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The Most Important Interview Question You Should Ask

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I’ve been in recruiting for 30+ years. And during that time, over 90% of my hiring manager clients have thought they were good at interviewing. But in reality, I can confirm that at least two thirds of them were not.

Because of this, I had to become a better interviewer in order to be able to show them that the candidates I presented were qualified. And, that’s how I came up with the performance-based interview process and questions that I have found are key to improving interview accuracy and determining candidate fit.

Here’s a quick summary of how to do Performance-based Interviewing

1. First, conduct a detailed work history

As part of the interviewing process, it’s important to spend at least 30 minutes reviewing the candidate’s work history in detail, looking for progression, impact and recognition. As part of this, find out why the person changed jobs and if the purpose for changing was achieved.

2. Ask the most significant job accomplishment question

For every performance objective listed in the performance-based job description, ask the candidate to describe what he/she has achieved that’s most comparable. You’ll quickly discover if the candidate is both competent AND motivated to do the actual work required.

3. Ask the most significant team accomplishment question

As you’ll find out in a moment, I consider this the most important of all of the interview questions. It uncovers the depth and scope of the person’s team skills and validates all of the candidate’s other answers.

4. Ask the problem-solving question

By getting into a give-and-take discussion about a realistic problem, you’ll be able to assess job-related thinking skills and potential.

However, asking the right questions is only part of the assessment. One point most interviewers miss is evaluating the congruity of all of the person’s answers – ensuring that all of the information ties together in some logical way. And, the team accomplishment question meets this need. That’s why I consider it the most important question of all.

Why the ‘team accomplishment’ question is so valuable  

One could argue that the teams a person has worked on are more important than the companies the person has worked for. That’s because the people on those teams are those who the candidate will network with to find new jobs and, if the teams are meaningful and growing in scope, scale and impact, it confirms everything else about the candidate’s track record.

To get a sense of the value of this question, let’s role play it.

Imagine I’m interviewing you and I ask you to describe your most significant team accomplishment during your entire career. This could be managing a team or a project or just being on an important team.

After providing me with a quick overview, I’d have you answer the following clarifying questions:

  • Who was on the team? Describe everyone including peers, superiors, customers, vendors and any staff members.
  • What was the time frame of the accomplishment and what was your assigned role? Did this change at all during the project?
  • How and why were you chosen to be part of the team?
  • What were the objectives of the team and were they met?
  • Describe the plan or project and how the team was managed. Were you a part of this?
  • What was your biggest contribution to the team? How were you recognized formally for this?
  • Who did you influence the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  • What did you like most about the team? Least?
  • What would you change if you could about the team makeup?
  • Who were the executives on the team and did you influence them in any way?
  • What was the biggest team problem or conflict you faced and how did you handle it?

By itself, this type of question and fact-finding would reveal a lot about the team skills of the person being interviewed.

Now imagine I ask about two other major team accomplishments with different time frames and ask the same questions. The purpose is to see if the candidate’s team skills are growing in importance over the past few years. This is shown in the graphic highlighting the person’s work teams.

The trend of a person’s team accomplishments provides tremendous insight into the candidate. Growth in the size, scope, scale and importance of the teams indicates the candidate is respected and trusted by senior people in the company. How and why the person got selected confirms work quality, reliability, cultural fit, the ability to deal with customers, vendors and executives. It also confirms the person has developed a cross-functional and strategic perspective.

Focusing on team skills this way is vital, especially since so many interviewers overvalue a candidate’s individual strengths when deciding whether to hire them or not. This type of team assessment is a strong confirming indicator of everything else you’ve learned about the candidate. That’s why I consider it so important. Try it out during your next interview and ask it whether you like the candidate or not. However, don’t be surprised if you change your mind.