How to Hire for Thinking Skills

This post is part four in a continuing series on how to hire extraordinary people using the performance-based hiring and interviewing process I advocate. Following is the version of the program and a quick summary of the process.

A Quick Summary of Performance-based Interviewing

  1. Prepare a performance-based job description. Eliminate the use of skills-laden job descriptions by defining the work as a series of time-phased performance objectives.
  2. Conduct a detailed work history. Spend at least 30 minutes reviewing the candidate’s work history looking for progression, impact and recognition. Find out why the person changed jobs and if the purpose for changing was achieved.
  3. Ask the most significant job accomplishment question. For each performance objective ask the candidate to describe a related accomplishment to determine if the candidate is both competent AND motivated to do the actual work required.
  4. Ask the most significant team accomplishment question. This is the most important of all of the interview questions since it confirms all of the individual accomplishments.
  5. Determine culture fit. A great hire is someone who is competent to do the actual work AND motivated to do the actual work AND fits the culture.
  6. Ask the problem-solving question to assess thinking skills. Ask the person to solve a realistic job-related problem to determine thinking skills.

Asking about a Major Job-related Problem is My Favorite Interview Question

While all of the questions are important, the problem-solving question is my favorite. It reveals job-specific problem-solving, insight, intelligence, potential, vision, and leadership. The question is:

"One of the biggest challenges in our job is (provide 30 second 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?"

I asked something similar for a Senior Director of Tax search I just completed. "Given the changing U.S. tax rules how would you modify or develop the company’s global tax strategy?” I then spent 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion making sure the candidate understood the problem and had a logical approach for developing a solution.

The best candidates out of thousands I've met in my 35 years in executive search not only have the ability to understand the needs of the job before starting it, they also ask the right types of questions to figure out the underlying problem. The quality of these questions provides the interviewer another dimension to assess the candidate's understanding and competency.

During this segment of the interview shift to a more natural give-and-take discussion about real job needs. When you focus more on the person's process of figuring out a solution rather than a specific answer this approach reveals the following five dimensions of thinking.

The Five Dimensions of Thinking and Problem-solving

  1. 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 ideas.
  2. Focus. Is the focus technical, tactical, or strategic? Candidates with a pure technical focus get into process details. Those with a tactical bent address the results of the process more. A strategic focus is represented by a longer time horizon with consideration of the implications and the unintended consequences.
  3. Team or individual emphasis. Understand if the candidate's ideas and approaches involve others or if the ideas are 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.
  4. 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 a task and asks questions.
  5. Breadth and potential. As you make the problem more complex note where the candidate’s problem-solving insight shifts from specific to general to vague. This represents the person’s current ability to take on a bigger role.

While this approach reveals strong problem-solving and thinking skills, it's not enough. You also need to ensure the person can deliver the required results. To determine this, ask the candidate to describe something he/she has accomplished that’s most related to the problem under discussion. This two-question combination is called the Anchor and Visualize approach. A track record of comparable past performance and the ability to visualize the future is a great predictor of future performance. 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.