Wisdom//

The 1 Interview Question That Reveals Almost Everything You Need to Know to Find the Perfect Job Candidate

It also makes asking follow-up questions really easy. And natural.

BrAt82/Shutterstock
BrAt82/Shutterstock

Most interviewers ask job candidates at least a few of the most commonly asked job interview questions, and at least one of the most common behavioral interview questions

That approach is certainly valid. Yet it’s hard to strike up a great conversation — because the best job interviews are conversations — when you ask a canned series of scripted questions. Do that, and the process feels more like an interrogation.

And where an interrogation is concerned, there is no winner.

So try this instead. Once you’ve gotten past the small talk, ask one good, compelling question that for great candidates will spark telling conversations:

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

Why? You immediately learn whether the candidate knows anything about your company. (It’s hard to say how you will impact the bottom line when you don’t understand what truly drives value for a company.)

More important, you begin to get to the heart of what value the employee might provide, and whether his or her strengths truly meet your needs.

Ask, listen, and have a conversation.

Once you’ve asked that question, actually listen to the candidate’s answer: Think about what he or she said, not the next question on your list. (Approach it like there is no next question on your list.)

Simply think about what you just heard.

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

Granted, you may be thinking, “That approach could work if the opening is sales or operations, or a functional area with direct, bottom-line responsibility. But what about support functions?” No problem.

Say you’re interviewing a candidate for an HR role. Here’s how it could go:

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

“I’m very good at maintaining compliance with EEOC regulations,” the candidate might say. It’s not a terrible answer, because lawsuits certainly do impact the bottom line. But where HR roles are concerned, maintaining compliance with legal (and ethical) guidelines should be a given.

Saying “I’ll comply with regulations” is like saying, “I’ll come to work every day.”

And maybe that’s OK. Maybe avoiding legal issues is all you care about.

But you shouldn’t, because every support function has a bottom-line impact. Every support function directly affects costs and productivity and can even impact sales.

Which is why the candidate might instead say, “I’m extremely good at working with department heads to determine the unique skills and talents they need. That way 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 broad impact on your business. But then again, that answer could just be a platitude. What does her answer look like in practice?

So you say, “Give me an example,” because it’s a natural question when you’re having a conversation. (And it’s a question candidates with experience andachievements love to answer.)

“A department manager gave me a list of qualifications for an engineering manager position,” she might say. “He said the right candidate needed a degree from a top-five school and at least 10 years experience in managing projects. I asked what he needed the person to actually do, and after some discussion he boiled the job down to developing and releasing successful products. What he really needed was a person who had actually brought a number of products to market — where that person went to school, or whether they had 10 years experience, was irrelevant.”

You like the sound of that, too. But there’s a natural 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 says not finding the perfect candidate is everyone’s problem. Maybe she says she’s good at working with people, so they understand she’s only trying to give them what they need, and isn’t pushing back just to push back.

And maybe you say, “But what happens when department managers feel you’re trying to give them what you want instead of what they need? Has that ever happened to you?” (Yet another natural question.)

And the conversation continues.

How to craft your question.

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. Because 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, “What one skill do you possess that will contribute the most to landing major customers for us?”
  • If you need an operations manager, your one question might be, “What is the toughest production challenge you’ve faced?” (I can create branches from this tree for hours.)
  • If you need a programmer, your one question might be (to paraphrase a favorite question of Lou Adler): “What project or task do you feel is the most significant accomplishment in your career?”

The goal is to craft a question that serves as the trunk of a huge conversational tree and allows you to branch off in a number of directions.

Then, put away your scripted questions, and have that conversation.

You’ll learn a lot more than you would by following a canned interview guide, because the most revealing answers are always to follow-up questions.

Listen. Then ask how, or why, 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.

Because it feels a lot more natural — and a lot more like a conversation — you’ll enjoy the interview more.

And so will great candidates, because they will be able to relax, get into a conversational flow, and give you their best.

Which is exactly what a great interviewer wants.

Originally published on Inc.

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