How to Conduct an Effective Interview With No Preparation Whatsoever

Imagine at the start of an interview being asked to describe your three greatest strengths. What would you say if the interviewer then asked you to prove each one?

This could be a better interviewing technique than my complete one-question interview.

Here's how it came into being.

I was listening to Hillary Clinton being interviewed the other day. She was asked to describe herself in three words. It took her about 200 to give a non-answer. Now I'm not bashing Hillary for this, but the approach suggested a new type of interview question. I haven't tried it out exactly yet, but I think it would work. It might even be a good way to conduct a phone screen, or it could become a new pre-apply method.

Here's how it goes.

You ask a candidate to first write down his or her three strongest traits, skills, or personal characteristics. But that is just the teaser. You then ask the candidate to prove each one. For proof, the candidate would need to describe some accomplishment or give an example of something that best demonstrates the trait in action.

This is where things get interesting. To make the assessment regarding job fit, the interviewer would need to compare this accomplishment to the actual needs of the job. Regardless of the traits being described, the accomplishment chosen to demonstrate the trait is what's actually being measured.

Let's take a real example to demonstrate how this technique could be used.

Last year, I led a search for a director of HR systems. The job needed someone who was ERP tech-savvy and could lead the implementation of a new HR system from the ground floor of a rapidly growing tech company. At the time, the company had 200 employees, but this would grow to 500 by year-end. While I didn't ask the candidates the three-trait question, I suspect three of them would have answered it this way.

Candidate A: consultative, strategic, technical. This person described working with large companies at the CIO and CFO level leading large projects implementing global IT systems.

Candidate B: project manager, system-savvy, hands-on. This person described projects, getting into the weeds on how IT-intensive HR processes were designed, implemented, and maintained. She had done this at least two times, once from scratch and the other reengineering an outdated HRIS system and moving it to the cloud.

Candidate C: user-centric, process-focused, problem solver. The problems the person liked to solve turned out to be creating efficient databases and user interfaces that won awards for ease of use.

I used the behavioral fact-finding associated with the Most Significant Accomplishment question to generate these summaries, but in my mind Candidate B was perfect for the role. However, the interviewers didn't fully agree. Some liked Candidate A for the person's big picture and leadership qualities, and others liked Candidate C for his intense focus on the user. This created a dilemma that was quickly solved by reviewing the original job description.

All were top-tier candidates with similar competencies, skills, and behaviors, but the real decision hinged on actual job requirements. When I started the search, I worked with the hiring manager, asking this important question, "What does the person actually need to do to be considered successful in the role?" This generated six performance objectives that clearly defined the job as a project manager focused on designing the process from beginning to end, leading a small team and implementing a solution within a compressed period of time. According to these objectives, Candidate B was the right choice.

Since the assessment is made by determining the best fit for the job, it's important to understand real job needs long before you interview candidates. The three-trait question offers a quick way to figure this out, too. Simply ask the hiring manager what three traits, skills, or behaviors are the most important for job success. Then ask how these are used on the job. It's best to describe these as tasks, including the deliverables and measurable results. This is a simple way to create the three most important performance objectives.

While the three-trait question and answer process might not be perfect, it's a great way to match the real work required to a person's ability and motivation to do the work. If you don't know the work that needs to be done, the decision to hire or not is largely guesswork. And in my mind, that's a perfect way to make a bad hiring decision.