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One Interview Question That Reveals a Superstar Job Candidate

Granted, it's not exactly a question...but it definitely elicits an important response.

We all have our favorite interview questions. (And every interviewee has questions, like the five great questions job candidates ask.)

Yet we all wish we had better questions to ask, especially when hiring the perfect person is so critical. But is there one perfect question that can identify a true superstar for your business?

Turns out there is.

Tejune Kang, founder of Six Dimensions (No. 651 on the Inc. 5000 in 2013), an IT service firm that provides expert consultants and on-demand implementation and management services, has one he swears by.

"The world is full of mediocrity," Tejune says. "I don't just want to compete. I want to hire superstars, because I want to win the Super Bowl."

So Tejune starts every interview with a few basics. Assessing the candidate's hunger and drive is important, so he asks how candidates determine their goals as well as what motivated them then and what motivates them now.

He also looks for competitive people, so he asks about the last time they competed, what they like about winning, what they don't like about losing, how they feel when they lose--and what they do next.

Then he takes a step back:

"It sounds like you have the right degree, the right background, and the right skills, but in our company every employee has those qualities. That's a given.

"The problem is, I just don't see that extra something in you that all of our people have."

And then he throws down the gauntlet:

"I'm sorry, but I just don't think this is the right fit for you."

Then he sits back and waits.

What happens? Nine out of 10 people immediately fold. They say, "Well, I appreciate your time." They say, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but thanks for the interview."

But the true gems don't fold. They instead immediately rise to the challenge. After all, they want the job and know his company is the right fit for them. So they work hard to overcome his resistance.

They say, "I think you're wrong. I'm here for a reason. Here's what you're not seeing."

In short, superstars don't give up--which is exactly what you want every employee to do.

"It's one thing to have a pleasant conversation during interviews," Tejune says. "And I definitely do that. But at some point, you also need to turn up the heat and see how people respond. Anyone can do well when things go perfectly. Superstars rise to the challenge when things don't go their way."

The Gotcha Game?

I know what you're thinking. Tejune's approach sounds like a test.

But aren't all interviews, at least in part, some form of test? You ask questions. You dig. You probe. You assess. No matter how hard you try to make an interview a conversation, there's still an element of "testing" involved.

Besides, some companies literally test prospective employees (here's looking at you, Google). Others spring surprises like group interviews or role-playing sessions. Because there is no way to truly know what's inside a candidate--and how that candidate will perform once on the job--every interview involves some form of test the candidate passes or fails, even if that test boils down to, "Do I like this person?"

Plus, Tejune's approach focuses on an important quality that is often hard to identify in an interview. Say you're hiring a salesperson. Salespeople hear "no" dozens of times a day. Sales superstars rise to and defeat the challenge of "no" much more often than mediocre salespeople; that's one of the qualities that make them super.

Or take it a step further. Don't you want your employees to be able to push back and say you're wrong--and then explain why you're wrong and what is the better option?

Of course you do.

Superstars aren't just good at what they do. Superstars push past barriers, push past rejection and roadblocks, and rise to the occasion when times truly get tough--which, in any business, they inevitably do.

Qualified candidates can do the job when life is good. Superstar candidates can do the job when everything collapses around them because they have the hunger and the drive and the competitive spirit to not just compete...but to win your version of the Super Bowl.

The next time you interview a job candidate who doesn't appear to have what it takes, be honest. Say, "I'm just not seeing it." (You may not feel comfortable when you do, but because you'll eventually tell the candidate he or she didn't get the job...why not do it now?)

Then sit back and see how the candidate responds.

Most will thank you for your time. And that's fine.

But once in a while, a candidate will rise to the occasion and the challenge, and surprise you...and you will have found a superstar you otherwise would have missed.

It's worth a shot, because no company ever has enough superstars.

Including yours.

JJ Ramberg: Ask Creative Interview Questions

The host of MSNBC's Your Business, JJ Ramberg, explains how to get the information you need during a new employee interview.

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Last updated: Jun 10, 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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