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Would You Recognize an Exceptional Performer If You Interviewed One?

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10 telltale signs of exceptional performance – and how to expose them with one straightforward interview question.


In my last column, I detailed the one question that reveals everything a hiring manager needs to know to evaluate a candidate. The idea here is that getting a detailed, thoughtful answer to just this one question should represent the bulk of your interviewing time and effort. Why? Let me explain.

If I’ve learned anything over the course of 5,000 interviews it’s that clever or trick questions rarely reveal any insight about a candidate’s character, technical brilliance, or leadership skills. Instead, try asking about a candidate’s most significant accomplishment. The answer should provide all of the information needed to make a well-balanced yes or no hiring decision.

While the assessment needs to be made in comparison to real job needs, or what I call aperformance-based job description, you also need to look for exceptional performance — regardless of context.

Instead of box-checking skills, look for these clues to exceptional performance during the interview:

1. A drive to gets things done.
The best people proactively seek opportunities to be challenged. They don’t just wait for assignments. To get a sense of ambition and confidence, ask about any projects for which the candidate volunteered. Look for a pattern of taking on bigger challenges and delivering consistent results.

2. Demonstrated emotional intelligence.
The people with the best team skills get assigned to bigger and more important teams. So for each accomplishment, ask your candidate to describe everyone on the team. If the teams are growing in size and importance over time, chances are you/ve found a person with great collaboration and communication skills.

3. Steady upward trajectory.
Look at the trend line of the person’s accomplishments over the past 5-10 years. This will give you a sense of how fast the person’s job scope, level of responsibility, and impact are increasing. Find out why and how the person got promoted or assigned to bigger roles.

4. Successfully handling projects beyond their current experience level.
Ask your candidate to describe their biggest accomplishment in an area where they had the least amount of experience. You’ll quickly see why experience is overrated, but performance and achieving consistent results aren’t.

5. Ability to learn and apply new knowledge quickly.
This is a prerequisite for getting promoted, but it goes beyond just expanding technical competence. It includes dealing with ambiguity, taking on a broader functional role, and being comfortable making the right decisions without a complete set of information.

6. Persuasion skills.
Find out which colleagues the candidate has influenced in some way. Consider peers, senior managers, executives, and leaders in other functions. The significance and scope of the issues involved are as important as who was persuaded.

7. Big picture thinking.
Ask people how they made their biggest decisions. The best people naturally see all of the strategic, tactical, and technical issues involved.

8. Multi-functional business perspective.
The best people are sensitive to the needs of other functions. For example, techies who fully appreciate the user experience, marketers who understand engineering, and sales reps who understand the way a huge order impacts logistics, are often assigned to cross-functional project teams early in their careers. Success on these projects leads to bigger opportunities in the future.

9. Organization and process. The best people use a consistent approach for handling complex projects. The process steps include an assessment of the situation, figuring out the best solution, getting approval for a comprehensive plan of action, pulling together the required resources, and successfully executing the plan.

10. Leadership = vision plus execution.
Here’s a recent post I wrote on how to assess leadership. Leadership in many ways captures all of the above factors, but the big point of this is that clever thinking alone is not leadership. A pattern of delivering on the vision, despite the challenges, is what true leadership is really about.

The One-Question Performance-based Interview is a powerful tool for seeking out exceptional performance and finding exceptional people. When a candidate’s accomplishments are compared to the real job needs detailed in a performance-based job description, a clear picture should emerge to show whether you’re hiring the right person for the right reasons. In the end, the most critical criteria is that whomever you hire is both motivated and competent to do the real work that needs to get done, and that they do it very well. That is exceptional performance in a nutshell.