Leadership primer for tech interviews (questions, concepts, prep)

This article was written in collaboration with interview coach Nupur D. A former Technical Program Manager for Google, Nupur has coached more than 300 people over her career. She currently works as a TPM for a fintech company in India.

Demonstrating leadership will be one of the key drivers influencing the level at which you’re hired in companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. This won’t be limited to one interview; in fact, you will have to show off your leadership skills throughout the interview process.

Candidates at every experience level need to be able to demonstrate their ability to influence projects and people, with or without organizational authority. Illustrating this thoroughly can be difficult in an interview setting.

So we’ve put together the following guide to demonstrating leadership in tech interviews, with an overview of the top leadership competencies, practice interview questions, and a step-by-step preparation guide.

Here’s a brief overview of what we’ll cover:

  1. What is leadership?
  2. Top leadership competencies
  3. How to practice leadership interview questions

1. What is leadership?

The terms “leadership” and “people management” used to be synonymous, but their definitions diverged with the explosion of tech and startup culture in Silicon Valley. Today, leadership reflects an attitude. 

While only some employees are managers, all employees are expected to be leaders. So managing and leading require separate skill sets and should be addressed differently in an interview setting.

Managers cover a lot of ground. They’re in charge of the productivity, happiness, and career advancement of their team. Management skills often involve hiring, onboarding, training, motivating, retaining, offboarding, etc.

Leadership skills are about how you influence and impact both people and projects. This can include influencing teams that don’t directly report to you, working toward company goals without explicit instruction, showing empathy, and leading by example.

Irrespective of whether you’re managing teams (like engineering managers) or if you’re an individual contributor (like technical program managers or product managers), you’ll have to demonstrate specific leadership competencies in your interview. To help you get your head around which competencies to focus on, we’ve listed the top ones below, with example questions to work with in each category.

Let’s get started.

2. Top leadership competencies

Now that you’ve got an idea of what we mean when we’re talking about leadership, let’s break it into specific components. Here are the leadership competencies you’re most likely to be tested on at companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google:

  • Cross-functional communication
  • Influencing others
  • Comfort with ambiguity
  • Delivering results
  • Organizational vision / strategic thinking
  • Ownership

In the following sections, we’ll define each skill and provide you with a list of questions that you can practice with. These questions are a mix of our own examples and those that were reported by real candidates on Glassdoor.

2.1 Cross-functional communication

Communication is about knowing what to say, how, when, and to whom. Since no two projects are the same, interviewers are expecting you to come up with specific methods of communicating in diverse scenarios. 

Your interviewer wants to hear concrete examples of your cross-functional communication skills. Show them that that you know:

  1. When meetings are necessary to resolve issues, and when they aren’t
  2. How to hold effective meetings that come to resolutions
  3. Which stakeholders to keep updated and how
  4. When to gather information and documentation before reaching out to a team

Practice these talking points using the questions below.

Example leadership interview questions: Cross-functional communication

  • How do you communicate a project update to your immediate team? How would you tailor the same update to your senior leadership?
  • How do you communicate in large cross-functional projects? 
  • How do you manage projects across time zones with multiple stakeholders from senior leadership?
  • Something in your product broke. To whom do you communicate this and how?

2.2 Influencing others

The ability to influence others, whether or not you have direct authority over them, is necessary to steer the course of your projects. You have to be able to explain your point of view clearly, convince the team to sign off on it, and transform your vision into action.

Here are some guidelines to help you demonstrate your ability to influence without authority to your interviewer. Show that you will:

  1. Use data to get people on board with your idea
  2. Tie the outcome of your project to the organization’s business goals
  3. Connect directly with the people who have the most impact (e.g. senior executives)
  4. Staff your project using only the appropriate resources
  5. Listen to teammates in order to build relationships and get valuable input

Use the following example questions to prepare your responses.

Example leadership interview questions: Influencing others

  • How do you convince the manager of another team that your project needs their resources?
  • The outcome of a project is not on track. How do you convince stakeholders to change the course of the project? 
  • A co-worker hasn’t picked up the work you assigned to them. How do you get them to prioritize your work?
  • How would you get an employee take up a task that they are convinced needs to be done another way?

2.3 Comfort with ambiguity

Projects can be ambiguous. Goals like “Create the next best search engine” or “Build a tool to solve low performance speeds” span months and don’t come with clear steps. Leadership, here, is about being confident that even though you can’t see the end of the tunnel, you can lead everyone through it.

You have to show your interviewer that you're ready to tackle complex problems and work methodically in grey areas. Here are some tips:

  1. Break the larger problem into pieces
  2. Create a plan to address each piece of the problem
  3. List the steps needed to reach your first milestone
  4. Determine your other milestones and build your plan out from there

Give it a try with the following questions.

Example leadership interview questions: Comfort with ambiguity

  • What are the key aspects of planning a project?
  • Give an example of an instance where the path to the goal was confusing or ambiguous and how you went about achieving it. 
  • Tell me about a situation when you were tasked with undertaking a business-critical task you hadn’t conducted before.
  • Give an example of a time when you had to lead a technical project, in which you didn’t have any expertise or knowledge.

2.4 Delivering results

Many tech companies place a high value on action, rather than perfection. When facing obstacles, you’ll need to work fast and manage high-pressure situations in order to push your projects through.

