July 30, 2008

What is the single best interview question ever?

Filed under: For Managers, Hiring, Interviewing

The purpose of any interview is simple: to figure out whether a candidate can do the job profitably. Everything else is ancillary — or fluff.

A smart interview is not an interrogation. It’s not a series of canned questions or a set of scripted tests that have been ginned up by HR. You know the drill: the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions for managers who don’t know how to talk shop. If you could be any animal, what animal would you be? Why are manhole covers round? What’s your greatest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years?

An interview should be a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on working meeting between you and the candidate, where all of the focus is on the job. Think of the interview as the candidate’s first day at work, with the only question that matters being this: “What’s your business plan for doing this job?”

To successfully answer that, the candidate must first demonstrate an understanding of the company’s problems, challenges, and goals — not an easy thing to do. But since you want to make a great hire — and get back to your own job–, why don’t you help the best candidate succeed? Isn’t that what you’d do for any one of your employees after you give them an assignment? You want them to succeed. Why do the dopey interview dance?

A week before the interview, call up the candidate. (If HR warns you not to, remind them who runs your department.) Provide some instructions and advice: “We want you to show us how you’re going to do this job. That’s going to take a lot of homework. I suggest that you read through these pages on our web site, review these publications from our marketing and investor-relations departments, and speak with these three people on my team. When you’re done, you should have something useful to tell us.

This will eliminate 9 out of 10 candidates. (Yah, tell your HR department to suck rocks. You’re not interested in tons of resumes, lots of candidates, and plenty of interviews. The fewer, the better. This is not a numbers game. Anyone without the motivation to do the job to win the job isn’t worth considering.) Only those who really want the job will do the work to research the job. Everyone else is a tire-kicker who’s wasting your time.

In the interview, you should expect (or hope) to hear the most compelling question that any candidate can ask: “Would you like me to show how your company will profit from hiring me?” (Yah, it’s no surprise. It’s the same question you’re asking, if you behave like your own job matters, and that hiring great people matters is a manager’s #1 job.) The candidate should be prepared to do the job in the interview. That means walking up to the whiteboard and outlining the steps he or she would take to solve your company’s problems. The numbers might be off, but the candidate should be able to defend them intelligently.

If the candidate reveals an understanding of your culture and competitors — and lays out a plan of attack to solve your problems and add profit to your bottom line — you have some compelling reasons to make the hire.

If you trust only a candidate’s references, credentials, resume, or test results, you won’t know whether the candidate can do the job. Don’t talk around the job; get on it.

17 Comments on “What is the single best interview question ever?”
By gl hoffman
July 30, 2008 at 10:12 am

Brilliant, Nick, brilliant.

By Andy Lester
July 30, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Whenever I speak to groups about getting hired, the #1 eye-opening revelation is “The interview is your first day on the job.”

If people learn nothing else but that, I’m happy.

By Eric Kramer
July 30, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Nick,
I am completely in agreement with your approach. In fact, InterviewBest (www.interviewbest.com) helps job candidates put together a “sales” presentation they bring with them to the interview.

One part of the presentation is a 30 and 60 day Strategic Action Plan for providing value to the company. This part of the presentation is very effective in creating a conversation about specifically how the candidate will do the job and their potential benefit to the company.

And you are also right, unmotivated candidates will not take the time to develop a targeted “sales presentation” for the interview.

By Another Steve
July 30, 2008 at 5:53 pm

My personal favorite interview question?

“What’s that? Are you talking about [X]?”

I received that one earlier this year in response to MY question about one of the industry’s main ongoing functions in support of [X]. They evidently treated [X] as something to do (poorly) when the time came, rather than something to plan for and incorporate into the organizational culture.

I was interviewing with the HR manager and the Executive Director, who would have been my immediate supervisor.

They quickly steered it back to, “So, what’s your management style?”

I was crushed I didn’t get that job.

By Phil Singer
July 30, 2008 at 9:30 pm

You’ve discussed this before, I know. It’s become my main strategy for preparing for future job interviews: to be able to give an intelligent follow-up to the one question I intend to ask when given the customary closing question “do you have any questions for us?”

The correct response (and I hope I can follow through) is, “I don’t want to seem rude, but it appears that you forgot to ask me the Most Important Question of All.”

When asked what that was, the response is “Mr. Singer, please go up to that whiteboard and explain just why we should hire you.”

[Actually, 25 years ago I really was asked this question at the end of a job interview (I was put before the I.T. director, who explained that he had just one question for me. And it was a flipchart not a whiteboard).

I’m still mad at myself that I wasn’t ready for it.]

