It was a McDonald’s Happy Meal box that changed everything.

The day was a bit frantic, to be honest. I worked in marketing at a local television station, and most days were that way due to breaking news, investigative reports, and a general manager who always had big ideas to discuss at the end of the day. My résumé had caught the eye of another television station in a major market, and an executive had flown in for an interview over an early dinner. I sped to get to the restaurant on time, took a deep breath, and smiled as I sat down at the table with the stranger who was there to determine if I was the right fit for her team. The usual questions were asked about experience and long-term goals and how I defined success, and it seemed as if we were there only a few minutes when she looked at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh wow, I’ve got to catch a cab to get back to the airport!” She quickly paid the tab, shook my hand and said, “Thank you for your time. We’ll get back to you with next steps once I’ve had an opportunity to debrief with my colleagues.”

And with that, she was gone.

I sat for a few minutes at the table, staring at my barely-nibbled dinner and playing back the rushed conversation in my head. Interviewing was still an awkward thing for me, a strange mix of sales and confession that rarely felt complete. I shrugged my shoulders and decided it was time to go home.

She was standing outside the restaurant, frantically talking to the taxi service on her phone because they had forgotten to send a car her way.

“I’d be more than happy to take you to the airport,” I offered. “There’s no need for you to miss your flight.”

What happened then was one of the best lessons I learned about interviewing. In fact, I wish I had learned it BEFORE all the “strange mix” moments. And it all started with a McDonald’s Happy Meal box sitting on the back seat of my car.

“You too?” she smiled as she pointed to it. “Those things are a fan favorite at home.”

The conversation shifted from “strange mix” to an honest talk about balancing work and family life. We talked about the culture of the television station, what days were like at the office, and about the longevity of employees and what qualities truly mattered to the folks making decisions. In the 15 minutes it took to drive her from the restaurant to the airport, I learned about her philosophy of leadership and why she loved working where she did – even with its warts and blemishes.

In that same 15 minutes, she learned about something far more important than anything my résumé could reveal: she learned about my heart.

I was hired a few weeks later to launch a sales marketing division at that television station, and over the next decade, the executive and I referred often to that talk in the car as we worked through the ebbs and flows of success.

Investing time in learning about the heart and soul of a company has continued to inform my career path. I wish my 25-year old self would have known that it’s OK to interview those who are interviewing me. She would have been a little less panicked about the “strange mix” piece of those discussions, and a lot more confident in choosing not only the right job but the right culture. She would have also discovered that companies which are reticent to engage in those “heart and soul” conversations are likely companies not worth the career investment.

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There are a lot of digital resources to help you prepare for a great interview. The Muse offers advice on how to answer questions properly and 51 questions YOU can ask – everything from compensation to departmental structure and future plans for your role. Here are my top five “heart and soul” themes you should take the time to ask any company that is interviewing you. Find the questions within the themes that work best for you. Listen well to the responses, and don’t be afraid to ask additional questions to help you get a better picture of culture and style. And whatever you do, don’t be shy. Look for the McDonald’s Happy Meal box – find the connecting point between you and the interviewer that will open doors to questions about how life at the company affects life everywhere else.

1. WHAT WOULD FOLKS SAY ABOUT THIS COMPANY?

Tell me about the reputation of this company. What would other companies say? What would the community say?

2. WHAT DO YOU SAY ABOUT THIS COMPANY?

How long have you been here, and how did you choose to work here? Why do you stay? What is one of your favorite memories? What is one of the most significant challenges you’ve faced? In a perfect world, what is it you would ultimately want to do here?

3. WHAT DO EMPLOYEES SAY ABOUT THIS COMPANY?

Why do people choose to work here? May I speak to someone who has been here for less than a year? And may I speak to someone who has been here for several years?

4. TELL ME ABOUT THE TIME…

Share a story of a time you were most proud of your team. Share a story of a time you were most proud of this company. Share an important lesson this company has learned, and why it matters.

5. LET’S TALK ABOUT THE HAPPY MEAL BOX.

In what ways does your work here contribute to your life away from this company? What would your family or friends say about how working here affects you? Based on the culture of this company, would you want your kids to work here?

Ronne Rock is an award-winning marketing executive, writer, author, and speaker – sharing battle-tested wisdom about leadership, advocacy marketing, and finding God in the brightest and darkest of circumstances. You’ll often find her with the vulnerable in difficult places around
the world, gathering words and images that inspire others to action with Orphan Outreach. Ronne is also a contributor for Orange Leaders, Fiftiness, QARA, and other publications. Her work is featured in Everbloom (Paraclete Press), and her responsive prayer journal, “for you, love”, is available on Amazon.com. Ronne lives in the Texas Hill Country, but her home is anywhere her heart finds its beat.