It Takes Only One Interview Question to Accurately Predict Job Performance

A few weeks ago I suggested you could predict quality of hire, on-the-job performance, job satisfaction and retention with just one interview question. This six-minute video lesson summarizes the entire post and the process.

As far as I’m concerned, the continued use of skills-infested job descriptions, competency models and behavioral interviewing is the reason job satisfaction hasn’t improved in 20 years from a dismal 30% and diversity hiring is more talk than reality. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to argue the point(s) but watch the video first. It will be all you need to understand the problem and the obvious solution and/or you can read on.

Recognize that on-the-job performance requires both the ability to do the work and motivation to the work. This is shown in the Hiring Formula for Success in the upper right of the graphic. However, motivation to do the work is dependent on a lot of other factors. For one, is the actual work required to be done intrinsically motivating to the person doing it? If not, the person will underperform.

Second, is the hiring manager an appropriate hiring manager given the new hire’s management needs or is the hiring manager a jerk in the eyes of this new hire? If the latter, the person will underperform.

Third, does the person fit with the culture of the company? This includes the pace, how decisions are made, the resources available, the company values and its politics. A misfit on any of these factors and the person will underperform.

Given these issues the solution is obvious. First, define the actual work required to be done and all of the fit factors. Second, during the interview dig into the candidate’s major accomplishments doing comparable work and as part of this find out how the fit factors impacted the person’s performance. Doing this is actually as simple as it sounds.

When opening a new requisition recruiters should ask hiring managers to define the work that needs to be done before defining the skills the person needs to have to do the work. I refer to this as a performance-based job description listing the 5-6 critical tasks and performance objectives defining on-the-job success. These need to define the task, the action the candidate needs to perform and some measurable result. For a sales person this could be something like, “Achieve quota within six months.” For an engineer, it could be, “Complete the widget test and final design for high-volume production by Q4.” For a manager, it could be, “Upgrade the marketing team to support the company’s aggressive three-year growth plan.”

Once you know these performance objectives, just ask the candidate this question:

One of our major performance objectives is (describe the most important). We have 15 minutes allocated for you to tell me what you’ve done that’s most comparable. Can you give me a quick overview first, and then I’ll ask you a few clarifying questions?

As long as the candidate has accomplished something comparable, ask the same question again for the next most important performance objective. During the 15 minutes (for each accomplishment) make sure you get information about each of the factors on the Quality of Hire Talent Predictor Index in the graphic. The finalists will be those who answer all of the questions reasonably well. Of course, this takes multiple interview sessions.

The assessment is made on the growth and trend of the candidate’s accomplishments over time; the scope, scale and complexity of the accomplishments in comparison to actual job needs; a consistent pattern of achieving the expected results, and strong alignment on all of the fit factors.  (Here’s the complete online training manual.) Use this Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard to rank and compare all of the candidates on the 1-5 rating scale shown in the graphic.

The Two Critical Factors for Increasing Interview Accuracy and Job Performance

I contend that having skills, experiences and competencies alone are inadequate for making good hiring decisions. Worse, they prevent diversity candidates and top performers who have a different mix of skills, experiences and competencies but have achieved comparable results from being considered. While a structured, behavioral interview is effective for reducing bias, it’s too generic to accurately assess job-specific performance including all of the factors involved in job fit.

A performance-based job description used in conjunction with the one-question performance-based interview solves all of these problems. This has been proven in more than one thousand different hiring situations. Ability to do the work in relationship to fit is what drives motivation, performance and job satisfaction. Contact us if you’d like to see how it can be proven at your company in a simple test by comparing the results of hiring two people for the same job, one using Performance-based Hiring and the other using your existing techniques. You’ll quickly discover there’s no comparison.

The Most Important Interview Question You Should Ask

I’ve been in recruiting for 30+ years. And during that time, over 90% of my hiring manager clients have thought they were good at interviewing. But in reality, I can confirm that at least two thirds of them were not.

Because of this, I had to become a better interviewer in order to be able to show them that the candidates I presented were qualified. And, that’s how I came up with the performance-based interview process and questions that I have found are key to improving interview accuracy and determining candidate fit.

