Two Good Questions to Defend Candidates from Bad Interviewers

I don’t know about you but as a recruiter I don’t like doing search projects over again because the hiring manager or someone on the interviewing team misjudged a strong candidate. In order to prevent this exact problem, I created the Performance-based Hiring process.

The first step in the process is to discard traditional skills-based job descriptions and define the job as a series of performance objectives. The logic behind this is that as long as it could be proven the candidate could do the work, he/she had all of the skills and experiences necessary. When defined this way, proving the person can do the work turns out to be pretty simple. You just need to ask these two questions.

The First Question: Tell me about your Most Significant Accomplishment (MSA).

The first question involves asking candidates to describe their most significant business accomplishments in great detail. For example, assume one of the performance objectives is leading the coordination of the engineering and marketing team to prepare a product requirements document for a new series of pneumatic control valves. In this case the MSA question would be, “Can you please tell me about your most significant accomplishment related to working with cross-functional teams preparing product requirements for (describe the project)?”

The fact-finding that follows is the key to obtaining a complete answer. One way to do this is to ask “SMARTe” questions for clarifying each accomplishment. After the person gives you a 1-2 minute overview of the comparable accomplishment, ask the following:

  • Specific task: Can you please describe the task, challenge, project, or problem?
  • Measurable: What actually changed, or can you measure your performance somehow?
  • Action: What did you actually do and what was your specific role?
  • Result: What was the actual result achieved and/or what was the deliverable?
  • Timeframe: When did this take place and how long did it take?
  • environment: What was the environment like in terms of pace, resources, level of sophistication, the people involved, and your manager?

While this only covers a small portion of the fact-finding possibilities, using just this short list will give you a deeper sense of the accomplishment and how it compares to the real job requirements in the actual environment of the position. It typically takes 15-20 minutes of “peeling the onion” this way to fully understand each accomplishment.

For the finalists you’ll need to ask the same accomplishment question for each of the performance objectives listed in the performance-based job description.

The Second Question: How would you solve this problem?

This question uncovers another dimension of performance, including job-related problem-solving skills, creativity, planning ability, strategic and multi-functional thinking, and potential.

Using the above example, the form of this question would be, “One of the big problems with this new product is a wide difference of opinion between the engineering and marketing teams regarding what’s feasible and what’s marketable. If you were to get this job, how would you resolve these differences?”

This process involves a back-and-forth dialogue asking how the candidate would figure out the validity of the concerns and what different approaches could be used to resolve them, if possible. The assessment of the answer for these types of job-related problem-solving questions focuses on the candidate’s thinking process, not a final answer. The quality of the candidate’s questions are as important as the person’s responses. The key is to make sure the problem is realistic and relevant; otherwise, you won’t learn much about the person’s job-related thinking skills.

The Anchor and Visualize Pattern

The problem-solving question is a great means to understand critical thinking skills in comparison to real job needs but it’s not foolproof. While being able to visualize a solution to a job-related problem is a critical aspect of strong performance, it’s only part of the solution. If the person hasn’t accomplished anything similar, it’s questionable if she/he will be successful. To address this, ask the candidate an MSA question for the issue under discussion, like, “Can you now tell me about something you’ve actually accomplished or implemented that’s most comparable to how you’ve suggested we handle this problem?”

Following up the problem-solving question with an MSA question is called anchoring. Collectively, these two questions are called the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern. The order doesn’t matter. What does matter is that for the most critical performance objectives you ask the candidates what they’ve accomplished that’s most similar and how they would figure out and solve the problem if they were to get the job.

It’s okay to not hire someone if she/he can’t effectively Anchor and Visualize real job needs but in too many cases good people are excluded before they’re ever asked these questions. This is where recruiters need to intervene and prove their candidates are exceptional. The alternative is to keep on doing the same searches over again.