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, you should repeat the question multiple times reviewing the person's most significant accomplishments 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 that I’ve used in more than 5,000 interviews. 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 that 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 new 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 and had a logical approach for developing a solution. 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.

As part of the give-and-take process, the best candidates will naturally begin peppering the interviewer with questions. This demonstrates their problem-solving techniques in action. "What's the budget, the time frame, the staff, the resources?" are all great questions. The quality of these questions provides the interviewer another dimension to assess the candidate's competency and fit.

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

  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 or more generic ideas. Reasoning is more advanced if the ideas logically link together.
  2. 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 more the results and outcomes. A strategic focus is represented by a longer time horizon with consideration to the implications and the unintended consequences.
  3. 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.
  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 their tasks and asks questions.

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 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.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn's Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.