Using the One-Question Interview to Recruit Top People, Assess Potential, and More

Apr 1, 2004

[Note: This is a rather technical article on how to improve your interviewing and recruiting skills. This information will be important to recruiters who want to find better people, learn how to recruit and negotiate offers, and increase their influence with their hiring manager clients. Do not read this article if none of these apply. ó Lou Adler] In my last article, Why You Must Hire Top Employees, Not Top Candidates, I made the case that most hiring processes were inadvertently designed to find good candidates, not great employees. For one thing, strong employees tend to be less active in pursuing other opportunities, since they’re looking for a better job, not another job. That’s the reason why traditional sourcing techniques aren’t very effective when looking for top performers, and why semi-sourcing (see my Secrets of Semi-Sourcing) is needed to increase the number of top people in your candidate pool. Another problem is that candidates who are great at presenting themselves might not be so great at actually doing the work. Likewise, strong employees who can do the work extremely well often aren’t the best at interviewing and presenting themselves. Research (and common sense) indicates that presentation skills are poor predictors of on-the-job performance. The interviewer needs to take this presentation vs. performance difference into account to minimize hiring mistakes. The one-question interview I advocate accomplishes this by showing the interviewer how to pierce the veneer of presentation skills to directly measure performance. The key to the one-question interview is to ask the candidate to describe a major project or accomplishment in great depth. To understand the actual accomplishment and the candidate’s true role, the interviewer must dig in with a series of fact-finding questions (e.g., when, where, why, how, who…). It often takes 10 minutes of peeling the onion like this to really understand the scope and impact of any accomplishment. This process is then repeated for a number of different team and individual accomplishments spread over a period of time. (For more on this, you can download a free performance-based kit from my website. This also includes an assessment form that shows how to compare the candidate’s accomplishments to actual job needs.) By digging deep into a person’s background this way, it’s quickly apparent if you’re dealing with a great employee or someone who just makes a good presentation. Candidates who are only good at the presentation piece tend to balk at the inquisitive nature of the questioning. Their answers tend to be shorter, shallow, and often evasive. Sometimes they even lose their composure, become nervous, lose eye contact, and seem less confident. People who are average at the presentation piece, but who are solid on the performance side, undergo an equivalent transformation. They become energized by the questions, they talk more openly and enthusiastically, seem more at ease and confident, and can’t wait for another chance to tell you what they’ve accomplished. This is a profound change which you must not ignore or overlook. The best people are enthused and energized by detailed probing into their backgrounds. Those that just talk a good game quickly become uncomfortable. This is one reason why this form of interviewing is superior to traditional behavioral or competency-based interviews. Not only does a performance-based interview obtain more insight into a person’s background, it also provides the added benefit of recruiting the person at the same time. By letting a person describe his or her accomplishments rather than over-talking, over-selling, and under-listening, you’ve changed the nature of the interview and recruiting process. Top people want to talk about their accomplishments, and they want to work for companies that respect and honor what they’ve achieved. It’s then very easy to present the job you have available as a great move if you have the facts to prove it. Just as companies don’t like candidates who get by on sizzle alone, top people won’t accept jobs when presented in a similar manner. With the information obtained during the performance evaluation interview, it’s relatively easy to assess potential and job fit. The key is to compare what the person has accomplished and how they’ve accomplished it to what needs to be done on the job. Looking at the trend line of accomplishments is a good indicator of potential. It’s certainly positive if it’s upward (e.g., bigger teams, bigger accomplishment, more impact). A flat trend line isn’t negative if the person really enjoys doing the work and does it well. You obviously don’t want to hire someone who doesn’t want to do this work anymore, so recent examples of similar work are needed to validate this. A downward trend should raise the caution flag. Another useful way to assess potential is to separate the person’s accomplishments into two categories: improving his or her job, or expanding it. To do this, imagine an hourglass with the bottom half representing the person’s scope of responsibility (you should determine this at the beginning of the one-question interview). The top half represents activity outside of the person’s normal responsibilities. As you listen to the person’s accomplishments, assign them to the top or bottom half of the hour-glass. Process improvements, building the team, and achieving results belong in the bottom half. Put reaching out to other departments, going beyond the call of duty and implementing major change or overcoming tough obstacles into the top half. Once you done this for a few accomplishments, a pattern will begin to emerge. Those people who tend to have a significant portion of their accomplishments in the upper half of the hourglass tend to also have an upward growth trend. If not, there’s probably something else amiss, so you’ll need to probe further to uncover what’s really going on. You might also want to use this hourglass concept when presenting candidates to hiring managers. It might help jog them into focusing more on performance rather than presentation. It’s pretty amazing what one performance-based question can accomplish:

  1. You’ll be able to quickly separate top candidates from top employees. Getting past presentation skills and focusing on performance is vitally important if you want to minimize hiring mistakes. Not only will you be able to stop hiring people who only talk a good game, but you’ll also be able to find some hidden gems in the bargain. Top people who don’t come across too well in the first fifteen minutes of the interview often shine using this type of interviewing approach.
  2. Top people want a chance to demonstrate what they’ve accomplished. An in-depth professional interview sends an important message to these top people that the company has high standards. This is an important part of the recruiting process that many companies overlook.
  3. The fact-finding process increases assessment accuracy. By examining how behaviors, competencies, and skills are used collectively to achieve results, it’s far easier to measure potential, motivation, and job fit.
  4. Compensation becomes a less important part of the offer and acceptance process. Top employees are more interested in the growth and challenge of the job than compensation. By focusing on the job stretch during the interviewing process, salary naturally falls to third or fourth place in importance when deciding upon accepting an offer.

Everyone wants to hire stronger people. You can start by understanding the difference between presentation and performance, and between top candidates and top employees. The one-question interview will help you do both.

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