Here’s a quick summary of how to do Performance-based Interviewing

1. First, conduct a detailed work history

As part of the interviewing process, it’s important to spend at least 30 minutes reviewing the candidate’s work history in detail, looking for progression, impact and recognition. As part of this, find out why the person changed jobs and if the purpose for changing was achieved.

2. Ask the most significant job accomplishment question

For every performance objective listed in the performance-based job description, ask the candidate to describe what he/she has achieved that’s most comparable. You’ll quickly discover if the candidate is both competent AND motivated to do the actual work required.

3. Ask the most significant team accomplishment question

As you’ll find out in a moment, I consider this the most important of all of the interview questions. It uncovers the depth and scope of the person’s team skills and validates all of the candidate’s other answers.

4. Ask the problem-solving question

By getting into a give-and-take discussion about a realistic problem, you’ll be able to assess job-related thinking skills and potential.

However, asking the right questions is only part of the assessment. One point most interviewers miss is evaluating the congruity of all of the person’s answers – ensuring that all of the information ties together in some logical way. And, the team accomplishment question meets this need. That’s why I consider it the most important question of all.

Why the ‘team accomplishment' question is so valuable  

One could argue that the teams a person has worked on are more important than the companies the person has worked for. That’s because the people on those teams are those who the candidate will network with to find new jobs and, if the teams are meaningful and growing in scope, scale and impact, it confirms everything else about the candidate’s track record.

To get a sense of the value of this question, let’s role play it.

Imagine I’m interviewing you and I ask you to describe your most significant team accomplishment during your entire career. This could be managing a team or a project or just being on an important team.

After providing me with a quick overview, I’d have you answer the following clarifying questions:

  • Who was on the team? Describe everyone including peers, superiors, customers, vendors and any staff members.
  • What was the time frame of the accomplishment and what was your assigned role? Did this change at all during the project?
  • How and why were you chosen to be part of 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 a 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.

Now imagine I ask about two other major team accomplishments with different time frames and ask the same questions. The purpose is to see if the candidate’s team skills are growing in importance over the past few years. This is shown in the graphic highlighting the person’s work teams.

The trend of a person’s team accomplishments provides tremendous insight into 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. It also confirms 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 them 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 consider it so important. Try it out during your next interview and ask it whether you like the candidate or not. However, don’t be surprised if you change your mind.

The Complete 2-Question Interview

Before I got into the training of recruiters and hiring managers and writing books about the trials and tribulations of all this, I was a full-time executive recruiter, for 25 years. Part of this was becoming a better interviewer than my hiring manager clients to ensure good candidates didn’t get blown away for bad reasons. These were the two questions that leveled the playing field:

The First Question: Can you describe your Most Significant Accomplishment (MSA)

I recently wrote a related post on this topic titled the Most Important Interview Question of All Time. You might want to try to answer the question for yourself to see why it’s so important. As you’ll see it involves asking candidates to describe their most significant business accomplishments in great detail. While it’s only one question, it’s repeated multiple times to ensure you’re covering all aspects of expected performance. Most jobs can be better defined as a series of performance objectives like “redesign the inventory management system to track returns” rather than a list of skills, e.g., “3-5 years of supply chain management experience and a BS.” I refer to these performance-based job descriptions as performance profiles.

Getting the full answer to the MSA question requires a great deal of fact-finding on the part of the interviewer. One way to do this is to ask SMARTe questions. After the candidate provides the typical 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 performance profile. If you’re into behavioral questions, ask STAR questions, too, but make sure you ask these as a sub-set of the accomplishment under discussion. (STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result.) It typically takes 10-15 minutes “peeling the onion” this way to totally understand the accomplishment. A trend line of performance will quickly reveal itself when this same question is asked for different accomplishments.

