What Are Your Best Interview Questions?

(Photo: c h e e s e roc)
(Photo Credit: c h e e s e roc)

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?

(The above also was my latest MediaPost column.)

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Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

8 replies on “What Are Your Best Interview Questions?”

  1. Good post, Max. I think the quality of people is Job One in companies today. Questions are important, but I also think companies need to think deeply about the personality characteristics of top performers — not just past experiences or education. In addition, top people can be found in unusual places. My boss for seven years, Robert Greifeld, worked his whole career in technology, yet he has been the CEO of NASDAQ OMS for the same amount of time and has been hugely successful. Most companies would have never considered Bob — that would have been a mistake.

  2. Thanks Adam. Indeed, some of the best people I ever worked with answered the
    spare-time question with “I go home and do similar stuff because that's what
    my passion is.” Not negating balance, but emphasizing that passion and work
    are aligned.

  3. As a volunteer alumni interviewer for Penn applicants, I find this one opens up some interesting windows: “If you didn't have to work to earn a living, what would you do?” I try to build my own answers into my day. Thanks, Max, for the gift of all your insights and inquiries.

  4. Thanks…its helpful! also good for interviewer.
    I think interview is the time for you to make your CV alive and share the relevant experience with the audience. It has to be brief and clear, say what you really mean and not what they want to hear. People sometimes try too hard to impress, it may end up having the negative impact.

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