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OWNER'S MANUAL

Every Great Interview Starts With One Question

Forget the checklists and interview guides. Just pick one question.
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The best interviews are conversations. But it's hard to have a conversation when you ask a series of fairly unrelated questions. No matter how hard you try, the process will feel, to the candidate, more like an interrogation, and where interrogations are concerned, there are no winners.

So try this instead: Just ask one good, compelling question.

Lou Adler would argue for this one: "What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?" Great question, but here's one I like even better, because it gets to the heart of every small-business owner's needs:

"What one skill do you possess that will most impact our bottom line?"

Right off the bat, you find out if the candidate knows anything about your company. (It's hard to say how you will impact the bottom line when you don't understand what truly drives value for a company.) More important, you begin to get to the heart of the value the employee will provide--and whether his or her strengths truly meet your needs.

So ask that question and then do what comes naturally: Have a conversation.

Listen to the candidate's answer. Think about what he or she said, not the next question on your list. (There is no next question on your list.) Simply think about what you just heard. Then ask a question you would ask if you had run into the candidate in an airport lounge.

I know. You're thinking, That might be OK if the opening is sales or operations, or a functional area with direct bottom-line responsibility. But what about support functions?

No problem. Say you're interviewing a candidate for an HR job.

Here's how it could go:

"What one skill do you possess that will most impact our bottom line?" you ask.

"I'm extremely good at ensuring compliance with EEOC regulations," the candidate might say. It's not a terrible answer, because lawsuits certainly do impact the bottom line. But where HR roles are concerned, ensuring compliance with legal (and ethical) guidelines should be a given. Saying you'll comply is like saying, "I'll come to work every day."

And maybe that's OK; maybe avoiding legal issues is all you care about. But I doubt it, because every support function should have a bottom-line impact. Every support function can directly affect costs and productivity and even sales. So every employee in a support function should impact the bottom line.

That's why the candidate might instead say, "I'm extremely good at working with department heads to determine the unique skills and talents they need so I can find not just qualified candidates but exceptional candidates."

Hmm. You like the sound of that. And you like the fact she thinks about her job not just as a series of boxes to check but one that has a broad impact on your business. But then again, it could just be a platitude. What does her answer look like in practice?

So you say, "Give me an example," because it's a natural question.

"A department manager gave me a list of qualifications for an engineering manager position," she might say. "He said the right candidate needed an MIT or Stanford engineering degree and at least 10 years' experience in managing projects. I asked what he needed the person to actually do, and eventually he said they needed to develop and release successful products. What he really needed is a person who has actually brought a number of products to market; where that person went to school or whether they had been working in the field for 10 years was irrelevant."

You like the sound of that, too. But there's a natural question you can ask: "Still, isn't it easier to give people what they ask for? Then it's their problem if the person selected doesn't work out, not yours."

Maybe she has the right answer. Maybe she'll say it's everyone's problem if you don't find the perfect candidate. Maybe she'll say she's good at working with people so they understand she's only trying to give them what they really need and isn't pushing back just to push back.

And maybe you'll say, "Hmm. But what happens when a department manager feels you're trying to give him what you want instead of what he needs. Has that ever happened to you?" (Yet another natural question.)

And the conversation continues.

Try it. First, think about what you truly need: hard skills, soft skills, leadership skills. Don't think about the perfect candidate's qualifications but what the perfect person in the job will actually do. Because after all, you don't hire titles; as Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot, says, "You need a doer of stuff that needs to get done."

Then, think of one question that can form the basis for a thoughtful conversation. You can use mine. Or you can use one of yours:

  • If you need a salesperson, your one question might be, "If you can only choose one skill you possess, which will be most responsible for helping you land major customers for us?"
  • If you need an operations manager, your one question might be, "What do you consider to be the toughest production challenge you've faced?" (I can create branches from this tree for hours.)
  • If you need a programmer, your one question might be Adler's: "What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?"

Ask one question that will serve as the trunk of a huge tree, allowing you to branch off in a number of different directions. (If you need a little help, Adler's follow-up questions provide all the guidance you should need.) Then put away your papers and have a conversation.

You'll learn a lot more than you would by following a canned interview guide, because the most revealing answers are to follow-up questions. Just listen. Then ask why. Or when. Or how a situation turned out. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve, or what was learned from a failure.

You'll also enjoy the process more, because it will feel a lot more natural. Great candidates will also enjoy the process, because they will be able to relax, get into a conversational flow, and as a result give you their best.

And isn't that what you're really want from an interview?

More on interviews:

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Mar 12, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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