Over the past 30+ years as a recruiter, I can confirm that at least two-thirds of my hiring manager clients weren’t very good at interviewing. Yet, over 90% thought they were. To overcome this situation, it was critical that I became a better interviewer than them, to prove with evidence that the candidate was competent and motivated to do the work required. This led me on a quest for the single best interview question that would allow me to overcome any incorrect assessment with actual evidence.
It took about 10 years of trial and error. Then I finally hit upon one question that did it all.
Here’s it is:
What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far?
To see why this simple question is so powerful, imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select? Then imagine over the course of the next 15-20 minutes I dug deeper and asked you about the following. How would you respond?
Can you give me a detailed overview of the accomplishment?
Tell me about the company, your title, your position, your role, and the team involved.
What were the actual results achieved?
When did it take place and how long did the project take.
Why you were chosen?
What were the 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
Where did you go the extra mile or take the initiative?
Walk me through the plan, how you managed to it, and if it was successful.
Describe the environment and resources.
Describe your manager’s style and whether you liked it or not.
Describe the technical skills needed to accomplish the objective and how they were used.
Some of the biggest mistakes you made.
Aspects of the project you truly enjoyed.
Aspects you didn’t especially care about and how you handled them.
How you managed and influenced others, with lots of examples.
How you were managed, coached, and influenced by others, with lots of examples.
How you changed and grew as a person.
What you would do differently if you could do it again.
What type of formal recognition did your receive?
If the accomplishment was comparable to a real job requirement, and if the answer was detailed enough to take 15-20 minutes to complete, consider how much an interviewer would know about your ability to handle the job. The insight gained from this type of question would be remarkable. But the real issue is not the question, this is just a setup. The details underlying the accomplishment are what’s most important. This is what real interviewing is about – getting into the details and comparing what the candidate has accomplished in comparison to what needs to be accomplished. Don’t waste time asking a lot of clever questions during the interview, or box checking their skills and experiences: spend time learning to get the answer to just this one question.
As you’ll discover you’ll then have all of the information to prove to other interviewers that their assessments were biased, superficial, emotional, too technical, intuitive or based on whether they liked the candidate or not. Getting the answer to this one question is all it takes.
Great insight moves your career, organization, or business forward. The problem? Most people are terrible at asking questions. Learn from the pros how to do it right.
Ask yourself: If you could interview like Walter Cronkite, would you get more value from your meetings? Would your mentors become more valuable? Would your chance encounters with executives in elevators and thought leaders in conferences yield action items and relationships?
The answer is yes.
“As someone who had little to no experience in business–outside of running my own one-man freelancing operation–all that’s really saved me (so far) from madness are the skills I used as a journalist,” says Evan Ratliff, who wrote for magazines like The New Yorker before founding his startup, The Atavist. One of those skills, he says, is “being able to formulate questions that deliver useful answers, whether from advisors or clients or whomever.”
Good questions can move your business, organization, or career forward. They squeeze incremental value from interactions, the drops of which add up to reservoirs of insight. Of all the skills innovators can learn from journalists, the art of the expert Q&A is the most useful.
The problem is, most of us ask terrible questions. We talk too much and accept bad answers (or worse, no answers). We’re too embarrassed to be direct, or we’re afraid of revealing our ignorance, so we throw softballs, hedge, and miss out on opportunities to grow.
But we don’t have to.
The following advice can make you a much better interrogator, not to mention conversationalist:
Don’t Ask Multiple-Choice Questions
When people are nervous, they tend to ramble, and their questions tend to trail off into series of possible answers. (“What’s the most effective way to find a good programmer? Is it to search on Monster or to go on LinkedIn or to talk to people you know or … uh… uh… yeah, is it to, um…is there another job site that’s good …?”)
You’re the one with the question; why are you doing all the talking? Terminate the sentence at the question mark. It’s OK to be brief.
On that note, learn to be comfortable with silence. Allow your respondent to think; don’t jump in with possible answers after a few seconds pass. You won’t get answers if you keep talking, and you’ll rarely learn anything if you offer all the answers.
Questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” have high probability of thoughtful responses, whereas those that begin with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” can limit your answers. (Of course, if you’re trying to limit an answer to “yes” or “no,” you can do that, but if you’re seeking advice or stories, opt for open-ended questions.)
Good: “What would you do?” Bad: “Would you do X?” Terrible: “Would you do X or Y or Z or Q or M or W or … ?”
