The Best and Worst Procurement Interview Questions

I don’t get called by head-hunters as much as I used to – no prospect of me getting a proper job again, I suspect, and I’m not as up to date with who is hot in the profession as I was at one time. But I do get the occasional call, including one last week, for a hard to fill public sector role. We also wrote recently about my experience interviewing at NatWest, so the two things together got me thinking about interview questions.

So.. what are the best and most effective questions you can ask as an interviewer? And what are the worst to answer as a candidate?

There’s probably some overlap – some of the most challenging for a candidate are just that because they are very revealing for the interviewer.  Candidates may not like others because they’re basically silly questions!

I never liked those that made me do a lot of self-analysis, although they are good questions – “how would your colleagues / friends describe you” always made me squirm. Must say something about a lack of self-awareness, or a good old-fashioned northern upbringing  where too much reflection on “feelings” was not particularly encouraged!

I’ve also been asked to show how tough I was - give an example where I’d “beaten up” stakeholders for non-compliance, which seemed to be approaching that issue from the wrong direction. That was ironic, as I didn’t get the job because the CEO didn’t consider me “hard” enough. He then appointed someone I knew well, who was a much smoother operator than me – a very good CPO but not exactly a tough guy!

There’s also much more focus these days on competency based interviewing, which in general is a good thing but can lead to a bit of a box-ticking approach when used by inexperienced interviewers.  And it’s one thing to know that a candidate has those competencies (or at least tells you they have), but you still have to make a judgement as to whether they can use them successfully in your working environment, with your colleagues and stakeholders.

Anyway, I’m really interested in other views and in particular,

1. Which questions have you used – or been subjected to – that you think are particularly useful?

2. And what is the worst, stunningly awful interview question you’ve ever been asked?

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Voices (25)

  1. Jan:

    Not sure the best answer to this one..
    What do you think is the worst “best practice” in business today and why?

  2. Paul:

    I would sit on my cloud, with my tea and biscuit, admiring the talent of the busy procurement team as they skilfully manoeuvre around all those open man-hole covers.

  3. Faiza Rasheed:

    The best question I was asked ” What would you do if you were God for the day?

  4. Brian:

    I like to start with some very simple questions, one of my favorites is “Are you good at what you do? Followed by, “How do you measure your success?”

    Do also enjoy asking who they pay attention to in the procurement thought leadership space. Should bonus points be awarded if they mention SpendMatters?! 🙂

  5. Christian Shawcross:

    Q: “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?”
    A “Hang on, I think he’s moving”

    1. Siren:

      Funeral question…stupid….answer…brilliant!

  6. Graham Baker:

    When reading about the manhole question I thought what a great question I’ll use it, but since then I’ve noticed that most manholes in the UK seem to be square, so perhaps not!

  7. Trevor Black:

    “We usually like all our candidates to take a short test but as we don’t have one for Head of Procurement so I’ve found one that we use for our internal auditors”.
    Answer: “Would you like to ask me any questions concerning my commercial skills or would you prefer me to take on the role of Head of Audit? End of interview. This was for a local authority!!

  8. Duncan Dallas:

    The late (great, in my opinion) comedian Mitch Hedberg had a good one liner on this….

    “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
    “Celebrating the five year anniversary of you asking me this question”

    1. Thomas Kase:

      Mitch Hedberg – RIP – what dry sense of humor, love his stuff. Much is NSFW, but here’s a clean and slightly procurement related one:

      “This product that was on TV, it said you can have this product for 4 easy payments of $19.95.

      I would like to have a product that was available for 3 easy payments… and one complicated payment. We’re not gonna tell you which one it is, but one of these payments is gonna be hard.”

  9. Final Furlong:

    Very good Dan.

  10. Dan:

    “What is your main weakness?”

    “I tend to be excessively creative; so much so that its almost like I sometimes end up in a pseudo-fantasy world where my position is no longer relevant to the problem”

    “What is your main strength?”

    “I’m Batman”.

  11. stephen ashcroft:

    Is this a good or awful? Either way provides a useful insight to an interviewee’s personal development and professional interest: “What was the last book you have read on purchasing/procurement?” If silence is the answer ask “Please name a book on procurement you have read”.

    1. bitter and twisted:

      Is “i dont, but i waste loads of time at spendmatters” an acceptable answer?

      Seriously – its good, until it becomes a ‘standard’ question – and everyone has a pat answer.

  12. huhh?:

    The man hole cover question is used mainly be pseudo-intellectuals! It’s asked by Google, Accenture, E&Y, etc. Load of horse-shit if you ask me.

    1. Sam Unkim:


      Really ?, I always thought “so you can roll them ” was quite a practical answer to a practical question

    2. Siren:

      Exactly. A rubbish question that doesn’t elicit anything from the applicant except fear and confusion. Only a show off would ask this question and waste valuable interview time.

  13. Ivor Beenfired:

    I was once asked, ‘If you were a biscuit, what kind of a biscuit would you be?’ My puzzled frown and lack of response led him to further remark, ‘I can tell a lot about you from your answer’.

    ‘You are an idiot’ I said, reasonably.

    Interview over.

    1. TimBya:

      I can imagine being floored by this question and I laughed when I read it but the more I thought of it the better it got.
      Imagine answering you would be a digestive (plain, stodgy and rather unimaginative – compared with say a Garibaldi (multi layered, fruity with a hint of spice….).
      I’ve added it (the question that is) to my list!!

    2. Sarang:

      I would want to stand apart from the rest of the interviewees. Just for that reason, I would answer – A Gold Biscuit!

    3. Jamie Fry:

      Jammie dodger – Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, colourful and rounded.

    4. Siren:

      good for you! What an irrelevant question!

  14. Sam Unkim:

    I still love asking ….

    Why are man-hole covers mainly round (circular)

    There’s hundreds of correct answers, but If the candidate cannot think of a few or is thrown by the shift of thinking outside of their comfort box, they really are not for me.

    1. Siren:

      How’s that form part of the merit selection process? I’m inclined to use questions that bring out the best in people, not trip them up.

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