Editor’s note: Jason Sanders is Vice President of Executive Search at Ivy Exec, a web-based recruiting company that combines next generation technology with human power to deliver customized hiring solutions targeting high caliber professionals to help place them in executive jobs. This article is reprinted with Ivy Exec’s permission.
As Ivy Exec’s Vice President of Executive Search I spend a lot of time interviewing high quality candidates, as you might imagine. Candidates talk with me about their executive job search, career progression, skills, experiences and personal lives. Usually, I am most interested in understanding what motivates a person. That discussion generally provides the most relevant information to screening and attracting excellent candidates for executive jobs. When you interview a candidate, you will need to balance both objectives in order to make a good hiring decision.
Normally, I spend about two hours total interviewing a candidate. Ideally, these conversations are broken down into an initial phone screen and a face-to-face interview. We cover many topics, including personal ones and a general career history. But what if you don’t have two hours to spend evaluating a candidate? Maybe you only have twenty minutes, or perhaps only five. How do you get the most information in the least amount of time? In short, what is the best interview question you can possibly ask?
You must to accomplish a number of things to make smart hiring decisions. You need to find out about the candidates’ primary skills, their general experience, their ability to synthesize information, their ability to present well and think on their feet, their people skills, their basic intelligence, and their fit into your organization. In truth, you will never fully evaluate a person until you work together. You can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, though, using this question:
What is your most significant professional accomplishment?
This question has the advantage of leading to a very short answer, or a very long one. It may put your candidates at ease, or make them sweat. You may learn about your candidates’ values, their self-esteem and their cultural fit. You will certainly learn about their ability to communicate. If you listen well, you may be able to sort out sincerity from pretense. You may be able to tell how they view themselves in relation to a team. You may also be able to learn about the person’s drive to succeed.
You can use this interview question for any level candidate, and use it according to your own style. If you prefer, you may remain silent after asking the question, or you may use it as a basis for many follow up questions.
If you choose this question as a starting point, you create a theme for an entire interview. If there is time, you should dig more deeply by asking questions that qualify your candidates’ response. In the case of a consulting project, some of these questions might be:
What were the dimensions of the project? How was it sold? How long did it last? What was the makeup of the delivery team?
What was your role in the assignment?
What was the overall business impact of the assignment? This is a critical question to assess your candidates’ understanding of the connection between their work and the goals of their clients.
Why were you chosen for this assignment?
What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Which elements of the project did you enjoy, and which didn’t you enjoy?
How did you grow as a person during the course of the assignment?
What did you learn from your client, and what did you teach your client?
When you begin with a strong open-ended question, you lead with a very powerful analytical tool. You can gather a lot of information in a short period of time. You also create an anchor, around which to base a longer interview.
This question makes it easy to structure your interview by introducing a theme for the meeting. Preparing interview questions is always a good idea, but even without an organized approach, you now have something to refer back to. If your candidate begins to wander away from the topic, you will be able to steer the conversation, and learn about the candidate’s ability to stay focused at the same time.
The questions you ask are less important than how you listen to the answers. You may find, for example, that a person needs a lot of prompting. This may mean that they have not accomplished much, or it may mean that they are introverted, or maybe they have not interviewed in years and are a bit rusty. Your evaluation must be flexible according to the circumstances, and other bits of information you gather.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you may find that your interviewee cannot stop talking about their work. Most hiring managers respond poorly to people who talk excessively, and with good reason. While over talking may make a person sound prideful, the opposite is usually the case. It also shows an inability to rapidly synthesize information, and in the worst cases, may be rude to the interviewer.
This question provides you with a firm grounding to begin, and to guide an interview. You should challenge a person, but also make them comfortable enough to reveal themselves. Your questions, and your style give candidates an impression of what it will be like to work for you. Take advantage of every opportunity to leave a good impression.
Using this question puts you in position to gather information and to ask smart follow up questions. It serves as a kind of interviewing cheat sheet, which helps you get around some of the preparatory work, like reading a resume. Don’t misunderstand me; reading a candidate’s resume is extremely important. If you are caught off guard, however, you can refer back to this question without tipping your hand.
In order to make a good hire, you need to check many different aspects of a candidate’s background, skills, personality, cultural fit and drive. You will need to use different approaches to get all the information that you want. Somewhere in the process, though, you ought to ask this question. You may get more than you expected.