In the February 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager wants to know what one question I love to ask job candidates:

When I interview people, I use questions my personnel department gives me, as well as a few of my personal favorites. What’s your favorite interview question to ask job applicants and why?

Nick’s Reply

question-marks-2Lou Adler, another headhunter who also teaches recruiting and job hunting techniques, has an answer to that question that you should consider. But much as I respect Lou, I totally disagree with him. I’ll explain why and then I’ll tell you what is the only question that really matters in a job interview.

In a recent LinkedIn posting, Lou says “The Most Important Interview Question of All Time” is this:

“What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career, so far?”

Lou’s suggestion is useful because the sub-questions it spawns stimulate wonderful discussion between a job applicant and the employer. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that asking a job candidate about his or her most significant accomplishment is so important.

In fact, I think it’s a distraction. It makes it harder for you (the manager) to really assess what an applicant will do for your business. Don’t worry what the job candidate has done. You can ask about that later. Like every investment prospectus says, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. What matters is what a person will do next, if hired, to make your business more profitable.

The future matters more

In a friendly spirit of “I don’t think so…” I’m going to challenge Lou Adler’s advice and offer a better interview question to ask every applicant, before you talk about anything else:

“What’s your business plan for doing this job profitably?”

Any job applicant can walk into an interview and rehash past accomplishments on a moment’s notice. A dog with a note in its mouth cdogwithnotean do that. The person in Lou’s scenario could be visiting any company, talking with any manager, about any job. In other words, Lou’s applicant can be totally unprepared and you’d never know it.

But the truly prepared job candidate has researched your company’s business in detail and is ready to deliver a “mini business plan” about how to do the job you need done, showing why he or she would be your most profitable hire. There is no way to fake it. This is the only interview question that really matters because if the applicant’s answer isn’t a good one, then there’s no reason to waste time business-plantalking about anything else.

I think this approach is more important today than it’s ever been, because while many employers enjoy hefty profits, they nonetheless hesitate to hire. But, why should you fill a position and increase your overhead, when you have no idea about whether the new hire can deliver profitable work?

Coach your job applicants!

Of course, if you’re going to expect a job applicant to deliver plans, you need to give all applicants a heads up:

  • Call each one at least a week before the interview.
  • Tell them you expect a brief, defensible plan for how they will do the job.
  • Tell them what to study and give them useful material to read.

If you’ve selected your candidates carefully, it’s very smart to…

  • Let them talk to members of your team prior to the interview. (Heck, encourage them to call!)

That’s right — coach them to win the job! Help them prepare a thoughtful, custom presentation, so you can see their best performance. (Isn’t that what you do for your own employees, to help them succeed?)

The added benefit of this approach is that most applicants you talk to will never show up for the interview — and you’ll save a lot of valuable time. Most job hunters can’t be bothered. They don’t want to invest the time and energy to get to know your business. They’re too busy applying for a job — any job.

The very few who come to meet you are truly motivated and really want to work for you. They’re ready to prove it. They will accept your challenge and show up ready to demonstrate how they will do the job. So, Open the door — welcome your most motivated candidates.

Why ask dopey questions?

Several years ago, Fast Company magazine produced a special edition of advice “for the perplexed exec.” It was a collection of questions and answers designed to help managers succeed. They asked me to answer the question you’ve raised, the question Lou Adler tackles in his own column. My full answer and advice are here: “What is the single best interview question — and the best answer?

As an employer, you can ask a job applicant for virtually anything you want. So, why ask for a dopey resume about their history? Why assess them indirectly by asking about their “most significant accomplishment” when you can directly assess how they’d do this job now? Your most profitable hire will jump at the chance to produce a plan to do the work. The rest aren’t worth talking to.

Two final notes: First, the purpose of this approach is to gauge a job candidate’s ability to do the work — not to use an interview to get free work or project plans out of interviewees! Be reasonable, and be respectful. Second, I think a lot of Lou Adler’s advice about recruiting and job hunting. Just not this piece of it.

