In a recent post I offered some ideas on how to ask and answer the “What are your long-term career goals?” question. The basic point was to not answer the question without first demonstrating you have a track record of achieving past goals. Then control the interview by asking forced-questions. Forced-choice questions are those you get the interviewer to ask you that highlight your strengths.

In this post I’ll describe how to answer any questions related to problem-solving and how to avoid the common traps along the way. First, recognize that there are three main types of problem-solving questions.

The first is any type of question involving strengths to which the candidate answers with the generic, “I’m a real problem solver.”

The second is an actual problem the interviewer asks you to solve.

The third is a forced-choice question the candidate asks the interviewer about problem-solving. These take the form, “Will the person in this role be involved in solving problems relating to (describe your greatest strength)?

I’ll use some personal stories to describe how to best handle each of these situations.

I remember a very nervous candidate I was interviewing who proudly explained he was a true problem solver when I asked him to describe his number one strength. To prove a point, I did something rather strange. I sat back in my chair and with a sigh of relief I said, “Wow, that’s great, because this morning I woke up with severe shoulder pain and it’s still excruciating. Can you tell me how to solve this problem?” The candidate looked at me, dumbfounded. A few seconds later I suggested that being a generic problem solver is the worst answer anyone can ever give to the “What are your strengths?” question. Since the job was for a plant manager of a manufacturing company, the candidate could have said something like, “I really enjoy solving challenging precision manufacturing yield problems that involve high-speed automation and robotics.”

Point One: Everyone is a problem solver, but it means little without context. So instead of saying you’re a problem solver, describe the most challenging types of problems you have solved. Then provide proof with an actual example. Use the universal answer to any question to structure your response.

As a rookie MBA interviewing for a financial analyst position I was asked this question, “How would you market light bulbs to a third-world country?” I thought the question was pretty dumb so I didn’t answer it. Instead, I said, “I don’t have a clue but I could certainly work with the manufacturing team to develop all of the capital investment and cost details needed to calculate the ROI to justify building it.” I then went to the whiteboard and walked him through the analysis. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to ask how the problem related to the actual job requirements and then walk through the process of how the problem could be solved. But I got the job anyway and within a few weeks I was calculating the ROIs of major capital projects.

Point Two: Don’t get sucked into questions that are flawed attempts to test your technical brilliance. Instead, first find out the underlying purpose of the question and then demonstrate the process you’d use to figure out the answer. As part of this ask lots of “discovery-like” questions to get at the root cause of the problem.

I remember a remarkable woman I placed as a director of accounting at a major entertainment company. She was a CPA with one of the major accounting firms but wasn’t going to get the offer because the VP Controller thought she didn’t have enough industry accounting experience. She sensed this and during the interview asked if upgrading the internal financial reporting system was a key part the job. The VP said it clearly was. She then went on to say it couldn’t be done with the current staff using the existing systems in the timeframe planned. She then described exactly how it could be done with an expanded budget if the company was serious about the project. She was hired and did exactly what she said was needed. She also was promoted in 14 months.

Point Three: Force the interviewer to ask you questions about your problem-solving strengths. Then describe how you’d figure out the problem and present a plan for the solution. As a wrap-up, prove you can complete the task successfully by giving an example of something you’ve accomplished that’s most similar.

There are three parts to answering the problem-solving question properly. First, having the insight and confidence to ask clarifying questions. Second, demonstrating you can put together a rough plan of action that addresses the problem and offers a reasonable solution. Third, proving that you’ve accomplished something similar in your past.

Well-prepared interviewers recognize the problem-solving question as an opportunity to shine. Unfortunately too many candidates fumble the ball just when they’re given an opportunity to score. When it comes to interviewing, practice does make perfect. That’s an easy problem every candidate needs to solve.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. His new video program provides job seekers inside secrets on what it takes to get a job in the hidden job market.