Adding a simple “what” to a bad question beginning with “do you think” is all it takes to generate an open-ended response. Practice asking questions that begin with the 5Ws (and H) to turn duds around.
“The really ‘bad’ questions are leading ones–the questions where you’re fishing for a particular answer,” says veteran journalist Clive Thompson, who writes for Wired and The New York Times. “You have to avoid those at all costs.”
First of all, if you know the answer, why are you asking?
If you’re seeking confirmation on something you already suspect, ask objectively, and ask directly. You’ll come off as confident (and less of a chump), and you’ll get more honest answers.
Interject With Questions When Necessary
“Stopping a conversation to ask the right questions is far superior to nodding along in ignorance,” Ratliff says.
A good journalist will steer a conversation by cutting in with questions whenever they need to. This helps rein in ramblers and clarify statements before the conversation gets too far ahead to go back. Notice how great interviewers like Larry King or Jon Stewart maintain control of their conversations; it’s almost always through polite interruptions–not with things they want to say, but with questions that keep the Q&A on course.
Mature people will rarely be upset by interruptions that let them continue talking. To the contrary, additional questions make people feel like they’re being listened to.
Field Non-Answers By Reframing Questions Later
Journalists are used to speaking with publicists and well-rehearsed businesspeople with whom it’s often hard to pin down to get a straight answer. Sometimes non-answers are delivered deliberately; often they’re the results of simple rambling. (How many times have you forgotten the question halfway through your response?).
In these cases, you can follow up with either a direct question (“So, how many dollars per month will this cost?”) or by slipping in a variation of the question later into the Q&A. Journalists often have to probe from multiple angles before unlocking the information they need. As long as you are sincere, you won’t come off badly if you ask clarifying questions about the same sorts of things. You won’t come out as empty handed either.
Repeat Answers Back For Clarification Or More Detail
If you’re getting vague responses–or complicated ones for that matter–restate the answers in your own words. (“So, your software will email me any time there are important news stories in my industry?”)
This will typically yield either a definitive “that’s correct,” or a clarification with extra detail. Either way, it’s useful for getting a precise answer.
I know some people who deliberately misparaphrase respondents’ answers in order to incite quick, and often less careful, responses–or in some cases catch someone who’s lying. (Be your own judge of when and whether you feel comfortable employing such tactics.)
Don’t Be Embarrassed
The worst kind of question is the one left unasked.
“There’s typically no point in pretending you know something when you don’t,” Ratliff says. “As a reporter the goal is to gather information, not to impress your subjects. You’d think it would be different in business, but it’s not.”
People are much kinder than we often give them credit for.
“I don’t let questions from entrepreneurs drive me crazy,” says Fred Wilson, partner at Union Square Ventures, a man who is frequently mobbed by entrepreneurs at events. “They are all trying so hard to get where they want to go. I just try to give them the best answer I can.”
And if you ask a bad question from time to time, it’s okay. It happens to the best of us. Legendary business thinker Seth Godin writes, in response to my query about how to ask good questions: “I’m not sure I have a useful answer for you!”
How much does the first hour of every day matter? As it turns out, a lot. It can be the hour you see everything clearly, get one real thing done, and focus on the human side of work rather than your task list.
Remember when you used to have a period at the beginning of every day to think about your schedule, catch up with friends, maybe knock out a few tasks? It was called home room, and it went away after high school. But many successful people schedule themselves a kind of grown-up home room every day. You should too.
The first hour of the workday goes a bit differently for Craig Newmark of Craigslist, David Karp of Tumblr, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, career writer (and Fast Company blogger) Brian Tracy, and others, and they’ll tell you it makes a big difference. Here are the first items on their daily to-do list.
Don’t Check Your Email for the First Hour. Seriously. Stop That.
Tumblr founder David Karp will “try hard” not to check his email until 9:30 or 10 a.m., according to an Inc. profile of him. “Reading e-mails at home never feels good or productive,” Karp said. “If something urgently needs my attention, someone will call or text me.”
Not all of us can roll into the office whenever our Vespa happens to get us there, but most of us with jobs that don’t require constant on-call awareness can trade e-mail for organization and single-focus work. It’s an idea that serves as the title of Julie Morgenstern’s work management book Never Check Email In The Morning, and it’s a fine strategy for leaving the office with the feeling that, even on the most over-booked days, you got at least one real thing done.
If you need to make sure the most important messages from select people come through instantly, AwayFind can monitor your inbox and get your attention when something notable arrives. Otherwise, it’s a gradual but rewarding process of training interruptors and coworkers not to expect instantaneous morning response to anything they send in your off-hours.