Which “best” question more directly assesses the job candidate? If you’re a manager, what do you ask in interviews? If you’re a job hunter, how would you answer my “best interview question?”

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  1. An additional observation to Nick’s “coaching method,” this is a real-world working interaction. An opportunity for parties to gauge what the working relationship will be like.

  2. Nick,

    I agree with you on 2 important points. One, Lou Adler’s comments are always worth reading. He usually gives excellent advice. Two, Your most important question IS the most significant information to be discussed with an applicant.

    I have a question for you. If the position to be filled is at entry level, with some training provided, then the applicant’s track record on productivity, attendance, and tenure become very important to establish in the communication process. Would you still say that your question is MOST important in this setting? Or, would it grow in importance with positions at higher levels in the structure of the company?

  3. Nick your ability to cut to the core of the issue is truly your gift to your readers “brevity is the soul of wit”. Here’s my question by providing them all the info and access aren’t you denying them the opportunity to demonstrate thier intelligence and initiative?

    Would also be interested in your response to Volkswagon’s question about new hires?


  4. Bravo on this post….now if you could only get companies on board! As a job hunter, I’m finding that most of the leads,job posts, and interviewers out there are either vague in their true desires in a candidate or outrageous in the lists of requirements. They are looking for superman, who has already done everything. I would LOVE IT if a company gave me real company information and homework for an interview! Then you can show them what you are capable of, instead of worrying about the dreaded first-impression thing.

    The idea of hiring motivated, intelligent people with cross-functional skills seems beyond hiring management in today’s market. It’s really discouraging.

  5. Lou’s question is a boat load better than many I have heard. It does allow you insight to what they feel is important and gives the applicant the opportunity to present themselves with a topic that should know very well. This of course will help you with the process of elimination if they can’t present cohesively, get enamored with petty items or easily flustered.
    I really love Nick’s question. When I am being interviewed for a job I will often turn Lou’s question into Nick’s question. Too often the interviewer gets caught up in standard questions controlling the interview. That puts the potential new hire in a constant defensive, reactive position.
    Prior to the interview, do homework, a lot of homework. Then politely answer Lou’s question and mention that is why you have researched and want to present some of your thoughts on the position be filled to see what their thinking and opinions may be. Now you are the one asking questions, but not because they said “Do you have any questions?” keeping them in control. Rather, because you have now shown initiative and are doing one of the best combinations. Showing your creative thinking and giving them a chance to talk about themselves.
    As an example, I was interviewing for a government contractor job where I was able to find a copy of the recent GAO audit, Project Work Statement (PWS) and new IG comments all online. Of course the interviewer was quite impressed at my knowledge on the position, the work and profit potential that was being presented. In today’s environment interviews are harder to come by, so spend that prep time wisely and then bring something to the table

  6. @Mike Weinstein and Volkswagon,

    If the person is entry-level but has some training through school, they have plenty smarts to at least take a stab at making their case, if you give them enough information.

    I don’t see a problem with giving a person enough information to succeed. You’ve presumably looked at their resume and checked off the basic qualifications. You’ve invited them in to do an interview. Why not be gracious and generous?

  7. @Volkswagen: If the applicant is entry-level, then what kind of track record is there to even talk about?

    I think the question is key at any level. In many cases, the lynchpin in all this is held by the employer: Does the employer provide information that enables the applicant to talk about a plan to do the work?

    Even so, I don’t think it’s necessary for the employer to provide this info explicitly — in most cases I think the applicant can do research and figure out enough about the biz to take a worthwhile stab at discussing a plan. At the very least, it shows the applicant is THINKING about the business and not just about “getting a job” or “doing an interview.”

    What I don’t understand is why ANYONE would hire an applicant who does not reveal a pretty good understanding of the business, the problems, the challenges. Even if the applicant turns out to be half wrong, what matters to me is that he or she invested in getting ready to talk shop with me. Why would I hire them otherwise? That’s the single biggest indicator of motivation that I know.

