A writer for a website that provides advice to small-business owners asked me for some insight on the best interview questions to ask job candidates. In this case, the businesses employ fewer than 50 people and have no HR person. I started by suggesting she forget the interview questions. They're not important. The answers are what's important.

She didn't understand what this meant. I said let me explain with a short story. It went something like this.

Many years ago, a business owner who had attended one of my Performance-based Hiring workshops for hiring managers anxiously called and asked me what two questions he was supposed to ask all job candidates. It turned out a candidate was in his office, so there was little time to spare. The interview was for a plant manager position, so I suggested that the owner walk through the plant and stop at any workstation where a significant problem existed. He should then describe the problem to the candidate, ask for his advice on how to go about solving it, and ask if he has done anything similar. If so, have him describe his experience in detail.

I suggested he do the same thing for the other four or five biggest problems in the plant. A few hours later, the owner called saying the candidate was a good problem solver but had very little hands-on experience implementing solutions. He said the candidate was more a consultant type than a practical operations person. In a few weeks, he hired someone who could both figure out the cause of a problem and implement the best solution.

The reporter thought this was a great way to present the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern in the Performance-based Hiring process I advocate. But she asked if I had any more stories, especially since the hiring manager may not know what the problems are. I said in that case, not being familiar with a problem is the problem. In this situation, you need to tell the candidate what you know and don't know, and ask him or her for advice on how to figure out a solution. For example, one of our clients was implementing a new financial reporting system and the president didn't know which financial metrics would best manage her company. One of the questions was asking the controller candidates for advice on the types of reports and information needed to stay on top of all of the critical business issues. The Anchor part of the question was asking if the person had ever implemented this type of reporting system.

The reporter was persistent, though. She then wondered if this approach only works for hiring people with some type of experience. I mentioned a project we had with the YMCA preparing an interview guide for evaluating 15- and 16-year-old high school students for summer camp counselor positions. One of the problems the summer camps regularly face is for some of the 8- to 11-year-old youngsters in their groups to become disengaged during a day's activities. During the interview, the counselor candidates were asked how they would notice and address the situation, and if they had ever worked with kids before and experienced this type of problem. If so, they were then asked how they resolved the issue. The ones hired typically had a lot of babysitting experience or siblings they cared for, so the problem was both understandable and solvable. The YMCA contacted us after the summer was over praising us for helping it hire the best batch of counselors ever.

Interviewing accurately isn't based on knowing the best 20 questions to ask. It starts by knowing what problems you want solved or what work you want done. You then ask candidates how they would solve the problems and what they have done that's most comparable. Hire the person who not only answers these questions properly but is also the one most motivated to do the work. That's the definition of a great hire.