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.

Use This Leadership Technique to Get Any Job

In a recent post I suggested that job seekers need to ask the interviewer about the actual performance requirements of the open job if it appears the interviewer is asking shallow or narrow questions. Once the job is understood as a series of performance objectives, the candidate then needs to provide detail-rich examples of past accomplishments that best compare to the actual job requirements. This is a great technique to ensure the job seekers are being interviewed properly. This Performance-based Hiring approach is now available as an online training course.

Listen for Some Buying Signals

If the past accomplishments are truly comparable and well presented, the interviewer is likely to send some buying signals indicating that the candidate is a reasonable prospect for the job. Some of these signals include describing specific (versus vague) next steps in the process, inviting the person back for another round of interviews, becoming more animated, spending more time in the interview than originally planned or simply stating he/she is impressed and wants to know if the candidate is interested in the job.

A word of caution: Do not ask or answer anything about compensation until you get a number of these buying signals. When compensation is discussed too soon in the process it’s being used as a filter to eliminate those who are either too high or too low. Candidates who ask the question before they’re judged as worthy are judged as not worthy. However, when compensation discussions take place after a candidate’s performance is known, it’s a negotiating item. (DO NOT IGNORE THIS ADVICE.)

However, even if the buying signals are sent and the compensation discussion goes well, it only means the candidate is a contender. To get to the offer stage much more needs to be done. And the best thing that can be done is to prove you can successfully handle the open job. There is more to this than just describing past accomplishments.

As part of the performance-based interview process I advocate, I suggest that the interviewer do two things. First, dig deep into a candidate’s past accomplishments. Second, ask the person to describe how he/she would go about solving or handling a major problem he/she is likely to face on the job. I refer to this twosome as the anchor and visualize questioning pattern. Most interviewers don’t ask these types of questions which is why candidates need to take matters into their own hands and force the interviewer to ask these questions. The technique described above and in the previous post describe how to force the anchor question. Here’s how to force the visualization question.

Force the Visualization Question

Soon after getting a buying signal – even a tepid one – it’s okay for the candidate to ask for permission to describe the process he/she would use to solve one of the big problems likely to be faced in the job. Here’s a rough script and format that can be used for this:

  1. Ask for permission. Would you mind if I gave you an idea on how I’d go about handling the (project or issue) you just mentioned?
  2. Get clarification of the problem or task. Ask a bunch of problem-solving questions to figure out the scope of the problem, the status of the existing plan and the resources available. The quality, depth and insight of these questions will be used to assess your competence so ask as many as you can.
  3. Describe your preliminary plan. Provide enough details about how you’d proceed including the obvious roadblocks you’ll likely encounter and some tradeoffs you’ll need to make.
  4. Ask for feedback. You’ll know you’re answering the question successfully if the interviewer starts asking “what…if?” type questions and/or asks for clarification on some points. By engaging in a two-way conversation about a realistic problem, the interviewer will gain the confidence that the candidate has the thinking, planning and problem-solving skills needed to successfully handle the job without needing a lot of direction.

Demonstrate Leadership

Before proving a job seeker can do the work, the job needs to be defined as a series of performance objectives rather than the traditional laundry list of skills and experiences. Half of the subsequent proof involves digging deep into the candidate’s past accomplishments to determine if the person has a track record of comparable performance. The other half involves engaging in an open discussion about a realistic job-related problem. This anchor and visualization approach is not only a recipe for hiring success, it’s also the definition of leadership. That’s why I urge job candidates to take a leadership role in ensuring they’re being assessed on factors that best predict their own success. Then they need to demonstrate it.

6 Interviewing Tips to Get the Job You Deserve

In my 20 years as a full-time executive recruiter, I've prepped more than 3,000 candidates on how to do a better job of interviewing. I discovered that those who actually applied these techniques got significantly higher rankings from the hiring managers than those who didn't. Here are the points that stand out year after year as the most important.

1. Take Control of the Interview Early

Most interviewers are not as prepared as they should be, nor as competent. Yet they all have a vote on who gets hired. Some ask overly technical questions, some make instant decisions, or bounce around asking questions that are irrelevant.

In these situations, candidates must take matters into their own hands by forcing the types of questions that are asked. For example, if you're a strong project manager and the interviewer is asking irrelevant questions, take control by asking something like, "Based on what you've said, it seems like there's a lot of system implementation work involved in this position. Is this true?" Wait for the reply, and if the interviewer agrees, describe something you've done that's comparable, including a detailed example.

Asking these types of forced-choice questions will ensure you're assessed properly.

2. Give Two Paragraph Answers

Assessing verbal communication skills is a big part of the interview, so how you answer questions is as important as the answers themselves. Forget the short 20 to 30 second answers. Interviewers get aggravated if they need to pry information out of the candidate.

Instead, most of your answers should be about one to two minutes long. Start with some type of general opening statement, then provide specific details, including dates, your role, the challenges faced, and what you accomplished. Add a hook at the end to keep the conversation going. A hook is a question like, "Is that what you were looking for regarding [topic]?"

Here's a video with more details on how to practice answering questions this way:

3. Prove Every Strength With a Specific Example

General statements about strengths, like "I'm a real problem-solver" or "I'm a strong team player," are meaningless and quickly forgotten.

However, you'll receive a different reaction entirely when you prove these statements with an actual example of an accomplishment that best demonstrates the strength. Hiring managers remember the accomplishment and, based on the details provided, conclude on their own if the candidate possesses the ability they're seeking.

Come up with an example to prove each of your strengths, then practice answering "The Most Important Interview Question of All Time" before your next interview.

4. Convert "Having" Into "Doing" to Frame Your Answers

When opening a new job requisition, I suggest recruiters ask hiring managers to describe how the specific skills listed are used on the job. For example, 10 years of advanced high speed servo control design experience converts to: "Lead the field testing of reusable rocket engine systems."

Candidates can ask the same question when the interviewer seems to be posing generic, technical questions. Of course, you still have to prove you can do the work required, but at least by determining the actual need, the proof is relevant.

This type of approach also helps the candidate better understand what the work is all about and if he or she even wants to do it.

5. Ask Meaningful Questions to Demonstrate Your Insight and Company Knowledge

The best questions are developed by being prepared.

As part of this, review the LinkedIn profiles of everyone you'll be meeting, review the other jobs the company has posted, and read as much as you can about the company, its strategy, and how the job you're interviewing for fits in. This will give you a great foundation for asking meaningful business-oriented questions and demonstrating the depth of your preparation. Both are essential if you want to stand out as a special candidate.

6. Use a Trial Close to Determine if You're in the Game

If you're not sure how the interview is going, ask another forced-choice question like, "Based on what we've discussed, are there any areas where you're unsure if I have the skills or experience to handle this job?" This is called discovery, and this type of question will not only demonstrate your confidence but also your ability.

Getting an interview is tough enough. Don't assume you'll be properly assessedonce there. Instead, take the default position that you'll need to take matters into your own hands by practicing and mastering the tips above. While they won't help you get a job you don't deserve, they will help you get one you do.