    I learned this when I first started headhunting. I’d ask candidates after interviews to tell me what the work was. Most didn’t know. How can anyone come out of an interview and not know what the details of the job are? Not many managers discuss this. It’s insane. But I’d never interview for a job unless I understood the details of the work and the business well enough to be able to talk about them. You can be entry level and do at least a passable job at this.

  8. @Mike: Who said anything about providing them with “all” the info and access ;-). I think a manager should provide just enough to get them going — or to hang themselves.

    More fundamentally, I think what’s most telling is whether the applicant even takes the info the manager provides and does anything with it. I wasn’t kidding when I said this is a great way to lose 90% of your applicants. They won’t bother even trying.

    Good candidates will lap up the info the manager provides and actually use it. The best candidates will even ask intelligent questions that yield even more information that they can use to perform better on the interview. The candidate worth hiring will probably even follow up on the phone or by e-mail while putting the info to use — to ask for the manager’s insights and to debate the issues, even before the interview. That’s when things get hot — You don’t need a formal interview when you start “talking” on this level, back and forth, like a manager and his employee do when they’re working on a project together.

  9. @Charles: My compliments on how you handled that interview. I hope others see what you were actually doing: You were talking to the interviewer as if you already worked there. Job applicants don’t discuss the sorts of materials and issues you did — only employees do.

    And that’s the point of an interview. To be viewed as an employee. And you set it up just right. Why doesn’t everyone do this? (Answer: Most people are so brainwashed to “do the interview” that they don’t realize what the employer really wants is for them to do the job — right there in the interview! Behave like an employee, not an interviewee!)

  10. Nick,

    I posted this one in response to Lou’s questions piece a while back and I”ll share here as while.

    My closing interview question is “which job was the most fun and why?”

    It’s my “passion checker” and “fit calibrator” since I’ve usually been hiring for small entrepreneurial teams. YMMV

  11. Want to know what its like to interview for a low level position in engineering? Interview questions of the nature Nick talks about? You must be kidding.
    My first interview was with 2 people who had 4 syllable last names. Couldnt even understand what they were saying. Some companies just couldnt give a crap. In another interview the manager asking me the questions knew less than I did and I lost that job.I found out later he was the wrong person to interview me and the job was given to someone else. Too many variables especially when you are looking for a position at a hot company. Too many applicants being interviewed by supposedly technical recruiters of which many are scared their jobs are on the line so they do their best to filter people out and get the minimum in for an official interview to keep their jobs, or managers who are too busy and sometimes even employees who are given interview duties for the day and dont know how to interview a cat. I was told by one company’s recruiter that I was getting the position and the details would be worked out by the end of the week. 2 weeks later after waiting long enough, I called and the recruiter was gone. My paper work was lost and the managers never told me their names even when asked.I am finding out with companies I was interviewing with is that middle management is either getting destroyed or worked to death managing multiple depts instead of one. Personally, I believe its because the new STEM Act will be bringing in from around the world excellent candidates who will work for 50% less and longer hours and the companies are going through the motions saying they cant find anyone until they come from SLovenia or Bangalore. What a wonderful environment to have a job in. Good luck to all. And the people coming in just aren’t for high tech. Better beware. Owning a food truck is getting to look very appealing to me.

  12. Hi Nick,

    Great article. I agree with everything but the part about 9/10 job candidates not being hungry enough in this economy to do the work necessary to prepare for an interview, especially if directly given the materials they need to prepare. Much of the work of preparing for an interview is research, just the work of finding the material that will help you prepare. I’d be more than happy to sit down on the couch for a few days reading necessary materials put in my lap (which has never happened).



  13. @Jack: I don’t think it’s a matter of being hungry enough. I think it’s a problem of people being brainwashed to believe their odds of getting a job are better if they chase as many jobs as possible — rather than invest a lot of time digging into just one opportunity. It’s a mindset that the employment system inculcates. It teaches that applying for a lot of jobs is good, and focusing on any one thing is not. I do believe that most people can grasp this — but first they have to shake the idea that “more is better.” When lets you apply for 50 jobs instantaneously, the focus becomes applying for more jobs. The key is finding a company that really wants to know what you can do.

