Job interview with a billionaire. No fooling.
July 21, 2011 1:16 PM   Subscribe

What do I ask a billionaire?

I have a job interview coming up for a position at a company run by a self-made billionaire (nicknamed "B" for purposes of this AMF question). B is a finance/investments whiz and that's the main area B's company works in.

I expect, as with any interview I've ever had, I'll be presented with the opportunity to ask my own questions about the company. The company, for all intents and purposes, is B and whatever the hell B wants it to be. I want the job, so I'll be careful in how I approach asking B any questions that deviate from standard interview fare, but if the opportunity presents itself, I want some good, thoughtful questions at the ready. I have a personal audience with B for about half an hour, and I want to make the most of it. What would YOU ask?

(oh, and "B" is short for "billionaire", not "Buffett" if you're wondering.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you should ask him the questions you would normally ask in an interview. Billionaires put pants on one leg at a time just like you, and there is no secret code for you to ask him.

What you do not want to do is say to him, "Wow! So, you're a billionaire. I've never met a billionaire before! I'm really nervous. Is it true that it's not worth your time to bend down and pick up a hundred dollar bill?" Etc.

You could ask him for his thoughts on the potential for US default (whether technical or real) on its debt, and how such an event would affect his investment outlook. But, here, you enter dicey territory, as this topic as become inextricably politicized. Be careful, if you do raise such a question, to avoid comments on political topics ("Obama is a moron for not taking the lead on this" or "I can't stand Congress pussyfooting on something of such vital importance.") Likewise, if B decides to make such a topic political, politely nod and shift the conversation elsewhere.

Safer topics would include things such as how B got his start in his business, what the top lessons that he has learned from his entrepreneurial venture are, what skill set he is looking for in qualified candidates, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 1:25 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, you say you want the job, so ask him where he'd like to see the company headed in five years, in ten years, and discuss how you can help achieve that. Avoid speaking of topics that are personal: finances, politics, religion. In this context, he's not a billionaire, he's your potential boss.

(I'd be interested in his take on company culture and what to him is the bottom line. Profit? Value added to the economy? The community? But tread carefully.)
posted by likeso at 1:29 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

What is the one thing that you look for in successful people?

What is something that you know now that you wish you knew when you [were my age / in my position]?

Or..."How much money do I have in my pocket?"
posted by noahv at 1:30 PM on July 21, 2011

Unless he's one of the billionaires whose life story everyone in the world already knows, ask him about his first job. Not for any gaming-the-interview reason, but just because it's interesting.
posted by phunniemee at 1:30 PM on July 21, 2011

Personally, I'd ask to borrow a couple of mil ;) But yeah, I agree with dfriedman - you should treat it like any other job interview. I don't see why the fact that he has significant more money than other interviewers is relevant. Try not to come across as star-struck.
posted by missmagenta at 1:33 PM on July 21, 2011

My boss, the 70 year old self-made billionaire, would likely not even let you get a word in edgewise. He really enjoys talking about himself and how he got where he is today, as do most of his other cronies with similar backgrounds. I'd suggest you start there.
posted by tiny plastic sockpuppet at 1:34 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Having been there, treat it like any other job interview. Don't drive the conversation off the conventional track unless he leads it there. Remember in his eyes, your purpose is to help him get richer/more powerful/whatever. So a service frame of mind is always important.
posted by blargerz at 1:40 PM on July 21, 2011

Like others said, approach B. like any other interview. For what it's worth, my client (also a 70 year old self-made billionaire) earned his giant pile by making data-based decisions and so appreciates that kind of thinking; you can say anything to him so long as you can back it up, preferably with numbers or, failing that, logic. That said, he's used to making decisions and to people being deferential to him, so I've discovered that there's an art to introducing contradicting thoughts that boils down to proceeding with extreme respect and being prepared.
posted by carmicha at 1:41 PM on July 21, 2011

I should add that my client also has an exceptional appreciation for and understanding of risk; discussion on any aspect of the work goes better if that theme is woven into the conversation.
posted by carmicha at 1:48 PM on July 21, 2011

"Many people in your position would rest on their laurels. What makes you continue to want to come in to work every morning?"

"What trait do all your most successful employees share?"

I think likeso's question about company culture is a great one.

"What, in your mind, keeps most managers and CEOs from being real leaders?"

"If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?"
posted by anastasiav at 2:02 PM on July 21, 2011

Unless you're reporting directly to him, this is just a "fit" interview (the length indicates it won't be one with rigorous questions).

He's likely to do most of the talking unless he's a supremely humble self-made billionare (doubtful). If he does want you to ask him questions, keep them entirely focused on the company and the business. Don't ask personal questions or act like you are meeting a rockstar, a job interview is not the place for that. I'd likely avoid any very general economic questions (who isn't sick of the debt limit debate?) and focus instead on a recent development within the industry he works in. In my industry there is always news or gossip about what's happening with a company (are they selling? what about that IPO?) that you can ask his opinion on if you're looking for something that isn't directly related to your work with the company.

