As a relatively young interviewer when I first started interviewing candidates during the dot-com boom-n-bust 1.0, I devoured books on how to script the perfect interview, and what you’re supposed to ask and avoid in a professional interview. I also remember interviews right after college where I was grilled by consulting firms on why manhole covers are round and how many pennies are in the drawers at Walmart at the end of a day — questions that, in theory, were designed not to have a perfect answer but to show the interviewer how you think.
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It was in 2002 when I co-founded an agency and worked with a colleague who was (and still is) a raving fan of James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio, that I found an interviewing style that works for me. If you’re a fan of the show, you know that in addition to the one-on-one interviews with actors like Amy Adams and Paul Newman, Lipton asks each of his guests the same 10 questions, inspired by French talk show host Bernard Pivot. Watching the show and how Lipton’s guests responded to the questions made me wonder whether I could develop a universal set of interview questions that could apply to any candidate — a toolkit that I could use to find people for my agency, and then later on in my career, interviewing for a multitude of roles.
Over the years, I’ve homed in on seven universal questions that are the bedrock of my interviews and compose a well-rounded picture of a candidate. These questions have stood the test of time, and I’ve used them to interview anyone from interns and first-year graduates to CEOs and board members.
What are you most proud of?
Depending on the type of role I’m hiring for, whether an individual contributor or a team leader, I want to understand whether a candidate is self-interested or puts the team before himself. If I’m hiring for a managerial position and the candidate puts too much emphasis on personal achievements, it’s a warning sign. “I” and “we” are two short pronouns that reveal a lot about a candidate’s mentality.
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What do you love doing?
I typically set this question up with a picture of the ultimate Venn diagram for work: a beautiful overlap between what you’re good at, what you’re asked to do and what you love and enjoy doing. Recognizing that the perfect Venn doesn’t often exist, I want to focus in on what gets a candidate excited to come to work every day.
Tell me a story of adversity. Knowing then what you know now, how might you have approached the problem differently?
This question offers a moment for humbleness and self-reflection. If everything has always gone to plan, then a candidate hasn’t pushed himself hard enough. Candidates who introspectively share their faults and foibles demonstrate a well-roundedness that can’t be reflected on a resume. After all, a resume reflects one’s best work. With this question, I want to better understand a low point and how a candidate rose from it.
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What one word would friends or colleagues use to describe you?
The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words. Choosing one can be tough, but ultimately I want to learn about how candidates view themselves in the mirror or in the eyes of their friends or peers. It’s also a great bridging question when it comes time for reference calls.
Why leave where you are now? What’s the appeal of my company?
With this question, I want to know what isn’t working well at the candidate’s current employer. Does she reveal cultural challenges? Are there business challenges outside of the purview of the candidate that is causing her to consider other options? Is there a team dynamic that doesn’t jive with the candidate at her current position? There are many different places that you can explore as an interviewer with the answer to the first part of this question. Likewise, for the second part of the question, I’m looking to understand the “what” about my company that has piqued the interest of the candidate: people, process, technology, reputation or something else. The question reveals whether the candidate has done his homework about the company and its core values, and can share something about those values in the interview.
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The lightning round
In this section of the interview, I want to learn something about a candidate that I wouldn’t find on his LinkedIn profile. It’s also an opportunity for me to see how a candidate thinks on his feet, and whether he’s an interesting person beyond the finely honed resume. I can’t tell you the number of times that these questions have tripped up candidates. There are no right or wrong answers, but the delivery of the answers is as important as the answers themselves. Body language, tone of voice and other psychological factors may tell you more about candidates than their words sometimes.
- Last good book you read
- Last good movie you saw
- Favorite word
- Least favorite word
- Favorite sound
- Least favorite sound
Why shouldn’t my company hire you?
Before asking a candidate about her questions for me, I end my portion of the formal interview with this question. If a candidate begins an answer to this question with something along the lines of, “I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t want to hire me,” it’s an immediate turn-off, for it shows that the candidate hasn’t really been listening to the conversation. What I look for as a response to this question is someone describing the anti-candidate as he or she envisions it, such as, “If you want someone who isn’t going to challenge the status quo, then you shouldn’t hire me.” Invariably, those who respond to this question with a positive “challenger” response wind up getting the nod for the next phase of the interview process versus those who don’t.
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