    In my experience, job applicants often balk at doing detailed preparation. Look at it this way: If the employer doesn’t give you all the info I’m suggesting it should (before your interview), why not just go dig it up yourself? (I don’t mean you, I mean anyone.) People just don’t do that, yet they could if they wanted to.

    But think about what this means. Monster coughs up 50 jobs that supposedly “match” your resume. Are you gonna do detailed research on your own, to unearth useful information, on all 50? Of course not. But now you’re sunk — you have to choose which ones to do it for. People just don’t do that. They won’t choose. That’s what I mean when I say they’re “brainwashed.” The huge list of “opportunities” blinds them to the fact that they can carefully pick just one on their own, do all the necessary research, and offer to show a manager what they can do.

    The system pushes people away from that. “More is better” rather than, “Choose carefully and do your own research.”

    An employer doesn’t have to hand you all that info to prepare. You can do it yourself. Now. So why don’t more people do that?

  14. I completely agree.

    There comes a point where I hate the very general scripted questions where they expect the scripted answers.

  15. @Nick, It works the other way too. I just tried to schedule an interview with a company and I asked them to give me an outline of what business problem I could solve for them and I’d present them an answer. HR said no need, but the phone screen will be on X day. That day, I waited half an hour and no one called. Sent an email confirming the date and got a terse sentence back saying they canceled the interview.
    I guess I don’t want to work for them.

  16. @Bob: “HR said no need.”

    I don’t know whether to laff, or cry. I guess the answer is, “No need to bother.”

    Let me suggest something, if you have the stomach for it and are willing to take a little risk. If you can figure out who the hiring manager is, put in a call. Make the same offer to the manager. See what you get. You might hear the same answer. Or you might meet a manager that gets it. And it would drive HR crazy.

    (I’m not trying to drive HR crazy. But why does HR drive job applicants crazy?)

  17. @Bob: Another suggestion: Send HR a note with a link to this column, pointing out your comment. Welcome them to explain for our collective benefit. Maybe they have a good reason. But any semblance of integrity is already dashed because they didn’t bother to tell you what it was. Heck, tell them I asked you to do this. Blame me. Honest. I’d love to have a chat with them. In fact, if you want to e-mail me privately with info about this company, I’ll call the HR person myself and ask for an explanation. nick at We’ll call this an “Ask The Headhunter Lab” project.

  18. As a marketer, if a company let me have access 1) to the information and 2) to key people, I’d tear after it like a starved dog for steak. I love solving problems, presenting solutions and discussing one on one…

    And then I wake up from this reverie realizing that no one will listen to Nick’s sensible proposition, because the legal department will wag their finger, the HR person hasn’t the foggiest idea of what the marketing area does other than ‘ads’, and the department head will fear the loss of proprietary information, etc.

    And so the search for the purple squirrel who will do $100K level work for $45K continues. “The key is finding a company that really wants to know what you can do.” So true Nick, but so not happening.

  19. One more consideration: this approach has been spoiled by companies who use this to get WRITTEN marketing plans (in my area) out of candidates IN ADVANCE, and never 1) see the candidate and 2) unethically retain the work, then use it without compensation whether they hire someone or not. I was assuming your approach was more to find out how a candidate would apply themselves to a problem.

    I do like applying myself to real world problems on an interview, and to show them I understand their business–it’s just the ethics that have fallen to below ant level.

  20. In the AtH column to which Nick linked, Nick wondered “Why not just take the book of 2,800 interview questions and answers, plop them on the desk, and say, ‘Here are the questions you’re going to ask, and here are my answers, so let’s got to the real meat..'” I did just that! For an interview, I made mind-maps of the usual questions: Tell me about yourself. What do you know about our company? Why do you want to work here?… I flipped through them in a few minutes, then told the interviewer, “Now it’s time to talk about what really matters: Why you should hire me.” He was someone who gets it, so now I have my dream job.

