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The Most Important Interview Question

Many managers are understandably far more interested in getting a job opening filled than they are in preparing a good interview. So in their haste, they’ll do what a lot of busy people do when they’re looking for inspiration, and turn to the Internet. “Somebody out there knows the really good interview questions,” they reason. “I’ll just use those.”

If that manager hasn’t yet been you, just go ahead try it. Do a web search on “good interview questions.” You’ll get pages and pages of results. But before you even click on a single link, take a look at each of the page summaries. You’ll notice that most, if not all, of your search results are to help candidates deliver canned “ideal” answers to common interview questions. In fact, the prepped answers will usually be for the questions on the pages written for employers.

So if you’re going to base your interview strategy on the Internet’s idea of good interview questions, the odds are that your candidates will be better prepared for your interview than you are.

Some companies come up with some pretty off-the-wall questions. I’ve read that Apple asks, “If you were a pizza deliveryman and were given a pair of scissors, how would you make use of them?” That may offer up a soul-penetrating answer, but personally, I’m not that clever.

Nor do I think most hiring needs to be. I’ve been involved in lots of hiring decisions over the years, and probably even more terminations. Too often, my involvement with entrances and exits has concerned the same people. After most of those cases, I’d do my own post-mortem on what went wrong. And here’s what I’ve concluded more often than not: The most common reason why a hire isn’t successful is because the hiring team wasn’t really clear on what they were looking for.

“Steve was a good big-picture guy,” the post-Steve water-cooler conversation would go, “but that job needed someone who’s really tactical.” Well, whatever Steve was or wasn’t (which was definitely something other than “big-picture”), he was or wasn’t the day he sent his resume; the hiring team just didn’t smoke it out. And that’s not for lack of clever interview questions: It’s because the team hadn’t been clear on what the job required before they ever called Steve.

The most important hiring question is not one you ask your candidates; It’s one you ask yourself. The next time you have to make a hire, before you even draft a job posting, sit down and write out the answer to this question: “What are the three to five value-added deliverables this person has to deliver in the first twelve months on the job?”

Think of the deliverables as those things you want this person to leave on the desk when he goes home at night, or put in your hand. But make sure they are things you actually want from them. For example, you might want your new Marketing Director to do market surveys for you. It would then be reasonable to ask your candidates whether they’ve done market surveys. But if you think deeper, you’d probably realize that you’re actually not interested in the market surveys. You’re probably really looking for recommendations about what to start and stop doing in your marketplace. That’s probably a key factor in determining whether your eventual Marketing Director will be successful: But if you haven’t thought through your actual needs well enough, you’ll likely not hire a person who can deliver them, and be disappointed like you were the last time.

Once you and the hiring team have that kind of deep clarity on what you’re hiring for, it’s amazing how your most meaningful interview questions will almost generate themselves. Good hiring decisions don’t really come from interview questions that are particularly clever. They come from questions that are based on a clear understanding of what you want.


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