe me, that’s what successful candidates do and I guarantee it will be well worth the effort!


Skip Freeman, author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever!, has successfully completed more than 300 executive search assignments in just seven years. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals in industry, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.

A distinguished graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, he is a lifelong student of leadership, people and the principles of success. While serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Chemical Corps, he also earned a Master of Science degree in Organic Chemistry from The Georgia Institute of Technology and a Master of Business Administration degree in Marketing from Long Island University.

 Visit or contact Skip at his book website, http://www.headhunterhiringsecrets.com

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.