In the interview, discuss the times you overcame major roadblocks and delivered despite tight deadlines or difficult circumstances. Consider moments when you have:

  1. Made decisions without data available
  2. Conveyed risks and mitigations to stakeholders
  3. Re-scoped a project
  4. Handled resource setbacks

Try to think of a few good examples using our practice questions below.

Example leadership interview questions: Delivering results

  • A critical project lost a few resources and timely delivery seems impossible now. What will you do?
  • Give an example of a situation when you took some innovative steps to deliver a project on time.
  • How do you detect problems before they become serious?

2.5 Organizational vision and strategic thinking

At FAANG companies, you’re expected to keep the goals of the team and organization in sight while executing their work. You must demonstrate not only short term task-level understanding, but also a long term vision for your project goals, which need to be in alignment with the goals of the organization. 

So interviewers are looking for you to express past examples of your strategic thinking. This could include:

  1. Adopting the founding principles of the company into your daily work
  2. Using long term solutions instead of temporary band aids
  3. Getting buy-in from the larger organization 
  4. Being proactive and using forward thinking
  5. Handling Make vs Buy decisions

Let’s get into some questions.

Example leadership interview questions: Vision and strategic thinking

  • Have you ever made a decision or choice that saved the company money?
  • Give an example of a time when you did what was right for the company by making a difficult choice.
  • Tell me about a time when a decision you made turned out to be wrong. How did you realize it, and how did you handle it?
  • Give an example of a project where you designed and solved a problem from scratch.
  • How do you manage change? 

2.6 Ownership

Ownership is about mindset. It’s about knowing that you’re the person responsible for the success or failure of your projects. In many companies, employees all the way up to senior leadership are expected to maintain a hands-on work ethic with projects of all sizes. 

Interviewers want to see that you would go out of your way to ensure the success of your team or project. Here are some talking points to illustrate that:

  1. Your innovative solutions to complex problems
  2. How you thought about edge cases
  3. How you’ve proactively resolved issues
  4. When you’ve worked on tasks outside of your job description

Try it out with some practice questions.

Example leadership interview questions: Ownership

  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t know much about your project domain, and what did you do? 
  • Give an example of a situation where you dug into details yourself, and came up with a solution.
  • Describe a time when you led by example.
  • Describe how you overcame a roadblock.

3. How to practice leadership interview questions

It’s best to take a systematic approach to make the most of your practice time, and we recommend the following three steps:

3.1 Learn a consistent method for answering leadership questions

In an interview setting, you should focus on your most relevant experiences and communicate them in a clear way. An easy way to achieve this is to use a step-by-step method to answer questions. 

Notice that almost all questions above can be asked as hypothetical questions (e.g. "How do you detect problems before they become serious?"), or behavioral questions (e.g. "Tell me about a time when you didn’t know much about your project domain, and what did you do?").

Although the two phrasings are similar, they require different answers. For hypothetical questions, you should explain your hypothetical approach to the question asked (e.g. "I would do XYZ to detect problems.") And for behavioral questions, you need to take an actual example from your past and explain what you did (e.g. "I did ABC to learn about my project domain").

When answering behavioral questions, we recommend using the IGotAnOffer method to bring structure to your answer. Here are the steps:

  1. Situation: Start by giving the necessary context of the situation you were in. Describe your role, the team, the organization, the market, etc. You should only give the minimum context needed to understand the problem and the solution in your story. Nothing more.
  2. Problem: Outline the problem you and your team were facing.
  3. Solution: Explain the solution you came up with to solve the problem. Step through how you went about implementing your solution, and focus on your contribution over what the team / larger organization did.
  4. Impact: Summarize the positive results you achieved for your team, department, and organization. As much as possible, quantify the impact.
  5. Lessons: Conclude with any lessons you might have learned in the process.

For more information about this method and a full example answer, take a look at our guide to behavioral interviews. While this is a guide to Facebook’s behavioral interview, the method and example can apply to any company.

This method will help you to understand the structure of a good answer. This is a good first step, BUT just knowing the method is not enough, as you also need to be able to apply the steps in interview conditions. 

3.2 Practice by yourself or with peers

A great way to practice answering leadership questions is to interview yourself out loud. This may sound strange, but it’s an excellent way to improve the way you communicate your answers during an interview. Play the role of both the candidate and the interviewer, asking questions and answering them, just like two people would in an interview.

If you have friends or peers who can do mock interviews with you, that's a great option too. This can be especially helpful if your friend has experience with tech interviews, or is at least familiar with the process. You can also find peers to practice with on our new mock interview platform.

In addition to practicing by yourself, and with peers, it can be a huge advantage to do mock interviews with experienced ex-interviewers. 

3.3 Practice with FAANG ex-interviewers

If you know an interviewer who can help you, that's fantastic! But for most of us, it's tough to find the right connections to make this happen. And it might also be difficult to practice multiple hours with that person unless you know them really well.

Here's the good news. We've already made the connections for you. We’ve created a coaching service where you can practice 1-on-1 with ex-interviewers from Google, Amazon, and other leading tech companies. Learn more and start scheduling sessions today.

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Any questions about leadership?

If you have any questions about leadership, don't hesitate to ask them below, and we will be more than happy to answer them. All questions are good questions, so go ahead!