Pretend you can only ask your candidates a single interview question—one measly question to base your entire hiring decision on. This might sound like an impossible task. However, years of experience have taught some leaders that there’s often one “magic bullet” question that helps them judge if a candidate will be a perfect fit.
The five leaders below swear by one question that, for them, reveals everything that they really need to know about a candidate.
If you’re still skeptical that one question is enough, keep in mind that you should actually have time to ask a few of these—and with the valuable insights you’ll gain, you can be sure it’s worth it.
1. Barbara Corcoran asks about candidates’ families to find out whether they have the right attitude for the team
Barbara Corcoran, a real estate entrepreneur and one of Shark Tank’s most recognizable “sharks,” considers attitude the most important part of an employee’s character. She only needs one question to find people with the right attitude.
“Tell me about your family,” said Barbara. “If their family couldn’t give them a positive attitude, there’s nothing I can do that’s going to change it.”
For Barbara, the key to career success is positivity and energy. Her question gives candidates an opportunity to open up about their lives, revealing their general attitude in the process.
“Unhappy people don’t accomplish a lot,” said Barbara. “I’m also looking for their energy, and if they’re going to be able to see the possibility in anything I propose.”
And it’s not just that Barbara prefers to build a team of capable, positive employees. She also feels that introducing a negative element—a bad hire with the wrong attitude—can drastically shift the energy of a whole team.
“Early on, I hired a couple of people who had all the markings of great salespeople, but they were not happy people,” continued Barbara. “I learned that if you have just one unhappy person in a pool of 30 happy people, you feel that weight. I couldn’t wait to get them in my office to tell them they had to leave.”
Barbara’s question may not work for all recruiters—or for candidates with privacy concerns or unconventional backgrounds—but her emphasis on positivity is powerfully effective. To get similar insights, you could also ask a candidate how they’ve stayed positive during a difficult situation, or whether they consider themselves an optimist.
2. Disney Chairman asks candidates to tell a story to get insight into their creative thinking and culture fit
When it comes to interviewing candidates, Andy Bird, Chairman of Walt Disney International, has an approach that cuts right to the heart of the company’s core values.
“One consistent thing I do, I ask people I interview to tell me a story,” said Andy. “Tell us a story about something that’s happened in your life.”
Disney’s consumer brand is all about building worlds, characters, and great stories, and Andy believes this identity is key to the company’s working culture, too.
“It’s important because we’re storytellers,” said Andy. “A lot of the values that you see on screen also evolve from the values of the company… I really want to dig down deep into finding out whether [candidates] share the same sort of value set.”
Andy asks this question of every single candidate he interviews, whether the role involves making animated films or tallying up invoices for accounting.
“People go, ‘Yeah, that’s just for the creatives’. No, it’s not,” said Andy. “Everyone has the ability to be creative if they’re given the opportunity to be… Some of the best ideas have come out of the finance department.”
For Andy, each candidate’s story gives him insight into their creative thinking and ability to generate new ideas, an indicator of future success in any role.
3. HR thought leader Louis Efron wants to know what activities make candidates lose track of time to see if they’re purpose-driven
According to Louis Efron, contributing writer for Forbes (and HR thought leader), we all have at least one intense passion in life—the kind of thing that keeps us working through the night without ever feeling bored or over-taxed.
For Louis, finding out what gets candidates into this unique and powerful headspace is the key to figuring out whether they’re right for your company or position.
“How do you hire an organization of people who feel so passionate about what they do that they can’t stop doing it?” writes Louis. “You simply ask them: When in your life have you been so passionately focused on an activity that you lost track of time?”
Louis connects this curveball question to the important but difficult goal of recruiting for “purpose” — hunting for employees who are motivated by your organization’s larger goals, rather than just a paycheck.
“Regardless of the role, every job in an organization has a purpose, and this purpose must connect to the larger purpose of your business,” adds Louis. “If these two components are missing, there will always be a disconnect for your employees.”
Keep in mind that you’re not necessarily looking for a hire whose deepest desire is to be productive at work—which is probably unrealistic. Instead, look for answers that show a deep passion that aligns with your company’s larger mission. For example, a candidate who loses track of time when they’re working on creative projects might be a great fit for a marketing role.
Louis also cautions against asking a candidate what they would do if today was their last day on Earth—a hokey question that won’t actually reveal their life’s purpose.
“If it were my last day alive, I would want to spend it with my family around me,” writes Louis. “I would venture to say that many people would want the same. However, a purpose in life is something you do over a period of time – not one day.”
Instead, try asking candidates what ignites their passion or what gets them out of bed in the morning.
4. Yashio CEO Jay Gould throws candidates off of their rehearsed scripts by asking why he shouldn’t hire them
Jay Gould, CEO of Yashi, a video-ad tech company, has a favorite interview question that candidates almost never expect—and if they can’t come up with an answer, he won’t hire them.
Jay knows that high-performing interviewees often have a pre-planned script for almost every question in the book, so he throws a curveball to see how they react.
“Everything you need to know can be learned in the moment when you look a candidate in the eye and ask them, ‘Why shouldn’t I hire you?’” said Jay.
One the surface, this might sound like the familiar, overused question that asks candidates what their biggest weakness is. But Jay’s question goes beyond that, and he sniffs out self-congratulating answers right away. If they give a backwards non-answer, like “I love my job too much,” he pushes them to think about their actual shortcomings.
Jay isn’t looking for quick thinking or mental calculations, either—he gives each candidate a chance to reflect and honestly answer his unusual question. However, he won’t hire them if they don’t have anything to say about their own flaws.
“This stumps a lot of candidates,” said Jay. “Some people are totally caught off guard and refuse to answer.”
Jay is extra pushy with candidates, but he can afford to do so because he’s the last interviewer they see—and his mission is to suss out character and cultural fit. He believes his “one question” triggers something authentic and revealing about the candidate in the hot seat.
“People who are upfront about their shortcomings possess the element of humility that makes them a likeable person you want to work with,” said Jay. “If their answer is genuine, then you have a contender.”
5. CEO Jim Schleckser finds top performers by asking candidates how they’d measure their own performance
Jim Schleckser, CEO of the Inc CEO Project, believes that hiring decisions shouldn’t be made by HR alone—as the leader of his company, he wants a chance to sit down with every candidate. He also has a favorite interview question that he considers especially revealing.
“I learned about this magic question from Joel Trammell, the CEO of software company Khorus,” said Jim. “‘If I was to hire you, how would I know if you were doing a good job?’”
The unusual question puts candidates in the difficult spot of figuring out a way to measure their own performance—and Jim believes it quickly makes it clear whether or not the candidate is actually a top performer.
“The answer you get will tell you a lot about the candidate’s maturity and comfort level with having her performance measured,” said Jim. “If you ask a C player this question, for instance, you might get some stammering followed by some non-critical metrics such as [showing] up for work on time.”
Meanwhile, an “A player” will respond with actual performance metrics, like sales quotas and customer satisfaction ratings, showing they’re eager to prove their ability. But for Jim, the best part about the question is that it provides a seamless transition to onboarding for stellar candidates.
“After the candidate gives you his answer, you pause for a second and say: ‘Let me write these down because, if I hire you, this is exactly how I will measure you after you start your new job,’” said Jim.
Move past scripted answers to get real insights into candidates’ character and strengths
Though each of these leaders asks a different question, they’re really looking for the same qualities. They all skip past the resume and the interview cliches, forcing the candidate to think on the spot. In the process, they ask the candidate to move past scripted and rehearsed answers and actually open up about themselves. Get a candidate into that unique position, and you’ll have a window into their personality, strengths, and character.
*Image from Lori Greiner
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