The Second Question: How would you solve this problem? (PSQ)

The MSA questions represent the candidate’s best examples of comparable past performance in relation to actual job requirements. The second question uncovers another dimension of performance, including job-related problem-solving skills, creativity, planning, strategic and multi-functional thinking, and potential. Using the above inventory management objective, the form of this question would be, “If you were to get this job, how you go about tracking returns into our ERP system?” Based on the person’s response, get into a back-and-forth dialogue asking about how he/she would figure out the problem and implement a solution.

After trying this question out a few times, you’ll discover that the best people quickly obtain a clear understanding of the project or problem, and as part of this, they ask logical questions to obtain a clearer understanding of the problem. Based on this, you’ll be able to ascertain if the person can put together a reasonable go-forward plan of action. In fact, giving a detailed response without consideration of the differences at your company, including the resources available, the culture, and the challenges involved should raise the bright red caution flag.

The Anchor and Visualize Pattern

As long as it’s job-related, the problem-solving question (PSQ) is a great means to understand critical thinking skills in comparison to real job needs, but caution is urged using this type of question. While being able to visualize a solution to the problem or task at hand is a critical component of exceptional performance, it’s only part of the solution. Accomplishing the task successfully is the other part.

So after the candidate finishes answering the PSQ, ask something 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?” This is just a more specific form of the MSA question. Following up the problem-solving question by asking the person to describe a comparable major significant accomplishment (MSA) is called an Anchor. Collectively, the MSA and PSQ are called the Anchor and Visualize questioning pattern. The order doesn’t matter. What does matter is that for the 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.

The ability to visualize a problem and offer alternative solutions in combination with a track record of successful comparable past performance in a similar environment is a strong predictor of on-the-job success. One without the other is a sure path for making a bad hiring decision.

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The Most Important Interview Question of All Time



(NOTE - this is not the ONLY question, just the most important. Make sure you check out THE ANSWER (Part 2) post. Part 3 is for job-seekers on how to prepare for the interview.)

Over the past 30+ years as a recruiter, I can confirm that at least two-thirds of my hiring manager clients weren’t very good at interviewing. Yet, over 90% thought they were. To overcome this situation, it was critical that I became a better interviewer than them, to prove with evidence that the candidate was competent and motivated to do the work required. This led me on a quest for the single best interview question that would allow me to overcome any incorrect assessment with actual evidence.

It took about 10 years of trial and error. Then I finally hit upon one question that did it all.

Here’s it is:

What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far?

To see why this simple question is so powerful, imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select? Then imagine over the course of the next 15-20 minutes I dug deeper and asked you about the following. How would you respond?

  • Can you give me a detailed overview of the accomplishment?
  • Tell me about the company, your title, your position, your role, and the team involved.
  • What were the actual results achieved?
  • When did it take place and how long did the project take.
  • Why you were chosen?
  • What were the 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
  • Where did you go the extra mile or take the initiative?
  • Walk me through the plan, how you managed to it, and if it was successful.
  • Describe the environment and resources.
  • Describe your manager’s style and whether you liked it or not.
  • Describe the technical skills needed to accomplish the objective and how they were used.
  • Some of the biggest mistakes you made.
  • Aspects of the project you truly enjoyed.
  • Aspects you didn’t especially care about and how you handled them.
  • How you managed and influenced others, with lots of examples.
  • How you were managed, coached, and influenced by others, with lots of examples.
  • How you changed and grew as a person.
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again.
  • What type of formal recognition did you receive?

If the accomplishment was comparable to a real job requirement, and if the answer was detailed enough to take 15-20 minutes to complete, consider how much an interviewer would know about your ability to handle the job. The insight gained from this type of question would be remarkable. But the real issue is not the question, this is just a setup. The details underlying the accomplishment are what's most important. This is what real interviewing is about – getting into the details and comparing what the candidate has accomplished in comparison to what needs to be accomplished. Don’t waste time asking a lot of clever questions during the interview, or box checking their skills and experiences: spend time learning to get the answer to just this one question.

As you’ll discover you’ll then have all of the information to prove to other interviewers that their assessments were biased, superficial, emotional, too technical, intuitive or based on whether they liked the candidate or not. Getting the answer to this one question is all it takes.