    Every column Nick writes has a Yeah-Butter, the person who writes, “Yeah, that would be a good idea, but in -my- industry (code for ‘in the real world’) it doesn’t work like that!” I think they come here to comment just to show us that many people are stuck in the mindset that they are supplicants when it comes to finding a job. They believe the employer has all the power and they, as the job seeker, must perform a kind of magic trick to get the employer to hire them. Once they do get hired, they still feel that the employer has all the power, so they call themselves “wage slaves,” and hate every day of their job until they are fired or quit and need to do it all again.

    Nick’s columns are great, and I agree with them because I already believed in the fundamental idea that job seeking, interviewing and hiring should be me showing the employer how I will benefit them and why they would be foolish to hire someone else. How do we get that message out to the rest of the job seekers out there?

    I talk to people that I meet about my job and how I found it and earned it, and they often say, “Sure, that’s good for you, but the rest of us are lucky to find a job at all.” The reason so many people apply to 50+ jobs on Monster is because they believe that getting a job is like winning the lottery, so more resumes out there means more chances to get picked.

    How do we get across to them that “luck” is when preparedness meets opportunity, and that we can control how we prepare, and we can control what opportunities come our way by putting ourselves in the way of opportunities?

  21. Michael: Great comment. It is very much about taking control of the conversation and getting to the heart of the matter – the work you will do. And if the people you speak with don’t want to do that, you don’t want to be there.

  22. I don’t think there’s silver bullet question. I like Lou’s question and use a variable…tell me about one of your most satisfying accomplishments. Because I don’t really do Q&A interviews. In fact I prefer that they view it as a meeting, business and or networking. I want them to talk. And that’s question that gets people talking.
    however, I think I’d fall off my chair if a candidate showed signs of doing serious research. In the face of heavy joblessness it’s not unusual for someone to tell me they haven’t been on our site to check us out, or ask me what we do. (short discussion).
    As Nick said, even if they research us till the cows come home, there’s info they can’t find particularly since we are making changes and have new issues and interests evolving in the process.
    Now to Nick’s point about focusing on what value can you add, and how would you approach adding it…a game plan.
    Lou’s question has a flip side, a very good question from the candidate. “What keeps you up at night? ie. what would you like this person to help achieve? (seldom asked)
    Now if they can take that great past achievement of theirs and connect the dots to our current need, and talk about something they did that hits that common ground, and how they would leverage that past experience to solving our current problem..we’re having a really meaningful work conversation. If we have a problem it means we haven’t dealt with it, or don’t know where to begin, this person if convincing, can basically’ve not done it, and I have, and here’s how I’d proceed.
    I had a situation where when I asked that question the guy described a 3 year project that hit dead on to one of our President’s goals..He didn’t know it, but he became a contender. (He didn’t get the job…for other reasons.. )

  23. Nick, I have your Reinventing the Interview to Win the Job book and continually revisit it to improve my game. Reading through these comments I remember that in terms of preparing for an interview you recommend steps such as calling sales execs at the company to find out more about their products, and calling execs in relevant groups for more information. This is in addition to doing things like speaking to reference librarians to dig up research sources you might never have thought of.

    I think it is steps like these that truly set a candidate apart, beyond just a willingness to comb every corner of the internet for grist for the interview mill. Heck, word might even circulate about this amazingly focused candidate..

  24. @Nick @Bob Please please do the HR lab experiment to prove our ongoing thesis on this forum that they need to stay the HELL out of the hiring equation. They need to stick to ouching papers and let managing execs fulfill their successful teams without interference.
    @Donna C -I agree that the scam is out there to get people to submit marketing plans FIRST to steal the ideas without consent. I believe I’ve been had by this once as well. Good comment

  25. Typo fix: ….stick to pushing papers…

  26. @Michael: Would you you be willing to share your mind maps?

  27. This is a timely article for this discussion.

    The article is aimed at marketing…and the job hunt is all about Mareting and Sales…we are the product.

    “You can’t change everything or everyone, but you can change the people who matter”

    Marketing is about change–changing people’s actions, perceptions or the conversation. Successful change is almost always specific, not general….