Gain Awareness, Be Grateful
One smart, simple question on curated Q & A site Quora asked “How do the most successful people start their day?”. The most popular response came from a devotee of Tony Robbins, the self-help guru who pitched the power of mindful first-hour rituals long before we all had little computers next to our beds.
Robbins suggests setting up an “Hour of Power,” “30 Minutes to Thrive,” or at least “Fifteen Minutes to Fulfillment.” Part of it involves light exercise, part of it involves motivational incantations, but the most accessible piece involves 10 minutes of thinking of everything you’re grateful for: in yourself, among your family and friends, in your career, and the like. After that, visualize “everything you want in your life as if you had it today.”
“Choose your frog, and write it down on a piece of paper that you’ll see when you arrive back at your desk in the morning, Tripani advises.“If you can, gather together the material you’ll need to get it done and have that out, too.”
One benefit to tackling that terrible, weighty thing you don’t want to do first thing in the morning is that you get some space from the other people involved in that thing–the people who often make the thing more complicated and frustrating. Without their literal or figurative eyes over your shoulder, the terrible thing often feels less complex, and you can get more done.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
“Customer Service” (or Your Own Equivalent)
Craigslist founder Craig Newmark answered the first hour question succinctly: “Customer service.” He went on to explain (or expand) that he also worked on current projects, services for military families and veterans, and protecting voting rights. But customer service is what Newmark does every single day at Craigslist, responding to user complaints and smiting scammers and spammers. He almost certainly has bigger fish he could pitch in on every day, but Newmark says customers service “anchors me to reality.”
Your own version of customer service might be keeping in touch with contacts from year-ago projects, checking in with coworkers you don’t regularly interact with, asking questions of mentors, and just generally handling the human side of work that quickly gets lost between task list items. But do your customer service on the regular, and you’ll have a more reliable roster of helpers when the time comes.
What do you do with the first hour of your workday to increase productivity and reduce stress? Tell us about it in the comments below.
I had a fabulous Holiday despite the fact that we may have to move because they are selling our house , a little scary since there is nothing out there to rent that will take a dog I am not giving up my doggie he is part of the family. It is time to buy a house. I think we may be ready, lots of hoops to jump through lots of prayer. I have faith it will work out.
I am learning so much about Faith, Patience and Love.
I am learning how to strive for excellence in my business in my financial matters and my relationships. Not sure if strive is the right word though. I think listening to God and seeing people through his eyes. Also , learning from mentors. Abiding in Gods love and Wisdom and trusting in His power . He brings people to me that will challenge me and teach me.
One of my recent mentors is Tim Ferris,he has some great ideas about learning and I love using the 4 hour cook to create new amazing dishes. I am learning simple cooking techniques that chefs use. I am learning to appreciate food and the process of creating good meals.
One quote from his book that I love: Achievement without appreciation makes you ambitious but miserable. Appreciation without achievement makes you unambitious but happy.
Tim Talks about rebuilding our humanness, getting back into the physical away from the the digital really enjoying the moments of life and paying attention slowing down to smell the roses so to speak .Christmas with my family my 5 beautiful children and their wives and husbands and my 4 grand babies was beautiful and special, I served Uso Buco that I learned to make from the 4 hour Cook and we enjoyed great company and conversation no TV or computers!
I wish you a blessed holiday an amazing and prosperous New Year!
As many of you know, I’ve been asked to participate in LinkedIn’s Influential Business Leaders Forum as spokesperson for career management and recruiting passive candidates. This article is a version of one of my first posts on LinkedIn. It caused a big reaction among the recruiters, candidates, and hiring managers who read it.
Between the lines it describes one of my prime tenets of good recruiting: the critical need to control every step in the process and the conversation. This covers many dimensions including how candidates make career decisions, how hiring managers assess and recruit candidates, and how the hiring team makes their evaluation.
Whether you’re a third-party recruiter seeking more business or a corporate recruiter tired of having your best candidates misjudged, I think you’ll find the approach used in this true story useful on your next assignment.
Here’s how it goes.
Many, many years ago I was contacted by a business owner who had heard me speak at a business leader conference. The company had about 500 people and was producing household merchandise sold in the big box stores — Sears, Target, and Kmart. He was clearly desperate. He implored me to tell him the two questions I had said were all you needed to ask to fully assess competency for any position. He was looking for an operations VP, and being a full-time executive recruiter at the time, I told him I would be happy to reveal my secret assessment technique, but we needed to meet in person and discuss the actual job first. He continued to protest, demanding the questions on the spot. Sensing panic, I relented. Before proceeding though, I asked him what was so urgent that he needed the questions instantly. “The candidate is in the waiting room,” he quietly confessed.