I'm assuming you've done your research on the company, etc. and you know your job and what you're going to bring to the table. Be prepared to talk about any of that if necessary.
posted by rainydayfilms at 2:05 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stick to questions related to the business. I hate to be contrary, but I'm not big on anastasiav's first and last questions (I like the middle two, especially the "real leaders" one). I am not a billionaire, more like a hundredaire, but I do occasionally interview and hire people. Whenever they ask me personal questions, I really find myself beginning to wonder who's interviewing who. And why. And I'm put off by it.
posted by LowellLarson at 2:11 PM on July 21, 2011

"Do you have any exotic pets? Like, animals that might be difficult for the average pet-owner to procure?" Or, if they just have a dog and/or cat, what breed do they have?
posted by Greg Nog at 2:16 PM on July 21, 2011

I assume B is a keen assessor of risk and that B probably made his money being better at it than everyone else, I'd just acknowledge the current economic uncertainty and, given that, I wonder what opportunities in the current market are most exciting to B? If B's company is hiring, you can bet he doesn't think it's all doom and gloom.
posted by Hylas at 2:39 PM on July 21, 2011

If B stands for Bridgewater Associates, then kuddos to you! ;)

To answer your question, ask him about music...
Jazz is splintering off in a million directions, which part of the jazz scene is most vibrant, most creative nowadays? What does he think of the state of rock and roll today? What recently caught his ear? In which part of the music production-machine would he invest?

If it's really Ray Dalio, and if you screw up the courage to ask him about music, pleasepleaseplease come back to report what he had to say. ;)
posted by ruelle at 3:02 PM on July 21, 2011

"What is your favorite part of the job?"

"What is your least favorite part?"

"What is more important, recognizing an opportunity or profiting/learning from mistakes" (The point being everybody makes mistakes, even B. He got rich by recognizing an opportunity AND profiting from his mistakes (and those of others). Which is harder? He may have to think about that which is good. It may spawn a more engaging discussion.)

"What's the most important thing to know about working here?"
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 4:19 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd want to ask him what he thinks the purpose of money is. Like, what does money correlate to, in his mind, when he's moving around vast sums and plotting to get more. Power? Pleasure? Mortal souls? Capital to do good things? How many times his name is mentioned in future history texts?

But I would not ask that, in your shoes, because it might emphasize the gulf in the thought process between him and you. He's probably looking for someone who sees something close to what he sees. Either that or he won't want you to know the real answer, anyway.
posted by griselda at 4:34 PM on July 21, 2011

My standard approach in situations of this this nature is to ask what is the question that they never get asked that they wish they did. They answer it by default.
posted by StephenF at 4:54 PM on July 21, 2011

My boss, the 70 year old self-made billionaire, would likely not even let you get a word in edgewise. He really enjoys talking about himself and how he got where he is today, as do most of his other cronies with similar backgrounds.

This is almost exactly the example Dale Carnegie gives in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

He relates a story about a carpenter and a millionaire, IIRC, with the conclusion that successful people love thinking and talking about the hard work that brought them success. Spoiler: the carpenter gets the contract.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:00 PM on July 21, 2011

Some questions, off the top of my head:

• How has the company's culture changed, if at all, from the days when you were just starting out?

• How have the company's goals, outlook, and/or approach to the market changed, if at all, in the intervening years?

• What external factors (market changes, regulation changes, etc.) do you think have most influenced change within the company?

• Similarly, internally, are there specific managers who have been key agents of change? (Bonus: Are there specific managers who I might look to for an example of how to be successful at the company?)

• [Other than this company], which companies do you consider to be the prime movers in this industry? (If you ask this, it would be good to come prepared with ideas based on research of your own, 'cause this would be an easy question for the owner to turn around on you; who do you think the prime movers are in your industry, and why? You probably don't want to start an argument with the guy, but if you've done research and he says Y Company is a prime mover and you think Z Company is worthy of that status, too, you can say, "But what about Z Company's approach to X thing? Does that factor into their market positioning at all?")

• Are there any books you'd recommend I read to better understand your outlook and the factors that have influenced the company's direction? Or,
posted by limeonaire at 5:04 PM on July 21, 2011

Or, if they're pretty Internet-savvy, are there any Internet writers/columnists/bloggers who have a particularly good handle on the industry?
posted by limeonaire at 5:05 PM on July 21, 2011

"If you could be king of the world for a day, what would you do?"

"If there was a single idea or theme of your success, what would you say that it is? Has that changed over the years?"

"Who was the biggest asshole you ever met, and how did you deal with that person?"

"If you were charged with training people to be successful, what's the first thing you'd tell them?"

"What's one thing I can do to be a good fit in this organization?"

"What is the one thing you just can't stand to see your employees do?"

"What's the worst or most tiresome thing about your job, besides answering questions like these?"
posted by gjc at 5:49 PM on July 21, 2011

I've heard that a good question to ask is "what kind of thing would I be doing if I worked here?" because that makes the interviewer imagine you in the job, which gives you a psychological advantage.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:55 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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