By Nick Corcodilos
July 31, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Quite a number of years ago, when I self-published my first book, management guru Tom Peters interviewed me for his newsletter. We talked about The Most Important Question. Over the next several weeks, I was flooded with orders from managers all over the country, thanks to Tom’s newsletter. Back in those days, there was no Amazon, no ordering over the Internet, no PayPal. I used to love going to the mailbox every day…! The question hasn’t changed…

By Gary Capone
August 1, 2008 at 10:49 am

Great advice. This approach should help assess top performers in a lot of situations. The timing of doing this is important, though. If you are screening active job seekers that applied on their own – you should be able to do this early in the process.

With passive job seekers, it may take a different schedule. Individuals that don’t have a high sense of urgency for a change need to be sold on the opportunity first. My firm recruits passive candidates almost exclusively. I can see this approach working but it should probably be saved for the final face to face interview. Great candidates will understand the need to demonstrate their potential to get hired, but it may take a couple interviews to sell them on the opportunity first.

By Nick Corcodilos
August 1, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Gary,
You raise a critical point that should be emphasized. If a manager is recruiting (cajoling, enticing, convincing) a candidate to consider working for the company, you don’t want to hammer them with “what can you do for us” in the recruiting phase. You need to get their attention first. The interview approach I describe here is intended to confirm a match in the interview; not preceding it. I’d hope a manager has already established that the person he or she is recruiting is qualified – or why recruit them?

By Ask The Headhunter® | Nick Corcodilos - Baiting the talent
August 1, 2008 at 2:24 pm

[…] « What is the single best interview question ever? | Ask The Headhunter® | Nick Corcodilos | August 1, […]

By dhogan1999
August 5, 2008 at 11:59 am

What do you say when someone asks the stupid question “why is a manhole round”?

At a company I used to work for, one of the VPs once told me that he asks people that question during interviews. The only thing I could think of was “why would you ask such a stupid question?”

So, what should you say?

By Marianne
August 5, 2008 at 4:58 pm

This is probably silly, but a manhole cover at least, is round so that it will never fall into the manhole itself. A square manhole could potentially fall into a square manhole. (But I’m guessing that that may not be the right answer – ‘cuz you might just be looking snotty!) :)

By Tom Brownsword
August 6, 2008 at 4:48 am

You all are making this too hard… If they were square, they would be called “mansquares” and we’d have to change all of those dictionaries!

Not to mention all of those “101 Best Job Interview Questions” books…

Best regards,
Tom

By Scott
August 12, 2008 at 2:49 pm

There are sometimes when the “do the job” question doesn’t work. In companies I’ve worked for, info on the job that needs to be done sure as heck isn’t published on the website – in fact the basics are top secret. Plus, the information needed takes more than a few days to acquire.
I look for deep knowledge about the field, for evidence that the person can do the job, and for creativity and flexibility. The last thing I want is to hire people who start coming up with solutions before they understand the problem.

One place I got interviewed, and got hired at, asked me how I would do a specific job. I kept asking questions about requirements, the environment, etc. I don’t think I answered it the way they wanted. BTW, the job turned out to be a disaster, my only bad job ever. I learned to ask some of the types of questions in your current column after that.

For software jobs, my favorite question is “what was the most subtle bug you ever created, and how did you debug it?” Anyone who says they never made a mistake is lying, or never did anything interesting. Debugging involves looking critically at your assumptions, which is how we come up with new ideas. A cheerful willingness to admit mistakes is called, in a classic book, “egoless programming.” That’s a bit specialized to be a general question, though.

By John Eull
August 15, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Here’s my personal favourite (although it should follow “the best interview question” discussed above):

“In what position would you like to finish your career and why?” Get at the candidate’s interests, what fires their imagination, their potential, whether they understand what it takes to get to those positions…it’s amazing what you can learn and how you can evaluate “fit”.

By Brie
September 10, 2008 at 11:20 am

I was interviewing with a Manager at Head Office to hire Managers for our off-spring businesses and the interview question he asked the candidates which stuck out the most is something I still can’t get off my mind…
“I am an alien, I have never seen a dog before, and I don’t know what fur is… you have a dog, it is sick, it is disgusting, it makes a mess all over the floors and you want to get rid of it… tell me what this “dog” is, and why I should take it; why I will love it… Oh, and one more thing- you CANNOT lie”.

I didn’t even know what to think. The candidates were so baffled. I had to stifle laughter for some of the responses, and the reactions on their faces were priceless.

By Nick Corcodilos
September 11, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Brie,

Clearly, the interview was for a sales job, right?

By Julia Penny
September 29, 2008 at 6:04 am

The single best interview question that an interviewer can ask is “Do you have any questions for me”!
The quality of the questions that the candidate asks indicate a number of things:
-preparation and commitment
-understanding of the position
-insight into the job
-strategic thinking skills
Job Interview Questions to Ask.

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