When interviewing potential employees I want to get much deeper than previous job experience and strengths and weaknesses. Over the past five years I have constantly modified the questions I ask and also how I ask them. Listening to Tim Ferriss discuss interview questions for his podcast has helped me better design questions to elicit the responses that I am looking for (see episode #145 of The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast “The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening” which I will link in my sources and inspiration below). The power of the question determines the power of the answer. The same question worded differently can give you a deeper, more genuine answer. These are five questions I always ask in an interview; these are also five questions you should ask yourself on a regular basis.
Most of these questions are assuming the person has passed your basic qualifications for the role. Once you get past what someone has done and whether or not they qualify for your role, you want to figure out who they are. I want diverse, interesting, and exciting employees that are curious about life, present differing points of view, and who also follow the general trajectory of our team’s personality.
What is something about you that has made you succeed in all of your previous job roles?
‘What is your greatest strength’ is a classic interview question. I don’t like that question when asked so directly. I have asked dozens of people what their greatest strength is and the answers I got were hit or miss because the question is framed in a way that someone can answer it very quickly and with little context. By asking the question as written above, I find that interviewees will tell you their greatest strengths as part of the answer and it will lead to context, stories, and open up the conversation for me to ask follow up questions. Ultimately I am getting the answer I want regarding their strengths, but that answer is more likely to include stories or examples that encompass multiple past job roles. Also, by asking how it helped them succeed, I am implying that they did succeed; I think that can be a subconscious mood booster and make someone more comfortable. Comfortable interviewees give better answers. I am saying “I see you’ve done good things, tell me about it.” Hopefully the person thinks “yeah, I have done good things!” and wants share.
Why is the strengths question important in the first place? To me it shows that someone has taken the time to sit down and think about what they are good at and how they can use that to help them succeed. A few years ago I took a four hour strengths course with a strengths coach. I took the CliftonStrengths survey prior to the course and had the results ready for breakout discussions and analysis by the instructor and other participants; the CliftonStrengths survey identifies your five greatest strengths. Don Clifton, a strengths based psychologist and the founder of CliftonStrengths, believed that if you focused on improving your five greatest strengths instead of your five greatest weaknesses, you would have more opportunity for growth and improvement over the course of your life and career. Essentially you leverage and continuously improve your greatest assets rather than trying to get better in the areas you are worst in. This is like doing an 80/20 analysis of your own abilities; you figure out what 20% of your characteristics give you 80% of your results and then make those even better. Knowing your strengths can help you choose a better career (one you are most likely to succeed in), identify strategies for continuous improvement, and put what you are good at in the leading role.
What do you like to learn about? Do you have any resources that you use to educate yourself? (Books, documentaries, podcasts, etc.)
The division of the company I work for prioritizes continuous growth and learning. We set aside 30 minutes every morning to discuss key terms related to lean improvement philosophy, ‘this day in history’ historical events, a quote of the day, a +/- 5 minute YouTube video of varying subjects, and another video showing other companies around the world making continuous improvements. Getting better is one of our core values; learning is a key part of getting better. No matter what the subject matter is, practicing learning makes you even better at learning. Therefore, I always ask interviewees what they like to learn about.
I want to know if the person applying to work for us likes to learn. It doesn’t matter if it is work related or something from their personal life. It doesn’t matter if it is art, sports, cars, leadership, or video games. People who show that they like to learn about one thing often are curious to learn about other things. I want employees that are curious and creative; employees that have questions and attempt to find answers to those questions.
In addition to WHAT they like to learn about, I always want to see HOW they learn. How does this person seek out the information to answer their questions? Do they like to read or watch YouTube videos or documentaries or listen to podcasts? I love asking these questions because I usually get to learn something about the person that I would not have otherwise discovered. I get a glimpse of what their interests are. These questions are open ended enough that it almost always leads to follow up questions and even discussions where we can both get to know each other. Instead of a cold and calculated interview question, this one is fun. People love talking about things they are interested in and this is a great ice breaker.
What is something you are passionate about?
Similar to the question about learning, this question is aimed at seeing if the person is passionate about ANYTHING. Once again, it doesn’t matter what the person is passionate about, just that they can show passion about something. I get answers ranging from their family, board games, health and fitness, or fantasy novels. I get a small window into the person’s life and interests while also seeing if they can get excited about something. The number one definition of passion in Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.” If someone shows they can be excited and enthusiastic about something, the odds are much better that they can get excited and enthusiastic about aspects of their job.
