One Question Every Interviewer Must Ask

(And You Must Answer Well)

Feb 9, 2015

This is an article by Jeff Haden, Ghostwriter, Speaker, Inc. Magazine Contributing Editor,  that we felt was an excellent reference document for our readers, clients and friends. We are using it in our newsletter going out to our client base today.

The best interviews are conversations. But it’s hard to have a conversation when you ask a series of fairly unrelated questions. (That’s true even if you have questions you really like to ask (like these three), or if you ask the one question that identifies a superstar, or even if you like to ask strange and unusual interview questions.)

Ask a series of canned questions and to the candidate the process will feel more like an interrogation… and where interrogations are concerned there are no winners.

So try this instead: Just ask one good, compelling question.

Influencer and Inc. colleague Lou Adler would argue for this one: “What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?” Great question, but here’s one I like even better, because it gets to the heart of every small-business owner’s needs:

“What one skill do you possess that will most benefit our bottom line?”

Right off the bat you find out if the candidate knows anything about your company. (It’s hard to say how you will benefit the bottom line when you don’t understand what truly drives value for a particular company.) More importantly you begin to get to the heart of the value the employee will provide — and whether his or her strengths truly meet your needs.

So ask that question and then do what comes naturally: Have a conversation. Listen to the candidate’s answer. Think about what he or she said, not the next question on your list (because there is no next question on your list.)

Then ask a question you would ask if you had run into the candidate in, oh, an airport lounge.

I know you’re thinking, “That question might be fine if the opening is sales or operations, or a functional area with direct bottom-line responsibility. But what about support functions?”

What about support functions? They all affect the bottom line. (And so do initiatives like diversity, engagement, community service… happier employees are more productive and are easier to retain.)

So if the job is in a support area, no problem. Let’s say you’re interviewing a candidate for an HR job. Here’s how that conversation could go:

You ask, “What one skill do you possess that will most benefit our bottom line?”

The candidate might say, “I’m extremely good at ensuring compliance with EEOC regulations.” That’s not a terrible answer because lawsuits certainly can affect the bottom line.

But where HR roles are concerned, ensuring compliance with legal and ethical requirements should be a given. Saying you’ll comply is like saying, “I will come to work every day.” (As Chris Rock would say, “That’s (stuff) you’re supposed to do.”)

And maybe that answer is okay because avoiding legal issues is all you care about. But I doubt it, because every support function can directly affect costs and productivity and sales. So every employee you hire into a support function should benefit the bottom line.

That’s why the candidate might instead say, “I’m extremely good at working with department heads to determine the skills and talents they really need so I can find not just qualified candidates but exceptional candidates.”

Hmm. You like the sound of that. And you like the fact she thinks about her job not just as a series of boxes to check but one that has a broader impact on your business. But then again, she could just be tossing out platitudes. What does that answer look like in practice?

So you say, “That’s interesting. Give me an example.” Natural follow-up.

She might say, “A department manager gave me a list of qualifications for an engineering manager position. He said the right candidate needed an MIT or Stanford engineering degree and at least 10 years’ experience managing projects. I asked what he needed the person to actually do, and eventually he said that person needed to develop and release successful products. What he really needed was a person who had actually brought a number of products to market; where the person went to school or whether they had been working in the field for 10 years was irrelevant.”

You like the sound of that, too. But there’s a natural follow-up question you can ask: “Still, isn’t it easier to give people what they ask for? Then it’s their problem if the person selected doesn’t work out, not yours.”

Maybe she has the right answer. Maybe she’ll say it’s everyone’s problem if you don’t find the perfect candidate. Maybe she’ll say she’s good at working with people so they feel comfortable she’s just trying to give them what they really need and not pushing back just to push back.

And maybe you’ll then say, “Hmm. But what happens when a department manager feels you’re trying to give him what you want instead of what he needs. Has that ever happened to you?” (Yet another natural question.)

And the conversation continues.

Try it. First, think about what you truly need: hard skills, soft skills, leadership skills. Don’t think about the perfect candidate’s “qualifications” but what the perfect person in the job will actually do. After all you don’t hire titles; as Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot, says, “You need a doer of stuff that needs to get done.”

Then think of one question that can form the basis for a thoughtful conversation. You can use mine. Or you can use one of yours:

If you need a salesperson, your one question might be, “If you can only choose one skill you possess, which will be most responsible for helping you land major customers?”
If you need an operations manager, your one question might be, “What do you consider to be the toughest production challenge you’ve faced?” (I can create branches from this particular tree for hours.)
If you need a programmer, your one question might be Adler’s: “What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?”

Ask one question that serves as the trunk of a huge tree and that allows you to branch off in a number of different directions. (If you need a little help, Adler’s follow-up questions provide all the guidance you should need.)

Then have a conversation. Listen. Then ask why. Or when. Or how a situation turned out. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve, or what was learned from a failure.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask other questions. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask some “required” questions. But it does mean you’ll learn a lot more than you would by asking a bunch of canned questions… because the most revealing answers are almost always the result of conversations, not a list of questions.

And you’ll enjoy the process more since it will feel a lot more natural. Great candidates will also enjoy the process too… since they can relax, get into a conversational flow, and as a result give you their best.

And isn’t the candidate’s best what you really want from every interview?