The Single Most Revealing Interview Question

by Derek Loosvelt | November 01, 2017

  • My Vault
Girl wearing glasses being interviewed

Last week, Adam Bryant wrote his final Corner Office column for the New York Times. And I was sad to hear it was his last. Bryant's weekly interviews with CEOs (which I pointed to often during the past few years, such as here, here, and here) provided great insight into what makes leaders successful, how leaders effectively create corporate cultures, how leaders hire successful teams, and what leaders advise students and job seekers when it comes to improving their interviewing skills and job search tactics.

In that final column, Bryant passed along some of his favorite CEO quotes and advice (Bryant spoke with 525 chief executives while writing his column). Here's one of those favorites.

My vote for career advice goes to something I heard from Joseph Plumeri, the vice chairman of First Data, a payments-processing company, and former chief executive of Willis Group Holdings. His biggest career inflection points, he told me, came from chance meetings, giving rise to his advice: “Play in traffic.”
“It means that if you go push yourself out there and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens,” he said. “Both of my great occasions in life happened by accident simply because I showed up.”

Also notable was something Bryant discovered when asking CEOs about how they interview. Throughout his time speaking with chief executives, he often asked them this question: "If you could ask somebody only one question, and you had to decide on the spot whether to hire them based on their answer, what would it be?" Here's Bryant's favorite answer/question.

I’d nominate a question that surfaced during my interview with Bob Brennan, an executive director at CA Technologies, a software firm, who was the chief of Iron Mountain, the records-management company, when I spoke with him.
“I want to know how willing people are to really talk about themselves,” Mr. Brennan said. “So if I ask you, ‘What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?’ you might bristle at that, or you might be very curious about it, or you’ll just literally open up to me. And obviously if you bristle at that, it’s too vulnerable an environment for you.”

If you're involved in your company's recruiting process, you likely know that most interviewees are very prepared (even overly prepared) for the typical behavioral questions that now take up the majority of interviews. I'm thinking of the questions that ask about strengths and weaknesses, in particular. And so, to get away from receiving pat answers (answers that have been rehearsed to death), you often have to ask unusual and uncommon questions to accurately gauge the probability that a candidate will be a success at your firm.

That's where Bob Brennan's question comes in. It gauges a candidate's strengths and weaknesses but comes at them in a different way—in a way that interviewees likely haven't prepared for. Which should give you great insight into a candidate's strengths and weaknesses (which you need to know about before you extend a job offer) as well as their level of self-awareness (another important factor). Here's Bryant on the power of this question.

I’m hard pressed to think of a better crystal ball for predicting how somebody is likely to behave in the weeks, months and years after you hire them. After all, people often adopt the qualities of their parents that they like, and work hard to do the opposite of what they don’t like.
The point is reinforced time and again in my interviews. When I ask executives how their parents have influenced their leadership style, I often hear powerful themes that carry through their lives and careers.

This question can also be useful to jobseekers (interviewees). If you take some time to think about how you might answer this question, it can give you great insight into your strengths, your weaknesses, things you do well, things you don't do well, things you like, things you don't like, things you value, things you're passionate about, etc.

That is, it can be a great way to prepare for other questions you'll likely face in interviews. And it can give you great insight into the things you'd like to change about yourself, personally and professionally. Of course, it will also prepare you to field this question if Brennan (or any other executive who was a reader of Bryant's excellent column) ever asks you to answer it.

Finally, it's important to remember, when interviewing, that the goal is not to have the perfect, rehearsed answer to every single behavioral question. You can read list after list of interview questions, along with suggested answers, and still falter in an interview. Which is not to say that you shouldn't prepare answers to common questions that address your strengths, weaknesses, time you faced a challenge, time you led a team, etc. But more important is to learn how to get more comfortable with talking about yourself and your story. You can't prepare for every question someone might ask you in an interview, but if you know yourself and your story well, you'll be able to calmly and easily answer any question about yourself that might come your way (case interviews, guesstimates, and technical questions are another story, of course).

Which reminds me, yesterday, while doing some research for a future post, I spoke with a woman who works in the technology division of a major Wall Street bank. At the close of our conversation, I asked her what interviewing advice she has for young people looking to go into tech, either for a major technology firm or major financial services firm. And what she told me was this: "One, you should come prepared. Do your homework on the company. Two, you should be yourself. Don't worry about trying to impress your interviewer with things that aren't true. And three, have fun and ask a lot of questions. Interviewing is a two-way street. Never forget that you're interviewing the company as much as they're interviewing you."

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Filed Under: Consulting | Interviewing | Job Search | Workplace Issues

Tags: ceo | corner office | interview advice | interview questions | interview tips

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