We all want to work somewhere with a great culture and leadership, but it’s so hard to pick either of these when you’re still outside the organisation.

Here’s some thoughts on how best to get some inside info so you make great decisions. 

Step 1 – The Mindset

You are a really important part of the recruitment process. You should go into it thinking not only about ‘how exactly right the job is for you’, but equally ‘how exactly right you are for the job’. You’re not just trying to get the job, but equally trying to making sure the role is right for you, is everything that’s been promised, and is going to live up to your expectations. Make sure you know what’s most important to you. (eg, Empowerment, Autonomy, Career, Development, Learning, Teamwork, Kindness, Fun, Challenge, Reward).

This mindset gives you the confidence to ask the questions you will need to ask to make good decisions.

Step 2 – Do Your Homework Before You Apply

So, the great job ad looks great, but what about the reality.

The Desk Exercise

Every company has a reputation. No company has a perfect reputation. As you do a desk exercise to review your potential new company, you need all the information you get your hands on.

  • Google is a good start. What are they making the news for? Are they doing well? Are they involved in in the community? Go back to older news stories. Is the news consistent? Are they common themes? Are there photos of the workplace? What are other people saying about them? If you’re ambitious, look for where their new executives come from. Are they growing talent or parachuting if from other spots. Both can work well for a company, but if you want a career, you want to be a company that develops people.
  • LinkedIn is also good spot to look. You’re looking for their official posts (‘follow’ them on LinkedIn to see these). Look for people on LinkedIn who already work there, especially those who do your type of work or in the area you’ll be applying for. Look for blogs from internal thinkers. What are they saying?
  • Other Social – Most companies now also have a pretty connected social presence, so look for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. What are they calling ‘news’ on the company sites, and is this a reputation you want to be associated with?
  • Other Reviews – There’s a bunch of sites like GlassDoor, where people give off-the-record feedback. By all means look, but appreciate that, like the super positive ambassadors you’ll find in your Google search, you’ll find the Haters here. A lot of poor reviews may well mean a less than ideal culture and leadership, but equally, a few poor reviews, may just be people that weren’t a good culture fit, and not indicative of everyone’s experience.

The Personal Feedback

Personal feedback matters most. Your friends and family will want you to work somewhere great, so enlist their help as you do your homework on the new company. Call and ask family and friends, or pop a message on messenger or a text, out to the group that best know you and your work. Simply ask them, “Does anyone work in XYZ company? And if so, what’s good, what’s bad, and how would they describe working there?”. You can also add anything specific that’s important to you, like flexibility?

So, many companies talk about flexibility, but the reality can be very different.

Try a question like “I really want to work part-time, so I was wondering whether they have good practices around that”. The final question is “I’d love to talk to someone who works there now, so if you work there, or know someone who does, can you link them to me, so we can talk”. Then, follow up on every person. The more info you can get, the better informed you’ll be. You want to hear, the good, the bad, and the ugly, not just the PR machine. You want to know whether people like you work well there.

Step 3 – Own Your Half of the Recruitment Process

You’ve done your homework, and things are looking good. You apply. You get an interview. Here’s your next opportunity.

The Questions to Ask the Recruiter

Keep this light and breezy, as this hurdle is not the time for the toughest questions.

Here’s a few good questions that help get some good info –

  • What kind of person do you think succeeds in this company/team? (This will tell you a lot about values. From the recruiter, it will often be the desired or stated culture)
  • It’s such a great role, have there been others like it recently? (and, if ‘yes’) What background did the successful candidates come from? (This will tell you how broadly they’re looking and whether people like you are already part of the tribe). 

The Questions to Ask Your New Boss

This is your chance to check out leadership and culture first hand. Best questions are –

  • What’s your favourite thing about XYZ? (Tells you about their alignment to the organisation and what matters to them)
  • It all sounds really good. If you could improve one thing about the culture what would it be?(Everyone wants to improve something. This tells you how much change they’re planning in the culture and on their leadership)
  • How long have you led the team/function/company? (If it’s a while, you can talk about their career, and the development of the team).
  • How would you describe your team? (This will tell you whether they’re backing their team, and how inclusive they are across the team or whether they have favourites)
  • How would describe the culture at a BBQ? (This will tell you how they think about the culture).
  • Without names, what were the characteristics of the two best people you have, or have had, on your team? (You’re looking for what they’ll value).
  • How does the team collaborate? (The response tells you whether the team does collaborate and whether there’s meetings, processes or expectations to make collaboration easy).

The Questions to Ask Your New Colleagues

If you have the opportunity to interview with or meet some of your new peers or colleagues, that’s great, and if you don’t, then ask whether its possible, just to give you a really broad view of the team. Good questions over coffee are –

  • What’s your favourite thing about XYZ? (You’re looking for alignment or differences with the boss, which will tell your about diversity of views, and also about consistency of culture)
  • What three words would you use to describe our boss? (You’re looking for a summary from someone who already works there).
  • Has anyone left the team recently, and if so, why and where did they go? (This will give some insight into whether there are lots of people coming or going, and why)
  • How does the team collaborate? (You’re looking for alignment of thinking and expectations around collaboration).
  • What sort of hours do people work? OR Does anyone work flexibly? (Great questions if flexibility is important to you. If flexibility is normal, people will answer this with a pile of great examples. If flexibility is not real, they might be annoyed by the question. Both answers tell you something important).
  • If you could improve one thing about the XYZ/team, what would it be? (Again, you’re looking for alignment and you’re looking for diversity of opinions. Both matter).
  • What sort of work does XYZ do in the community? (This is a good one for checking the PR brand with reality. If they give you the PR answer, but can’t talk about opportunities to be personally involved, then ‘community’ might be a branding tool, as opposed to part and parcel of how everyone works.

Remember – Team versus Organisation

There’s sometimes a big difference between the organisation and any given team.

If you just want a great place to work and some good work to do, you’re looking for all the info about the team and the way they work together.

If you want a career, or longer term opportunities, you need both the team and the organisation to work well for you. Ask questions about both and collect the info from as many sources as possible.

You can never be 100% sure about Culture or Leadership before you join a company, but by keeping in front of mind during recruitment, and reminding yourself how important it is to you, you’ll be in much better shape to make good decisions BEFORE joining.