If you do a Google search on “interview questions,” you’ll get over 45 million links to all manner of advice on what you should be asking job candidates.
Glassdoor will give you the 50 Most Common Interview Questions. Monster dishes up the 100 Top Job Interview Questions. And, a website I’ve never heard of called The Balance has the Top 10 Interview Questions and Best Answers.
Clearly, there is a lot of advice available on how to interview candidates, as well as a variety of opinions on what are the best questions to ask them.
A never-ending quest to interview better
I’m a sucker for advice on how to interview better, because even after many years of recruiting, interviewing and hiring all manner of people, I still struggle to find the best way to get the most telling information out of a candidate I’m considering for a job.
It’s a never-ending quest, and despite all the jobs I’ve interviewed for myself, I can’t remember anyone who wowed me with their questions when I was on the other side of the table.
Clearly, this is something that just about everyone needs some help with, despite the 45 million articles on interviewing you can find on Google.
That’s why this recent advice on how to interview that popped up in The New York Times Corner Office column grabbed me, because although it doesn’t purport to be the “best” question you can ask, it does make a case for being the most “powerful” interview question you can use.
In my book, a “powerful” question is the best way to go in most any job interview.
The question that wowed me comes from Joe Andrew, global chairman of Dentons, which describes itself as the “world’s largest law firm … (offering) tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 140 locations (in) 57 countries.
“Tell me about you”
Andrew grew up in a small Indian farming town, and he learned a lot from listening to his father, a small town family doctor, when he talked to patients. Here’s what Andrew remembers from his Dad’s conversations:
If you ask people about their personal history, rather than their professional history, you’re going to learn a lot more about them — how they interact with people, their values, and what they think is important.
I learned this trick from my father, who was a small-town family doctor before he passed away. The first thing he said to every patient was, “Tell me about you.” He didn’t ask them what was wrong or where it hurt; just, “Tell me about you.”
And that’s always my first question in every interview. The open-ended nature of it will tell you much more about what they value. As my dad always explained, if you ask them where it hurts, then they’re going to focus on that. You’re going to get distracted by what they think is wrong. If you say, “Tell me about you,” you get the context, which is going to tell you a lot more about how to diagnose the issue.
And hiring is about diagnosis. Hiring is about trying to understand whether the person is going to fit in and contribute to the mission of the organization.”
Reading this advice from Joe Andrew, I found myself having one of those “WOW” moments where the insight he offers hits me over the head because it is not only simply put but remarkably wise and instructive as well.
The basic question — “Tell me about you” — is perfect because it immediately lets you know what the candidate is about because it makes them have to decide what is the most important thing THEY want to tell you.
Because the open-ended nature of it lets the interviewee offer up what they value, it gives you great insight into where they’re coming from — and how they might fit in your job, and your organization.
Questions that get to their philosophy of work and life
Joe Andrew is right; hiring IS about diagnosis and getting a good handle on whether the person you’re interviewing will fit in the job, in your culture, and in your larger company mission.
He also had a great answer when The Times asked him, “If you only had five minutes to interview someone, what would you ask them?” I recently wrote about how you really only need a five minute interview, so this one interested me, too. Here’s what he said:
(I’d ask them to) tell me about the current environment you’re in or the current position you hold. What don’t you like about the culture of the place or the person you’re working with? Why are you looking to leave?
I love those questions, because they allow you to see whether the person is leaving for money, or because of the culture, or for a new opportunity. What are they looking for in their lives that they’re not getting in their current environment?
And do I have something that I could offer them that might fit that role? It will allow me to see that immediately.
There are right and wrong flavors of answers. And they might have the absolute correct answer, but I might not have the solution for them. So I know even if I offer them a job, it’s not going to satisfy what they need.”
Getting candidates to give you telling answers
Here’s my take: Yes, there always are “right and wrong flavors of answers,” and that’s the key when you interview a job candidate — getting the right flavor of answer from the candidate in question.
I also think that Joe Andrew’s open-ended question approach helps to get you to the most critical information you need from the candidate in the most expedient way.
Asking someone “Tell me about you” and “Tell me about the environment you’re in” forces the person being interviewed to dig into their own philosophy and cultural outlook on work and life. You drill deep into what they would bring to the table from the start of your interview, and you also get insight into what they might bring to your your organization.
Of course, it can also quickly tell you if they’re shallow and unthinking, but that’s also something important to find out quickly.
The more I hire people, the more I think that interviewing someone should be something you can do quickly and easily. It doesn’t take hours, or multiple rounds of interviews, or all sorts of hoops that candidates have to jump through at far too many companies today.
It’s tough to interview well, but all you really need are simple, direct, and telling questions that allow you to get thoughtful and measured responses from a candidate. In other words, if you ask the right questions, you’ll open to floodgates to the right answers — and “Tell me about you” is a great start.
When you think of it that way, it almost sounds easy.
John Hollon is Editor of Recruiting Daily. He's an award-winning journalist and long-time editor who previously served as Editor of Workforce Management magazine, and, was the founding Editor of the noted talent management website TLNT.com. For the past 10 years. John has also served as an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. He has also recruited, hired, and managed a hell of a lot of people. Find him on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter at @johnhollon, or contact him directly at [email protected].
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