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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