Ask the Best Interview Questions

Ask the best interview questions… But they’re probably not the ones you’re thinking about.

Ask the best interview questions and you’ll hire the best people – right? It seems like a simple equation. And the converse must be true – if you are a candidate and you give the best answers, you’ll be hired. But if you simply stick to the standard questions, you might miss some great hires.

Your candidate might be 100% qualified and potentially outstanding at the executive or leadership position you’re filling. But to determine that, you might need to go off script and inject some creativity into your conversation. Nilofer Merchant, the influential management thinker, offered her take in a recent Harvard Business Review article.


1. Capabilities, not just experience.

You can learn about the candidate’s experience on her resume, but you’ll only see what she has done in a specific situation. Based on that experience, Merchant suggests that you ask, “How would you approach doing x or y or z?” You can watch the candidate think on her feet, which is especially important if the job involves creativity, decision-making, or independent judgment. For a leadership position in sales or marketing (and most executive opportunities), this is a great differentiator. (Sadly, it’s estimated that only 60% of U.S. jobs require any of those qualities – creativity, decision-making, or independent judgment. But if you’re hiring for executive or sales and marketing positions, those are exactly the attributes you need to see.)


2. There’s no gap in “team” – but sometimes there is.

Is your candidate rigid in his position requirements? Take a step back if he is. The position you’re offering is well-defined today – but could be different next year. Is your candidate excited about his new team’s goals or challenges, or is he rigid about potential changes? Teams develop gaps, and the best players adjust to fill those gaps. Listen to your candidate’s language. When he talks about achievements, does he say that “I” did it or that “we” did it. Merchant suggests asking “How would you handle a situation where it’s be come clear that there is a gap on your team?”


3. What lights the fire of their passion?

It almost sounds good to hire people whose approaches and backgrounds all mesh harmoniously. No conflict on this team, right? But innovation happens when your team shares a common goal but not a uniform approach to reach that goal. Commonality of purpose is the key, not uniformity of ideas. Merchant encourages the interviewer to probe a candidate’s passion by asking, “What did you find meaningful about that project? What does that particular success say about what matters to you?”

While we’re on the subject of asking the best interview questions, let’s think about the give-and-take of an interview, and some of the things that could go wrong.

What Could Go Wrong


1. Too many questions

Hiring managers come armed with questions. Most candidates have created a list of questions to ask in a job interview, too. The interview can turn disastrous if either of the two fails to practice social awareness. Candidates want to learn all they can about the opportunity, looking for red flags that signal potential problems. They’re also looking for challenges and signs that this is the right job for them. In their eagerness, candidates can ask so many detailed and specific questions – including currently unanswerable questions or proprietary knowledge – that hiring managers can feel harassed. Interviewees must gauge the interviewer’s tone, posture, and responses and not push for answers that seem to be uncomfortable. It’s not necessarily a bad sign if an interviewer declines to answer all of your questions. Candidates, overwhelm your interviewer with your experience and potential, not your questions!

In the same way, hiring managers need to be willing to redirect the questions. In many cases, especially with new projects or positions, you might not have the answers yet. Don’t be afraid to say that. And interviewers, realize that the quality of a candidate’s response can depend largely on how you frame the question and on how many questions you ask in a limited time slot. Be as clear and forthright as possible, giving helpful information, and don’t expect complex answers on the fly.


2. Staying in the shallow end

Maybe you can answer the interviewer’s questions with a quick answer. But that’s probably not what they’re looking for. Analyze the problem and any data offered. Ask for more information. Dig into the hypotheticals you’re given, but don’t beat the problem to death. You’ve been asked for a hypothetical solution, so give a carefully considered answer in a reasonable span of time with the data you have.


3. Focusing on the problem, not the solution

Don’t be tempted to ask for irrelevant details about how the problem or situation originated. You’re faced with the problem and you want to show how you can solve it. Don’t be tempted to jump on the hobby horse of why the problem should not exist in the first place. (Your interviewer might even be involved in the cause of the problem.) Be the problem solver. The same goes for recounting the problems you’ve solved in the past. Focus on the solution, not the circumstances of the problem.


Parker Blake prides itself on solving staffing problems by conducting searches tailored to each client’s specific culture and opportunity. We go far beyond the standard interview questions, thoroughly vetting outstanding talent that fits your situation. Read about how we work and check out our current opportunities. Contact us at any time to talk about how we can give you an advantage on finding your next professional.