The question below on assessing team skills is the most important interview question of all time. You'll agree once you try it.

So far in this “How to Hire for …” series we’ve covered:

How to Hire for Motivation

How to Hire for Cultural Fit

Some background is in order as you validate these techniques for yourself. Harvard Professor Todd Rose, the author of the new bestseller, The End of Average, contacted me last year heaping praise on the Performance-based Hiring process underlying this interviewing methodology. He contended it mapped directly to the new science of maximizing individual performance. (As an FYI, Todd is also now the senior education director for the Muppets so when your kids start asking you these questions you’ll know where they came from.) I told him I developed the methodology over 20 years of trial-and-error interviewing thousands of candidates and tracking their performance over a few years.

The big, seemingly obvious, finding was that job descriptions listing skills, experience, competencies and behavioral traits were not great predictors of future success. While measuring these things could reduce interviewing errors due to bias, there were too many other factors that could cause a person to underperform. However, by defining the job as a series of performance objectives and defining the context of the job it was possible to accurately predict on-the-job success. In this case context refers to the company culture, the pace and intensity of the company, the importance of the job, the resources available, the hiring manager’s style and, most importantly, ensuring the actual work maps closely to the candidate’s ability and intrinsic motivation.

The “How to Hire” series provides the interviewing techniques needed to assess candidates using this type of performance-based job description as the criteria for success.

The Most Important Interview Question of All Time

Can you please describe your most significant team accomplishment of your entire career?

While asking the right questions is important, one point most interviewers miss is evaluating the congruity of all of the person’s answers – ensuring all of the information ties together in some logical way. The team accomplishment question meets this need. That’s why I consider it the most important question of all time. If the teams are meaningful and growing in scope, scale and impact, it confirms everything else about the person’s track record.

Let’s try it out by role playing the question. Imagine, I’m interviewing you and I ask you to describe the most significant team accomplishment of your entire career. This could be managing a team or a project or being on an important team. What team accomplishment would you pick and how would you describe it?

After providing a quick overview how would you answer the following clarifying questions?

  • Who was on the team and what roles did they play?
  • When did it occur and what was your assigned role? Did this change at all during the project?
  • How did you get on the team?
  • What were the objectives of the team and were they met?
  • Describe the plan or project and how the team was managed. Were you part of this?
  • What was your biggest contribution to the team? How were you recognized formally for this?
  • Who did you influence the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  • What did you like most about the team? Least?
  • What would you change if you could about the team makeup?
  • Who were the executives on the team and did you influence them in any way?
  • What was the biggest team problem or conflict you faced and how did you handle it?

By itself, this type of question and fact-finding would reveal a lot about the team skills of the person being interviewed. What did they reveal about you?

Now imagine I ask about two other major team accomplishments at different time frames but ask the same questions. The purpose is to see if the candidate’s team roles are growing in importance. This is shown in the graphic highlighting the person’s work teams.

The trend of a person’s team accomplishments provides tremendous insight about the candidate. Growth in the size, scope, scale and importance of the teams indicates the candidate is respected and trusted by senior people in the company. How and why the person got selected confirms work quality, reliability, cultural fit, the ability to deal with customers, vendors and executives and if the person has developed a cross-functional and strategic perspective.

Focusing on team skills this way is vital, especially since so many interviewers overvalue a candidate’s individual strengths when deciding whether to hire someone or not. This type of team assessment is a strong confirming indicator of everything else you’ve learned about the candidate, that’s why I like it so much. After you try it, I suspect you will, too.