Ask The Headhunter: The Only Interview Question That Really Matters

BY Paul Solman  February 26, 2013 at 9:16 AM EST


Photo by Altrendo/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: When I interview people to work in the department I manage, I use a collection of questions that my personnel department insists we ask, and a few of my personal favorites. So I’d like to know: What’s your favorite interview question and why?

Making Sense

Nick Corcodilos: Several years ago, Fast Company magazine produced a special edition of advice “for the perplexed exec.” It was a collection of questions and answers designed to help managers succeed. They asked me to answer the question you’ve raised.

I’ll get to my answer in a bit. But first, here’s another response to your question from a recent LinkedIn posting by Lou Adler, another headhunter who also teaches recruiting and job-hunting techniques. According to Lou, “The Most Important Interview Question of All Time” is this:

“What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career, so far?”

What’s useful about Lou’s suggestion is that the sub-questions it spawns stimulate wonderful discussion between an applicant and a manager. **But much as I respect Lou, I totally disagree
that asking a job candidate about his or her most significant accomplishment is so important.**

In fact, I think it’s a distraction. It makes it harder for you (the manager) to really assess what an applicant will do for your business. Don’t worry what the job candidate has done. You can ask about that later. Like every investment prospectus says, past performance is no guarantee of future results. What matters is what a person will do next, if hired, to make your business more profitable.

In a friendly spirit of “I don’t think so …” I’m going to challenge Lou Adler’s advice and offer a better interview question to ask every applicant, before you talk about anything else:

“What’s your business plan for doing this job profitably?”

Any job applicant can walk into an interview and rehash past accomplishments on a moment’s notice. A dog with a note in its mouth can do that. The person in Lou’s scenario could be visiting any company, talking with any manager, about any job. In other words, Lou’s applicant can be totally unprepared and you’d never know it.

But the truly prepared job candidate has researched your company’s business in detail and is ready to deliver a “mini business plan” about how to do the job you need done, showing why he or she would be your most profitable hire. There is no way to fake it. This is the only interview question that really matters because if the applicant’s answer isn’t a good one, then there’s no reason to waste time talking about anything else.

I think this approach is more important today than it’s ever been, because while many employers enjoy hefty profits, they nonetheless hesitate to hire. Why should they fill a position and increase their overhead, when they have no idea if the new hire can deliver profitable work?

Of course, if you’re going to expect a job applicant to deliver plans, you need to give all applicants a heads up. Call each one at least a week before the interview. Tell them you expect a brief, defensible plan for doing the job. Tell them what to study and give them useful material to read.

If you’ve selected your candidates carefully, it’s worth letting them talk to members of your team prior to the interview. That’s right. Coach them to win the job! Help them prepare a thoughtful, custom presentation, so you can see their best performance. (Isn’t that what you do for your own employees, to help them succeed?)

The added benefit of this approach is that most applicants you talk to will never show up for the interview, and you’ll save a lot of valuable time. Most job hunters can’t be bothered. They don’t want to invest the time and energy to get to know your business. They’re too busy applying for a job, any job.

The very few who come to meet you are truly motivated and really want to work for you. They’re ready to prove it. They will accept your challenge and show up ready to demonstrate how they will do the job. So, “Open the Door” and welcome your most motivated candidates.

As an employer, you can ask a job applicant for virtually anything you want. So, why ask for a dopey resume about their history? Why assess them indirectly by asking about their “most significant accomplishment” when you can directly assess how they’d do this job now? Your most profitable hire will jump at the chance to produce a plan to do the work. The rest aren’t worth talking to.

A few final notes: First, the purpose of this approach is to gauge a job candidate’s ability to do the work — not to use an interview to get free work or project plans out of interviewees! Be reasonable, and be respectful. Second, I like a lot of Lou Adler’s advice about recruiting and job hunting. Just not this piece of it.

I also don’t want to leave job applicants’ interests out of this column. Here’s an article on my website with my suggestion about how job applicants can and should go about answering “the only interview question that really matters: “The Single Best Interview Question… And The Best Answer

And finally, a request to our Making Sense readers:

If you were applying for a job and you were told in advance that you’d be asked my question, how would you handle it?
Please post your comments below.


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available for sale on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask The Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions