What is the single best interview question ever?

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?”

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.

Work like a 15-year-old

There’s a wildly-successful TV show that will pit your intelligence against that of 5th graders. I’ll tell you, when it first came out I said it would flop — but the number of adults who fail to keep up with 5th graders is a little frightening. So is the nervous laughter from the audience…

Which leads me to ask, is your work ethic worthy of a 15-year-old? The Evil HR Lady offers young burger-flippers simple advice on How to Avoid Being Fired.

I smirked at some of her suggestions, but then I realized something. If I didn’t learn everything I needed to know in kindergarten, the rest of my work-world savvy was cultivated by a job I had in a diner when I was 15. Simple, boiled-down advice like this has little flavor but, like comfort food, it will take you a long way.

The Evil HR Lady’s suggestions for success at work aren’t just for kids, so pay attention. My favorite is this gem: “Work while you are there.”

Now, there’s something to think about while calculating your value to an employer. Woody Allen was wrong: 90% of success is not “just showing up.” It’s about doing the work. Getting the job done. Producing what you’re supposed to produce. Few 15-year-olds get that, but their bosses grind it into them. Don’t let us forget it, especially in a job interview, when the employer asks, “Why do you want this job?” The answer is not, “So I can show up… and get paid.” The answer is… well, you figure it out.

Remember that Woody Allen is a comedian. While you laugh at humanity’s foibles, he gets paid. When your name has the value that his does, you might get paid just for showing up and standing aroundDo what you say you’re going to do. Do what the employer expects. Work while you are there.

Craft an experiment

Ask The Headhunter is loaded with critiques about resume writers, Human Resources, career counselors, career coaches, headhunters, and every denizen of the career industry — including extreme career consulting, a.k.a., executive marketing. It’s simple: the industry lends itself to quacks and quick-buck artists. And there are a lot of them. But there are a lot of good practitioners, too. You just need to know the difference.

Nah, I’m not going to try and show you how to figure it out. I get taken by surprise myself sometimes, thinking someone’s a quack, and they turn out to be very insightful and helpful. All I can suggest is, check their references. (Yah, check their references! Turnabout is fair play. And smart.) Talk to their clients. Talk to companies who know them. Know who you’re working with.

(Okay, here’s one tip. Like headhunters, really good counselors know they’re operating in a field full of jargon and tools and techniques that are sometimes over the top. They approach their black art with a bit of black humor. They poke and prod before they administer their potions, and they might turn their clients upside down and shake them out to get a better look. They’re fun to work with. No fun, no dice.)

One of my buddies in the counseling biz manages a coaching program for a big non-profit called the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, where adventurous students earn MBA’s. Sara Tucker glows with enthusiasm, slides down bannisters, and makes career change sound like, well, something more than you expected it to be… I’d pay her for advice in a snap, but you can’t hire her — she’s too busy at Anderson coaching MBA students and alumni. (You could get an Anderson MBA, get a session with Sara, and move on, but that would probably embarrass her, seeing as it would be the most expensive coaching session on record…)

Anyway, I’m not offering any tips today, but I want you to see what career counseling is really all about. Pay attention; there’s a quiz afterwards. This video will perpare you for working with a counselor, and it will teach you that Lesson #1 is, you shouldn’t try to teach a pig how to dance. I’ll tip you off that Sara is just acting — portraying another counselor, Carrie Jameson, who crafted her own experiment and moved into another field… This is how one counselor says goodbye to another. But that’s beside the point. Remember, there’s a quiz.

Quiz: Complete the following sentence.

The point of career counseling is…

a) to get so good at it that you can use what you’ve learned to change careers.
b helping pigs find the right mudpit and giving them permission to roll around in it with impunity.
c) sliding down bannisters.
d) trying to figure it all out, no matter what it does to your brain.
e) none of the above. The real point is _________________________.

BONUS: Answer this one for 5 extra points, using terms introduced in the video.

What does it mean to craft an experiment?

Please post your answers below in the Comments box, and provide a full explanation. If you’ve taken the Myers-Briggs, indicate your type. If you just want a job, any job, skip the quiz and this post, and go to Monster.com. Or, you could go to TheLadders, but read this first. Happy careering!

(Best wishes to Carrie in her new nursing career. Many thanks to Sara for her sense of humor. Special thanks to the camera operator for panning across the bookshelf far enough to get the spine of my book into the video… yah, I replayed that part a few times, sorry.)

Loopy feedback failure

Do employers owe you feedback after a job interview? Jeez Louise. Could job hunters be more brainwashed? How could anyone even ask that question? You might as well ask, Does a job hunter owe an employer answers during a job interview?

Nah, let’s all just waste one another’s time and agree that our time is worthless and rude behavior is par for the course.

It’s not. And it’s not. An employer owes you candid, detailed feedback after a job interview because it’s the right thing to do. But a well-intentioned reader demonstrates just how pervasive the brainwashing is, and how loopy this feedback failure has become:

I am a subscriber to your e-mail newsletter and I wanted to give you some feedback. I disagree with the recent advice you gave in a column about, “Do I deserve feedback after the interview?”

The person who wrote to you was obsessing because they didn’t get feedback from a single interview. Why? This is par for the course. You advised the job hunter to contact the hiring manager to talk more about the job, and then to casually press for feedback about why he wasn’t hired. Then you suggested he go over the manager’s head to talk to his boss. This may just make the guy appear to be difficult to deal with.

It is much worse when you go on one, two, or even three interviews, spend a day or two, take vacation time off work, and don’t get feedback. From what I’ve heard, companies don’t want any liability surrounding providing feedback after an interview. I have never gotten any such feedback and I have interviewed with lots of companies. It is just part of the competitive interviewing world and people should just accept it.

You do have a point — not getting feedback after a job interview is routine. But look more closely at what you’re saying: “…companies don’t want any liability surrounding providing feedback after an interview.”

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The Ministry of Reference Checks

Smart job hunting requires picking good target companies carefully. Why apply for jobs at lousy companies? Life’s too short. It’s why I tell people There aren’t 400 jobs for you. At best, there might be a small handful. Don’t just look for a job. It’s far better to doggedly pursue four, five or six right companies than to shotgun the job market and go after every wrong company out there — just because the job boards let you.

This reader has a very, very smart approach to checking out companies. Yep, he checks a company’s references, and he does it like no one else I’ve ever seen. He starts by using the most credible references he can think of: church ministers. This gives a whole new meaning to being blessed…

I couldn’t agree more with your strong advice to carefully research a company’s reputation, in your article Peeling The Offer. I’d like to share an experience I had that illustrates just how important this is.

I applied for a management position and made it through four phone interviews and then a site visit where I was interviewed by three people. Following the interviews I felt that I had a very good shot at the job but I had some very bad feelings about the company, including the fact it had 150% staff turnover and all supervisors and managers had less than one year on the job. I would have been responsible for all new-hire training and it looked like I was going to be chasing a moving target even before I started to ask why the turnover rate was so high. I left the interview and stopped at a local sporting goods store on my way out of town. I mentioned to the store owner that I was in town for a job interview. Without hesitation the store owner said, “You don’t want to work there. That place is a mess.”

The next day I set up meetings with the ministers of the two largest churches in town. Ministers know a community. I asked both men about the reputation of the employer. I said I would appreciate their wisdom, advice and assistance and promised to keep their comments in the strictest confidence. One declined to say much, other than to agree that the company had a very high turn over rate. I felt that his reply was significant for what he did not say. He did not say it was a good place to work or that I would be happy working there. The second minister was much more vocal. He said that a number of his parishoners worked at the company and absolutely hated their jobs. He said the plant manager was extremely difficult to work for, the accident rate appeared to be very high, and working conditions and benefits for the hourly workers were very poor. Even though I would have received better benefits as a manager, I have major issues with a company that treats its hourly people like dirt.

I decided that if two local ministers – men of decent reputation and good education – couldn’t say anything good about an employer, I certainly didn’t want to work there. So I sent an e-mail off to the corporate recruiter with a “Thanks, but no thanks” message. I’m still looking, but I can sleep at night.

References on a company are key. References can save you time, trouble, and pain. But this story takes it up a notch: If you want useful references, go to credible references. Ministers. I love it.

It’s a small town

It’s so obvious, people think it’s corny. Always be nice to people. This reader’s story says it all:

I just found a few moments to read one of your recent newsletters – Do they owe me feedback after an interview?” The situation described reminded me of my own experience.

I needed a job.  And it was before I knew about Ask the Headhunter – though, as you will see, it made be realize how smart you are when I finally did start reading your columns.

Anyway, I was doing the shotgun thing – sending resumes here, there and everywhere, replying to want-ads, calling old co-workers, even people I didn’t really know. I interviewed one morning with a guy at a contracting firm (call him Mr. M.) who had a lot of people at a large manufacturing company in my city. I knew I wasn’t quite qualified, but I also knew I could learn what I needed to fairly quickly.

But, this guy was having none of that. He proceeded to tell my how weak my resumé was and how extremely uninteresting I was to him. To put it mildly, he could have been a lot nicer. But, I had confidence in my worth. I just shrugged it off and kept looking. I found a short-term contracting gig, and eventually made it to Big Bank with a good, permanent job (where I still work).

Some time later, a funny thing happened. We needed to hire a contractor. My boss handed me two resumés to see what I thought. And, wonder of wonders, one of them was Mr. M’s. (Remember him?) I rejected him immediately. He never knew that, of course, but it does illustrate what can happen. It’s a small world – and an even smaller town.

Now, just so you know, I was honest with my boss. I told her that his qualifications were fine. I also told her the story of the interview. And she said that as important as technical qualifications are, she did not want anyone working for her who would treat people that way. A lesson for all of us.

Yah, corny: What goes around, comes around. It’s a small world. We reap what we sow. You never know who you’ll run into again.

Perhaps Mr. M., brusque though he was, had good reasons for not hiring this reader. But, it seems our reader had good reasons for not hiring Mr. M.

Always be nice to people. It’s a small town.

On the edge of the curve

I’ve chided companies for using mundane recruiting methods and salary scales that result in hiring people on the fat part of the bell curve. Management guru Tom Peters suggests recruiting and hiring weirdos — people on the thin, leading edge of the curve; people who will upset the balance at your company and take you in new directions. Those people cost money — lots of money — because they’re (surprise!) on the leading edge of the curve.

Some companies use headhunters to recruit good people — for whatever reason: their HR department can’t do it well; they like to spend money; they like an outsider’s perspective; they like the networks that good headhunters maintain.

But the same bell-curve problem exists when a company hires a headhunter: You hire the best — out on the edge of the curve — or you use a mediocre headhunter to save money (and time, if you’re too lazy to go find the best). The problem is exactly the same: you’re buying mediocrity. Read more