If you were allowed to ask a job candidate only one question, and you had to decide whether or not to hire the candidate based on the answer, what would that single questions be?

It's an interesting thought experiment. Over 10 years, New York Times reporter Adam Bryant interviewed 525 high-profile CEOs for his Corner Office column, and he got into the habit of asking them what their one-and-only interview question would be. 

His favorite response came from Bob Brennan who, at the time of their interview, was CEO of records storage company Iron Mountain (he's now an executive at CA Technologies). Brennan proposed the following:

"What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?"

The beauty of this question is that it's an unexpected variation on the more standard job interview request that candidates describe their own strengths and weaknesses. A sophisticated job hunter, or one who's been on a few interviews already, will have an answer to that often-asked question ready to go and possibly memorized.

But asking about the person's parents takes the interview conversation to a whole new place without straying into legally questionable areas such as religion, marital status, or health. It's an invitation to connect with the interviewer on a human level, and that's precisely the point. "I want to know how willing people are to really talk about themselves," Brennan told Bryant. If asked the question, he said, "You might bristle at that, or you might be very curious about it, or you'll just literally open up to me."

Our parents are part of us.

Bryant agrees, noting that when he asked his CEO interview subjects about their parents, the answers often called up themes that resonated throughout the CEOs' lives and careers. (If you decide to use the question, I suggest you allow candidates to answer about other family members instead, in case they are estranged from either or both of their parents, or don't know them well.)

I have to admit that Brennan's question got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of my own parents. I admire my mother's unbelievable courage and her deeply adventurous spirit. She left her homeland, the Philippines, to travel the world, made a new life in the United States, and she never let anything or anyone intimidate her, qualities I try to emulate, although I'll never match her bravery.

At the same time, I hated her quick temper and her tendency to fly off the handle and say things she didn't mean, a quality that created a very strained relationship between the two of us during my teenage years. That's partly due to a bad trait I picked up from my father. Like him, I'm reluctant to engage in direct conflict and more likely to simply withdraw to a safe distance rather than do battle. 

On the other hand, I valued my father's intellectual rigor and the fact that he was beloved by almost everyone who knew him. Among the many important gifts he gave me was the gift of being bilingual. When I was little, he insisted on sending me to French language school so that I would grow up speaking French instead of only English. I didn't like the school and I talked my parents into moving me to an American school when I was about 11. My father was determined that I not lose my French, so from that moment on, he steadfastly refused to speak to me or listen to me in English. Eventually, that turned into a habit and we nearly always communicated in French, which meant I got to practice it on a near-daily basis. As a result, years later, when I traveled to France and met my relatives there, I was able to talk to them.

Thanks to Brennan for coming up with such a fascinating question and to Bryant for sharing it. Will you use it in your own interviews? And how would you answer it yourself?

Published on: Nov 14, 2017