What Are Your Best Interview Questions?

One of my startup's board members, Albert Wenger, said: "As long as there are one or more major positions or functions in a company that are not filled with or run by great people, it will be a drag on the effectiveness of everybody else."
 
I couldn't agree more. But while the stakes are higher for major positions and functions, the absence of great people in any position becomes a drag on the effectiveness of everybody else. In other words, truly great companies are possible only if their entire teams are great. And in this economy, you have to be the best because there's no room for the rest.
 
A company of great people depends on the strength of the core management, the company culture and the hiring that ensues. The interviews and questions that decide new hires should closely reflect a well-codified cultural framework, which defines: Why the company exists. What it stands for. What its aspiring values are. And what the ideal character traits and skills of its employees are.
 
To be sure, interview questions vary across companies, cultures, roles and individual hiring managers. But are there simple, universal questions we all should ask? Are there fundamental questions that reveal deep insight about people and their cultural fit? Questions that reliably predict which candidates are most likely to succeed? Questions that ensure a company will get better with each new hire?
 
I've been revisiting this topic with colleagues as my own company grows and matures. I've been intrigued with two interview questions that are both interesting and have potential for universal adoption. What do you think?
 
Question One: On a scale of one to 10, how lucky are you -- and why?
 
This question has received some attention lately amidst its application at Zappos, a customer-service company praised for its culture. The question is based on research by psychologist Richard Wiseman, who explored psychological differences between people who consider themselves exceptionally lucky and those who consider themselves unlucky. His work revealed that people are not born lucky, but, without realizing it, use four basic principles to create good fortune in their lives. They tend to:
 
-       Have an attitude that maximizes chance opportunities;
-       Be in touch with and cultivate their intuition;
-       Expect good fortunes, which become self-fulfilling prophecies; and
-       Thrive on bad fortune by taking control and creating positive outcomes.
 
According to Wiseman's Web site, he's developed techniques that help people increase their good fortune by thinking and behaving more like lucky people. That's probably a great clinic for any organization, but I'd like to hire lucky people in the first place. I want them on my side!
 
 
Question Two: What do you do in your spare time?

This is the most important question after you've narrowed the pool of applicants down to those with the skills, experience, and knowledge to do the job. That's according to Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners, who referenced the story of Captain C.B. Sullenberger on the HarvardBusiness.org blog. Captain Sullenberger is the hero pilot who softly glided his commercial jet into New York City's Hudson River after it lost both engines, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. Bregman asked: "What do we know about Captain Sullenberger? If you were looking for a new pilot, could you have predicted he would have the skill, the presence, the leadership to become the star he is today?"
 
Bregman says the first clue that Captain Sullenberger would become a hero is that, in his teens, when most of his friends were getting their driver's licenses, he got his pilot's license. What did he do for fun? He flew glider planes. He was also an aviation accident investigator and improved training and methods for aircraft evacuations. One might consider Captain Sullenberger's focus an obsession and dysfunctional. But, says Bregman: "Obsessions are one of the greatest telltale signs of success. Understand a person's obsessions and you will understand natural motivation. The thing for which she would walk to the end of the earth."
 
Working at a startup amidst a competitive marketplace and down economy, I want people on my team who would walk to the end of the earth. So dedicated to the dream and their individual discipline that they'd pursue it (or something similar) even if they weren't getting paid for it, in their spare time. For the record, I think it's important to be well-rounded and maintain life balance. But it's also meaningful if interests and activities outside the workplace connect with the dream, directly or indirectly.
 
What are your best interview questions? Why?
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18 comments about "What Are Your Best Interview Questions? ".
  1. Michael Mostert , February 27, 2009 at 10:39 a.m.

    One of the more interesting ones I had to answer to land my job was:

    "Who is the smartest person you know and why?"

  2. Barbie Shipley from E. W. Scripps Newspaper interactive , February 27, 2009 at 10:45 a.m.

    Do you consider yourself more strategic or tactical? And provide examples...

    I like this question because it gives me a good indication of how the candidate will perform in a specific job. If someone says they enjoy the satisfaction of crossing stuff off their list at the end of the day, then being in a role where they have to form a plan to reach the goal will usually be very frustrating. If it's a tactical position and the person is more big picture, often times they get caught up in the weeds and don't perform.

  3. David Winters from Deviate Ltd , February 27, 2009 at 10:53 a.m.

    I'm currently reading Malcom "Tipping Point" Gladwell's book Blink in which he identifies that while the best way to identify if a new hire will "fit" is to take a 15 minute unannounced look around their bedroom (naturally while they are out). As the epicentre of visible clues to core personality (socks filed by colour, empty pizza boxes, choice of bedside CD and books etc) , the bedroom test outperforms HR questioning as the best guide to future performance and culture contribution.
    Gladwell also outlines how within just 3 minutes of observation, the distant future of young married couples (divorce or happy ever after) can be determined within 95% accuracy.
    So the 3 questions are:
    1) Can I borrow the key to your apartment?
    2) What time will you out tonight?
    3) Do you keep a guard dog?