After getting some sense of his business and the position he was trying to fill, I told him to follow the following instructions without compromise. Then call me right after meeting with the candidate.
First, do not meet the candidate in the office. Take the candidate for a tour of the manufacturing facility, instead.
As part of the tour, stop at each area that clearly demonstrates some of the biggest operational problems the person taking the VP job would have to address right away. These turned out to be poor factory layout, too much scrap, outdated process control measures, and excess raw material inventory.
After describing each problem for a few minutes, ask the candidate “if you were to get this job, how would you fix it?” Then have a 10-15 minute give-and-take discussion around his ideas. The purpose of this conversation is to understand how the candidate would figure out the problem and develop a reasonable solution. Based on this, evaluate the candidate on his problem-solving skills, the quality of the questions asked, and his general approach for implementing a solution.
When you’re done with this line of questioning, ask the candidate to describe something he has already accomplished that’s most comparable to the problem needing fixing. Spend another 10-15 minutes on getting specific details about this, including names, dates, metrics, type of equipment used, how vendors were managed, how labor problems were solved, who was on the team, how these people were managed, and the results achieved. Don’t be satisfied with superficial or general answers. I told him he must push to get actual details even if painful, and especially if he already thought the person was hireble.
Ask the same two questions and follow-up the same way for the other operational problems.
It should take at least 90 minutes to complete the tour. When done, tell the person you’re impressed with his background, and will get back to him in few days after seeing some other candidates. Then call me and we can discuss your reaction and figure out next steps.
The call came three hours later. The owner’s insight was profound. He said the candidate aced the problem-solving questions, but didn’t have any evidence of achieving comparable results. He told me the candidate was assertive, insightful, and clearly understood the problems that needed to be solved. However, the owner said the candidate’s answers to the comparable accomplishment questions were vague, shallow, and short.
He went on to say it was like talking to two different people. One was eloquent, animated, and confident talking about how he’d go about figuring out the problem and how he’d implement a solution. The other was like a fish out of water, hesitant and unsure, lacking details along with confidence. He concluded the candidate was probably a great consultant or staff person, but one who couldn’t be left in the factory alone. He wasn’t hands on, and wouldn’t relate to the people on the floor. This was pretty amazing when you consider he only had a 10-minute course in interviewing under his belt.
He then gave me the search assignment. We filled it in about a month. The person hired took the same tour, to the same spots, and answered the same questions. The difference though was our candidate could not only tell the owner how he’d figure out and solve the problems, but he had also accomplished something comparable. Also critical to this true story, the person hired was not from the same industry, had different academic credentials than listed in the job-description, and had less overall experience. More important, not only did he successfully eliminate the initial four problems once on-the-job, but another half-dozen or so, too.
Moral: If you know what you need done it only takes two questions to figure out if a candidate is competent and motivated to do it. If you don’t know what you need done, take a tour of the factory, and call me in the morning.
According to a recent Careerbuilder survey of 2,494 U.S. managers and Human Resource professionals between August 13 and September 6, nearly 70 percent of employers have reported that they have been affected by a bad hire this year. And what constituted a bad hire? In this case, it meant that the hire did not live up to expectations in terms of performance and there were six areas of concern:
Employee didn’t produce the proper quality of work – 67 percent
Employee didn’t work well with other employees – 60 percent
Employee had a negative attitude – 59 percent
Employee had immediate attendance problems – 54 percent
Customers complained about the employee – 44 percent
Employee didn’t meet deadlines – 44 percent
The study also found that 41 percent of the companies estimated that the bad hire had cost their business more than $25,000, with 24 percent estimating that their bad hire cost them over $50,000! These findings do have implications for the perception of the hiring process and deserve some attention. The first question to ask is, “Why are companies making such bad hires? ” Careerbuilder asked this question too and the main reason given for the bad hire, offered by 43 percent of respondents, was due to the pressure to fill a job opening quickly.
So, the prevailing situation here is that recruiters and hiring managers are facing pressures to hire quickly, which are proving counter productive and lowering the overall quality of the recruiting process. This is a situation that should not be allowed to continue as it could begin to negatively affect the perception of the hiring process within the companies in question, and as an industry/profession as a whole.
