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?
Lou 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 can 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 talking 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?”