  4. Dee Soder from CEO Perspective Group , February 27, 2009 at 11:52 a.m.

    One of best questions ever was "who has been successful here and why, who has failed and why?"--Diana became lead candidate and was hired over much more experienced applicants due to her smart questions and preparation.

  5. Joseph Guerriero from DMD Mobile Holdings , February 27, 2009 at 11:53 a.m.

    Max,

    I' ve used the "lucky" question quite often. Branch Rickey the iconic baseball GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers once said "luck is the residue of design". Seems to me the best people I have worked with always seemed to be "lucky" because of passion, hard work and preparation.

    Another question I like to use is "tell me about yourself". This open ended question is quite illuminating. Does the person tend to ramble or are they succinct? Do they think in a linear fashion or not? How do they prioritize events and issues surrounding work/life? Do they contradict or confirm what is on paper? It's amazing what one can learn about the quality and character of a person if they are "free" to speak.

    Joe Guerriero

  6. Tom Cunniff from Combe Incorporated , February 27, 2009 at 11:55 a.m.

    I did some leadership training awhile back, and they showed a video that said "Celebrate what's right with the world." It really stuck with me.

    I now like to ask "What's going on in our industry -- or in the world -- right now that's really positive?"

    It's a way of understanding their worldview.

    People who've been "celebrating what's right" can quickly come up with a lot of things that are good, or at least encouraging. It's easy.

    People who are used to endlessly complaining about what's wrong tend to be stumped by this one.

  7. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting , February 27, 2009 at 1:30 p.m.

    I ask a question that is a spin off of "What do you do in your spare time?" that goes to the quick as well: What are your passions? As with the comments above, it provides a chance for the candidate to show linear thinking as well as organization and thinking on their feet. It also gives me incite into their mind set. I also like it because when preparing for an interview this is not something that the candidates will plan for.

  8. Max Kalehoff from SocialCode , February 27, 2009 at 2:04 p.m.

    @Warren: I like your question about passions. I wonder how much people's spare-time activities actually match their passions. Thoughts anyone?

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , February 27, 2009 at 2:33 p.m.

    Who determines what is well rounded for each individual? There are many people who have responsibilities that cannot be divulged in an interview which deters employment and can offer little in well balancing. And not everyone has the same opportunities for hosts of reasons than another although can be much more productive than their competitors. If you ever knew my work history and found out almost all of my past employers are out of business and a couple that still are have had management turnovers many times, it does not forebode well. Just one tiny story in "The Naked City".

  10. Solaria Kovak from The Kovak Group Inc , February 27, 2009 at 2:37 p.m.

    What is your passion? I have been asking that question since the early 90's and very few people know what that truly means. The answer is in the form of a question: what do you mean by passion? So many employees "strive" to achieve the minimum required instead of doing the max and more. Passion is what makes winners, achievers. A pet peeve of mine is "Rewarding bad behaviour and poor performance" - I see it all the time...

  11. Aaron B. from AnimationInsider.net , February 27, 2009 at 2:59 p.m.

    "If you had a theme song, what would it be? Why?"

  12. Farrell Reynolds , February 27, 2009 at 4:09 p.m.

    Assume we hired you and it's one year later and I'm conducting your annual review. I tell you you have done a superb job and made me look real smart by hiring you. I then tell you there is one area I think you can improve in. What would I be talking about?

  13. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields , February 27, 2009 at 4:43 p.m.

    I value sense of humor and general deportment.
    My favorite query: "when is the last time you laughed
    hard that stuff came out of your nose?".

  14. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields , February 27, 2009 at 4:54 p.m.

    One question I have not asked yet: "who is the smartest person in this room?".
    I assume that the best reply would be: "that depends on whether you hire me or not".

  15. Ruth ann Barrett from EarthSayers.tv , February 28, 2009 at 2:02 a.m.

    What publication are you reading? (traditional and online)

  16. Leif Jagerbrand from Admeta , March 2, 2009 at 3:21 a.m.

    I often use this question: "What's most important to you, to do right or to not do wrong?". I find that this question reveals pretty well the attitude of the candidate. A 'right' person is willing to take risks, self motivated, and entrepreneurial.

    Another one: "I'm your boss. I tell you do do a certain thing in a certain way, but you are 100% sure that i'm wrong. Will you do as i order you to do, or will you do it in the way you are 100% sure is the best way to do it?".

  17. Marmie Edwards from OLI , March 2, 2009 at 6:23 p.m.

    I'm with Tom Cunniff. Particularly now, it's important to judge that a candidate has not been whipped by the negatives swirling around,

    It's realizing the positive things -- shorter lines, getting through the airport faster, more GotoMeetings, less traffic, more interest in X product--that are keys to finding our way forward.

    "Luck is the residue of design." I like that. It is attributed to Mark Twain, I believe, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

  18. Anita Baker from Baker Consulting , March 2, 2009 at 6:27 p.m.

    One I like is "what is the best experience (work or personal) you've ever had and why"? Among what can be revealed: what excites and spurs the candidate to act and excel, how she/he experiences new situations and level of engagement, passions, preference for situations prescribed or has possibility of creating new opportunities, types of people they enjoy being around, and preference to collaborate or be alone.