Some people have the personality of a wet sock. Whether they got there by circumstance or their choices, I interview people who show no excitement about life. Passion can come out in many different ways, but being excited and enthusiastic is also a choice that we can all make each day. Excitement is completely free and takes zero talent. Every morning and throughout the day we can choose to make the most out of our circumstances or be beaten down by them. People who show passion show that no matter what happens, they can still get excited about at least one thing. We all have those days, where we are tired and have no motivation, but that is where discipline and our choices truly shine. Passion can keep us going when it seems hard to continue. I want to work with passionate people; people who care. After all, we can train someone to follow our processes and procedures, but you can’t train energy, excitement, and caring.
What goals are you working towards in your life?
In the classic song Once In A Lifetime by the Talking Heads, they sing:
“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?'”
In an NPR interview, Rick Karr quotes Talking Heads front man David Byrne. “We’re largely unconscious,” Byrne says. “You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’ “
I ask this question to see if the person thinks about the future. Are they working towards anything? One of the topics we discuss in my team at work is that you don’t want to wake up in ten years and wonder how you got there. I don’t need an in depth five or ten year plan, just an indication that there are conscious decisions being made toward a preferred destination.
Yes, plans need to be flexible and adaptable. Yes, the outcome of the plan you have today might end up very differently in ten years. But the alternative, not thinking about it at all, is much worse. Reading Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin made me realize that where I am today is mostly due to the decisions that I have made in my life and I need to take responsibility for that. Where I am in ten years will be mostly the result of decisions I make between now and then. Taking responsibility for my future starts now. I want to know if the person I am hiring thinks about tomorrow.
Obviously there will be many things outside of our control. But there are also many factors within our control. Having some kind of goal or idea that gives even a foggy target to work towards is much better than unconsciously reacting to life until you start wondering how you got where you are. I believe more in creating systems vs. creating goals, but goals often give us the direction to create the systems that will get us there. Choice has a major impact on our lives; in her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D, cites studies conducted during her career studying happiness by saying that happiness is up to 40% determined by our behavior and daily activities. Making conscious decisions today and having a plan for the future can be powerful determinants of happiness.
Do you want to hire someone, or be someone, that floats through life as a boat in the ocean with no destination? Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” I’m looking for people that have at the very least a general idea how they got to where they are and of where they want to go. Showing that they can set goals and develop systems in their lives shows me that they can do the same thing at work.
Do you have any daily, weekly, or monthly practices or routines? (meditation, journaling, exercise, studying, practicing, etc.)
This question gets more specific about systems vs. the previous question about goals. I am asking what the person chooses to do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis as a habit or routine. Practices and routines can be pretty clear indications of what someone values. This question can show how someone chooses to spend their time; what is important enough for them to do frequently?
What they choose as a practice or routine reflects who they want to be. Why they chose that practice or routine shows what their intention for themselves is. These could be things like health, creativity, problem solving, reflection, gratitude, or happiness. I want to know if this person’s intention for themselves aligns with our intentions for our team and company.
I hope these questions spark ideas for you. If you actively hire employees, this might help you decide what to ask and how to ask it. If you do not actively hire employees, ask these questions of yourself. Ask yourself frequently enough that you would have a genuine answer for them if asked by someone else.
As always, let’s keep the conversation going. Please comment or contact me directly. I hope we can all keep growing together.
Don’t just change; improve.
Sources and Inspiration
- The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening (#145), MARCH 11, 2016 BY TIM FERRISS, https://tim.blog/2016/03/11/the-interview-master-cal-fussman-and-the-power-of-listening/
- Once in a Lifetime, by the Talking Heads, https://genius.com/Talking-heads-once-in-a-lifetime-lyrics
- ‘Once In A Lifetime’, March 27, 2000 12:00 AM ET, Heard on All Things Considered, RICK KARR, https://www.npr.org/2000/03/27/1072131/once-in-a-lifetime
- Happiness for a Lifetime, BY SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY | JULY 15, 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/happiness_for_a_lifetime
- The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Kindle Edition, by Sonja Lyubomirsky (Author), https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0010O927W/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
- Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (Classics S.), by Seneca (Author), Robin Campbell (Editor, Introduction, Translator), Format: Kindle Edition, https://www.amazon.com/Letters-Stoic-Epistulae-Lucilium-Classics-ebook/dp/B002RI99KK/ref=sr_1_4?crid=HEZGDF6GH89B&keywords=letters+from+a+stoic&qid=1642958794&s=digital-text&sprefix=letters+%2Cdigital-text%2C89&sr=1-4