    So the first, most important question is, “who do we want to change?”

    Read the rest:

  28. @Greg: Just a minute ago I opened an e-mail with Godin’s article in it. Good stuff! Thanks for the link!

  29. I would be thrilled if more interviewers were willing to talk with me about doing the job/work instead of asking the typical interview questions.

    I recently asked one hiring manager what he truly wanted the new hire to do. He gave me a brief synopsis of what he wanted. I was able to outline how I would accomplish the work (it was redesigning an existing website).

    I did not get the job, but it was great to have the manager know what he wanted and to be able to show how I would do the work.

    I wish more employers were willing to take this approach.

  30. I like both, but for different reasons. I like Lou’s because it allows you to demonstrate what you learned at a previous job or jobs, but I wouldn’t leave it there–I’d tie it into the job I’m applying for, to show how what I’d learned at previous jobs is applicable to my ability to do the job I’m applying for. But I like Nick’s because that really is what the interview SHOULD be all about–can you demonstrate to me how you’d do this job/solve this problem? If what you learned at previous jobs helps you, great.

    But too often interviewees are asked inane questions such as what kind of animal would you be, what color are you, etc. I’d much prefer to be given a problem to solve and the opportunity to show a prospective employer how I’d do just that.

    @Nick et al.: it isn’t just interviewees who are brainwashed, but employers too. Otherwise why would they persist in asking such stupid questions that have no relation to or bearing upon a candidate’s ability to do a job? It just doesn’t make any sense.

  31. @marybeth: You’re absolutely right. Employers are even MORE brainwashed than job applicants because employers create the brainwashing then try to pass it along to the applicants. Not only doesn’t it make sense; it costs them money.

    My goal isn’t to understand why employers behave stupidly. My goal is to give job hunters tools to help them win the job, in spite of employers’ silly behavior.

  32. @Greg

    Yes, sir. If I can find them again. If not, I will create more like them and post them to Picasa or a similar site.

    Thank you for your compliment.

  33. I live in a suburbs of Boston, where High Tech companies reside. The lovely New England towns have basically been downgraded. Apartment buildings are crammed with immigrants who work at the local companies. Library’s are now overcrowded and the entire culture of the towns are changing.

    This past summer I shared a house with some folks from India, and I was amazed at the level of disrespect for this country, as well as a sense of entitlement for American jobs.

    I work at a major company in the area, and the cafeteria is overrun with outsourced workers. Most of the recruiters that contact me are from India (and I’m not in High Tech) They also seem to be sourcing local and State jobs.

    It seems to me that the major companies do a disservice to their local communities by allowing this to go on. I’m surprised that they aren’t called on it more often.

    Just my two cents.. and hopefully not sounding too resentful.

  34. I wasn’t asked this question so simply. Rather, I was asked to do a presentation to the 3 owners of the company, plus the Director I would report to. I was changing industries, but it was a sales position, and all of my prior sales experience was relevant. They asked for a power point and gave me a little bit of company info to make it specific. I researched the industry as thoroughly as I felt I could as an outsider and came up with my plan. Not only did I nail the final interview, but I was set up with a valid business plan that with a little tweaking set me up to succeed in my first 90 days there. I’m 6 months in to a job and a company that I love! My boss has told me that my first 6 months have been the most successful that he’s seen in that time period. I give them a lot of credit for asking more of me as a candidate, and also making a more thoughtful hiring decision than just talking about what I had done in the past.

  35. An important factor is being left out here. One of the reasons we are ‘brainwashed’ into applying for a great number of jobs is that we, as candidates, are also looking for a good fit. Regardless of the on paper looks of a job, the people you work for are often a greater factor in job satisfaction than the job itself, especially for women and minorities who have to deal with bigotry issues. Investing in one position can be the wrong approach. I recently spent 6 hours interviewing for a job I stayed with for only 6 months. The owner went back on every part of the hiring agreement and treated all female employees like his personal assistants. I had reservations about him when hired, but the position and terms were ideal…had he honored them. I should have followed my instincts and moved on to the next interview.