“How could people I knew who were top performers be judged as failures, misfits and incompetent within 30 minutes by people who didn’t know them at all?”

Since I had worked in industry for 10 years prior to becoming a recruiter, many of my early candidates were people I knew personally. Within a year I knew the interview process used by 95% of managers was fundamentally flawed. My big question: “How could people I knew who were top performers be judged as failures, misfits and incompetent within 30 minutes by people who didn’t know them at all?” This led me to start benchmarking best interview practices of the few hiring managers who assessed every candidate correctly.

After sitting in on hundreds of interviews, I discovered that the best interviewers asked essentially the same two questions regardless of the job, function, industry or level of the position. They also knew exactly what they were looking for, and it wasn’t a job description listing skills and experiences. It was a detailed list of performance objectives describing what the person needed to do to be successful.

When this type of performance-based job description was combined with an in-depth work history review, these two questions became the Two-Question Performance-based Interview I’ve been using for the past 25 years. During that time it’s been fully validated, and is now being used successfully by tens of thousands of interviewers around the world for all types of positions. You might want to try it out by comparing the results achieved to the process you’re using today. (Here’s how to obtain the full interview and assessment scorecard.)

A note to job-seekers: while this summary is written from the perspective of the interviewer, candidates should consider how they’d respond to the questions posed. This is a great way to practice the ideas presented in my recent two-part guerrilla job-seeking posts.

The Two-Question Performance-based Interview for Assessing Anyone for Any Job

Step 1: Introduction

First, provide no longer than a 1-2 minute overview of the job. Then ask the candidate to give you a quick overview of what he/she has done that’s most comparable. Be sure to ask what the person is looking for in a new job and why those factors are important. (Note: the why is more important than the what.)

The purpose of the introduction is to take control of the conversation, find out the candidate’s true motivation for looking for another job, and to get the best people to see the job as a potential career move.

Step 2: Force Yourself to Remain Objective

It’s important to wait 30 minutes before you make any yes or no preliminary assessment. More errors are made in the first 30 minutes of the interview due to bias, the impact of first impressions, and lack of understanding of real job needs. (This post describes how to eliminate most of these types of errors.)

Step 3: Conduct a 30-Minute Work-History Review Looking for the Achiever Pattern

Spend time going through each of the jobs the person has held for the past 5-10 years and why the person changed jobs. Within each company, look for successes and areas where the person has been recognized for strong performance. This could be given more challenging assignments, assigned to important teams, and being promoted into bigger roles.

A pattern of successes like these across multiple companies is indicative of the Achiever Pattern. Changing jobs is big decision. Make sure they were made for the right reasons.

Step 4: Ask About the Person’s Major Accomplishments (Question 1: ask multiple times)

Ask the Most Significant Accomplishment question to fully understand the person’s major successes in each past position. Use the detailed behavioral fact-finding process described in the linked post to peel the onion and clarify the person’s actual role.

A core part of the performance-based assessment is comparing the person’s major accomplishments to those described in the performance-based job description. The trend of performance and growth of these accomplishments over time is a strong indicator of ability and potential.

Step 5: Ask the Problem-solving Question (Question 2: ask once)

Ask the candidate how he or she would solve a realistic job-related problem. Then get into a give-and-take discussion with the objective of understanding the process the person would use to solve the problem.

The answer itself is less important that the process the person uses to solve the problem. The best people in any job function have the ability to visualize a solution to a problem before they begin implementing it. Brain teasers, hypotheticals and trick questions are not predictive of success.

Step 6: Allow the Candidate to Ask Questions

Candidate questions asked early in the interview are typically rehearsed. Spontaneous questions asked after the candidate knows the requirements of the job are better indicators of insight, ability and interest.

Step 7: Recruit the Person if the Job Represents a Career Move

The difference between what needs to be done in the job and what the candidate has accomplished represents growth and stretch. This needs to be presented as the prime reason to proceed, not compensation maximization.

Step 8: Measure First Impression Again

Even if first impressions are important to job success, don’t let them affect your judgment. Instead, assess them at the end of interview by determining if the person’s first impression will help or hinder job success. You’ll discover about a third of the people aren’t nearly as good as you first thought, and another third aren’t as bad.

Using the Performance-based Interview and the companion Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard to assess competency, motivation and fit, starts with the development of aperformance-based job description describing what the person must do in the job to be successful. This is essential. The point: if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never know when you’ve found it, even using the best interview and assessment tools in the world.