The Two Questions You Must Ask Every Job Candidate

You might recall that the first most important interview question of all time is, “Can you describe your most significant career accomplishment?” I suggest spending about 10-15 minutes on this question, gaining insight into the results achieved, the competencies and skills used, the environment and culture, and the process used to achieve the results. If there's a fit with the job, this same question needs to be repeated multiple times digging deep into the person’s major accomplishment for each past job. Then connect the dots. The trend line reveals consistency, growth and potential.

The most significant accomplishment question is a great foundational question I’ve used in more than 5,000 interviews over the past 40 years (no typo). However, my favorite question is something completely different. It takes this understanding of performance to another level. It reveals job-specific problem-solving, insight, intelligence, potential, vision, and leadership. The question goes something like this:

"One of the biggest challenges in this job is (provide short description). If you were to get the job, how would you go about solving it?”

For example, if you're hiring a sales manager, the form of the question might be, "How would you go about ensuring the team met quota every month?" For an engineer, it might be, "How would you design and test this product to ensure it's in production by next March?"

A few years ago I asked this question for a Director of Tax candidate long before the new 2017 tax law was approved: "Given the current U.S. tax rules on inversions how would you modify the company’s current global tax strategy?” I then spent the next 15 minutes in a give-and-take discussion making sure the candidate understood the problem, had a logical approach for developing a solution and could explain it to a cynical lay person.

Asked properly this question uncovers a critical ability of all top performers: job-related problem-solving skills. The best candidates I've met in my 35 years in executive search all have the ability to anticipate the needs of the job before starting it. They can figure out very quickly what's wrong or what's necessary to accomplish a task, what they need to do to implement a solution, and what resources they need to do it. Even better, they “see” the problem, the solution, and the steps needed to get there. They also know what they don’t know and are confident enough to tell you how they’ll get this information.

When you ask this problem-solving question it’s important to turn off the spotlights and shift the conversation into a more natural give-and-take discussion about real job needs. This way the meeting is no longer an interview but a business-like discussion with a team member trying to work together to figure out a solution to a real problem. Once you get comfortable with this style of interviewing, you’ll be able to assess the following four dimensions of thinking skills.

The Four Dimensions of Thinking and Problem-solving

Depth. Determine if the reasoning is complex, advanced or superficial. The best candidates demonstrate a good understanding of the cause and effect of a problem and can determine how to find the root cause. Superficial reasoning is evidenced by a bunch of seemingly unrelated or more generic ideas. Reasoning is more advanced if the ideas logically link together.

Focus. Is the focus technical, tactical, or strategic? Candidates with a pure technical focus get into process or concept details. Those with a tactical bent address the results and outcomes more. A strategic focus is represented by a longer time horizon with consideration to the implications and the unintended consequences.

Team or individual emphasis. Understand if the candidate's ideas and approaches involve others or if the person is more individual or self-focused. This is an important consideration if the person will be managing others or involved in a number of team projects.

Functional or multifunctional perspective. The best candidates understand the implications of their job on other people and other functions. Listen for this as the candidate plans out his or her tasks and asks questions.

The Caveat: Make Sure the Person Can Walk the Talk

There is a caveat to this type of questioning: to ensure the person isn’t just a good talker, thinker and planner, but can also deliver results, use the most significant accomplishment question by asking, “Now can you tell me about something you’ve accomplished that’s most related to what we need done?”

I refer to this two-question combination as the Anchor and Visualize approach. A track record of past performance and the ability to visualize the future is a great indicator of ability. When combined with a clear understanding of real job needs using a performance-based job description, the problem-solving question might soon become your favorite question, too.

3 Ways to Ensure Your Interviews Are Set Up to Identify the Best Candidate, Not the Best Interviewee

Interviews are a crucial part of the recruiting process and when I surveyed recruiters as to what their purpose is, I got the following responses:

  1. Assess competency and fit: 100%
  2. Take money off the table: 20%
  3. Demonstrate to the candidate the recruiter is a career counselor: 13%
  4. Defend good candidates from bad decisions: 13%
  5. Assess someone who doesn’t want to be interviewed: 0%

I would argue that while assessing competency and fit is important, the purpose of the interview is actually all of the above. As a recruiter, getting tough-to-impress passive candidates to the interview is quite the feat, and you cannot completely leave the assessment process up to overworking hiring managers who are likely to make mistakes and often times fall for the best presenter instead of the best candidate.

To ensure that the best people make it to the interview and that you are setting up the candidate and the manager for a productive discussion, following these steps:

1. Set the stage by preparing a performance-based job description that describes the job as a series of performance objectives rather than a list of skills and experiences.

Of course you need to get the hiring manager to agree to this profile as the criteria for hiring. Surprisingly, this is not hard. For example, one client wanted a top-notch circuit designer with a MSEE and 10 years of applicable experience. When I asked if he’d interview someone who had less experience but had designed similar state-of-the-art circuits to some acclaim, he instantly agreed.