I think it would be useful to set out several changes to a hiring process that can raise quality and minimize bad hires, while at the same time being mindful, but not held hostage to the need for speed.
1. Prioritize quality over speed
There is evidence that the hiring profession is becoming more quality rather then speed focused in order to minimize bad hires and raise the performance levels of recruits. Yes, the FutureStep Global talent Impact Survey revealed that the preferred hiring metrics were now ‘success of hire’ (cited by 67% of those surveyed) and retention (cited by 35%) with the time to hire metric being of much lower importance only being cited by 18% of respondents as the most important.
So, clearly recruitment and operations management should be prioritizing quality focused hiring metrics and ensuring that team members are incentivized accordingly.
2. Focus on employee referral
Research from Jobvite shows that employees hired by referrals stay significantly longer than employee’s hired through other channels, such as careers websites and jobs boards and the same research also shows that they are hired quicker. So, focusing on employee referrals, as a means of recruitment, is a great way to increase retention and quality levels, with the added bonus of it being one of the fastest ways to hire.
3. Focus on the softer competencies during selection
A study by Leadership IQ found that the top five reasons that employees fail are due to lack of: coachability (26%), emotional intelligence (23%) , motivation (17%), temperament (15%) and technical incompetence (11%). Arguably, to increase quality of hire, recruiters should devote more time to assessing the candidate’s coachability, EQ, etc. as deficiencies in these areas seem to be a much more common cause of bad hires than technical incompetence.
I’d be interested in hearing about any other strategies you may have for minimizing bad hires, while being mindful of, but not unnecessarily controlled by, the need for speed in any one hiring situation.
Deb Hiner CEO, specializes in recruiting for start-up to mid size, high growth companies. She has been recruiting since 1982, and over the last 15 years, in the medical device & life sciences industries. Her approach to recruiting centers on building strong relationships with her clients and candidates, while understanding the key objectives for both sides. Deb is trained in performance based hiring, Her approach to recruiting is based on, defining top performance, to take the time to understand the companies’ goals, requirements, & culture. She understands that each search and company is unique and she will develop a customized recruiting strategy that will result in hiring the right people every time.
Since our clients often desire flexibility in the search process, we offer hourly and project based search services. We follow the retained search methodology but bill on a project or hourly basis. With the results of our project based search consulting services rivaling the results of traditional retained search, this option often makes the most sense for our discerning clients. This option is generally more cost effective than traditional executive or retained search.
We offer an array of services that can be used as building blocks to assemble a multifaceted recruiting strategy. We tailor our services to your specific human resources requirements
• Position-specific recruitment strategy & project plan based on client requirements.
• Full-service development, implementation and ownership of the recruiting process
• Comprehensive creative market development, ie. social networks, SMS Text marketing.
• Strategic sourcing and candidate development to build a strong candidate pipelines.
Our clients utilize our research based search process to identify, select and hire top talent across all departments within the industry.
Specialties: Medical device Pharmaceutical Executive Search, Executive Recruiting, Retained Search, Career Coaching,
Just started my new Blog!! So excited! This will be a blog that provides useful and relevant information about hiring Top performers as well as finding a great career!
Well, trying to figure out Word press has been a challenge for me ! I do not give up. Still learning and I have a lot to learn! I am so excited to see what the new year will bring ! I am optimistic! I think there will still be a strong upward trend in hiring. In the meantime I have been reading a great book called the 4 Hour Cook by Tim Ferris. I am a fan of Tim’s books, The 4 hour work week and The 4 hour body. I am having a great time trying the recipes in this book not only do they teach me great cooking techniques that are very simple and wonderful, he is showing me how to learn, by breaking learning a new skill into easy to manage tasks. I need to apply this to Learning WordPress! Tim’s book has lots of great ideas! I have tried 5 recipes so far.
I apply these techniques to recruiting as well , first it is important to have a clear mind and a plan he calls this our meese or all of our tools and ingredients ready to use. Then the plan must be simple and easy to follow, broken down to simple ingredients or steps. When defining performance,it is essential to know exactly who I am looking for . I must define performance from my clients perspective. So I ask simple questions such as, what must this person do to be successful in the first 30 60 90 days? I go from there drilling down until I can create a performance profile. Everything the process is built around the performance profile. From sourcing to interviewing to reference checking this is the foundation for good recruiting. My reward is that I can help my clients to hire great people every time! I learned this technique from Lou Adler, my Mentor and I consider him an expert in the recruiting world. I wish all of you an amazing holiday Season and many many blessings in the New year!