2. Ask candidates to describe work they’ve accomplished that best compares to what needs to be done.

I suggest the most significant accomplishment question as the primary means for this. This involves 15-20 minutes of digging into each of the person’s comparable accomplishments that best relate to those on the performance-based job description. A pattern soon emerges of where the candidate excels and what organizations best meet their needs.

I used this exact approach to persuade a CFO to hire someone to lead a worldwide implementation of a major ERP-based cost system. The CFO initially thought the candidate didn’t have the technical competence or fortitude to do the job. When I described how he did something similar at a larger firm and was recognized as a global leader in the company the CFO relented and re-interviewed and hired the candidate.

3. Take compensation off the table by showing that the job is a significant career move.

I’ve used these identical techniques for hundreds of searches over the past 20-30 years but have never had enough money in the compensation budget to pay these top-notch people what they initially wanted. However, by demonstrating that the job represents a career move the money became less important.

The key here is to suggest that a career move requires a minimum 30% non-monetary increase consisting of a bigger job, faster growth, more important work and more satisfying work. Just mentioning this as the purpose of the call is enough to get passive candidates to agree to a screening interview. Then, if the job is big enough, compensation is rarely a bottleneck by making it a negotiating item, not a filter.

These are the things you need to do to hire top tier passive candidates on a consistent basis. And most of it takes place during the interview. That’s why its purpose is much more than assessing competency and fit. It’s to make sure the best person, not the most charismatic interviewee, gets hired.

Ask Job Candidates these 2 Questions to Evaluate Leadership

Half a leader isn’t good enough.

Last week I visited the Boys & Girls of Santa Ana (CA) and was blown away. CEORobert Santana is changing the lives of inner city kids and teenagers. In a community with a high school graduation rate of about 50%, Robert’s kids graduate at a rate of more than 90% and he gets just about all of them into college despite their financial challenges. After 15 minutes with Robert you know he has the core traits of all great leaders – the ability to visualize a goal and the determination to get it done.

I got a sense of this definition for leadership around 1990. A woman, at the time a senior manager with one of the major CPA firms, called me telling me she wouldn’t take a director of accounting job at a major entertainment company in Los Angeles. She said the job was poorly defined and poorly staffed and the direction they were going in from a systems and reporting standpoint would be a failure. She then told me she’d only take the job if they would agree to finance and support her plan. She got the job and achieved exactly what she said she would do. That’s what leaders do – they tell you what they’re going to do and then they do it.

A few years later I was interviewing a candidate for a VP Manufacturing job who described how he successfully planned and implemented a three-year project to build a multi-plant manufacturing and distribution company throughout Southeast Asia. I then asked him how he would integrate this type of capability within the company’s existing operations in Mexico and the U.S. He then spent 30 minutes describing what needed to be considered. My client company reluctantly hired him, concerned his industry background and manufacturing processes weren’t a perfect job fit. This didn’t matter. Leadership did. He accomplished what he said was required and went on to become the CEO of the parent company within three years.

At about the same time, a CEO whom I met through Vistage (an organization of CEOs) called and asked me what two questions he was supposed to ask all candidates. The open job was for a VP Operations and the candidate turned out to be waiting in his office to be interviewed. I suggested he take a tour of the plant and stop at every area where there was a big problem. After describing the problem ask the candidate how he’d go about fixing it. Then ask the person what he’s already accomplished that’s most comparable. The CEO called me a few hours later saying the candidate did a good job of problem-solving and planning but hadn’t accomplished anything comparable. That was the right decision. Half a leader isn’t good enough.

More recently I received an email from Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He asked me to check out his new book,Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, especially the chapter on how superbosses hire people. The examples cited seem to map closely to the visualization and execution pattern all leaders seem to possess.

Simply put, leadership is the ability to figure out a problem, plan a solution and then implement it. Here’s how this concept has been operationalized in thePerformance-based Hiring process we’ve been helping companies implement for the past 25 years.

  1. First, define the real job. Instead of focusing on skills and experiences, first define the work that needs to be done as a series of 5-6 performance objectives. Each objective needs to clearly describe the task, include some measure of success and explain any unusual restraints or resource limitations.
  2. Ask the problem-solving or “Visualization” question for the most important challenges. Ask candidates how they would determine the cause of the issue and what would be needed to plan out a solution. Spend 15-20 minutes in a back-and-forth discussion focusing on the thinking processthe person uses for problem solving and planning.
  3. “Anchor” each objective using the Most Significant Accomplishment question. For each objective ask the candidate to describe an actual accomplishment that’s most comparable to what’s required. Spend 15-20 minutes peeling the onion to fully understand the process the person used to accomplish the task.

I refer to this as the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern, aka: The 2-Question Leadership Test. As long as you define the work that needs to be done ahead of time, it’s uncanny how well the process predicts on-the-job success. In my mind, hiring a person who can tell you how to do something but has never done anything similar, is too much talk and not enough action. However, it’s a bigger risk hiring someone who has done something similar but can’t think any bigger or any differently. These people are just too structured. You’ll be hiring a lot of “super people” if you insist on hiring those who can problem-solve, plan and successfully execute. While this might not make you a superboss, it will certainly make you a super manager.