Yesterday I was directed to an interesting article discussing what the author considers to be the most important interview question (never asked). The focus was asking candidates what they really wanted from the job in order to understand what is truly driving them.
The article (as good articles do) got my mind wandering and led me to think about what I consider the most important interview question. A little soul searching revealed I have had tens or possibly even a hundred favourite interview questions, all based in part on the type of interviews I was having, as well as my own personal development (the interviewer is, after all, a bigger influence on every interview than many of us like to pretend).
As a very brief aside, I will admit that I am growing less tolerant of how every article these days is “The single most important thing you need to know about life” or “The top 10 habits or every superhero” or “The three key mistakes you are making as you read this”. I suppose it is efficient and snappy to take good advice and market it as singularly transformational, and fits nicely within the confines of a 140 character world, but I am starting to feel like reading on the Internet is liking watching childrens’ television. Then again, it is hard to grab hits in today’s world with subtlety.
But I digress. Without further ado, here is the one question that is currently topping the Mark Nelson interview question charts:
“When you look back on your professional life, what do you think was the biggest mistake you have made so far, and how did it change your career”
I change the wording a little every time, both to keep myself interested and to make it fit better with the conversation.
And now, without further ado, here are the top three reasons why this question is so critically important:
1. The question gives you great insight into the character of the candidate. Are they able to express a capacity to learn, to look back with objectivity on their decisions? Do they still harbor resentment? Most importantly, do they use their own failures as an opportunity to look forward with positive insight, or backward with negative insight?
2. It allows you to assess the candidate’s ability to grow in a role, and their long term potential for more senior responsibilities.(For more discussion of differentiating “potential” in the interview process, please see here).
3. As with all great interview questions, there is no easy answer that anybody can use. A good answer involves self awareness, judgment, and the capacity to risk enough so as to fail in the first place, which is a pretty critical skill for anyone taking a senior role where risk is a big part of the job. (I suppose in retrospect snappy lists help to keep me on topic)
We all know that one question won’t get the job done, and as per the article I linked to, you do need to know what is driving every candidate. But the failure question is currently my favourite. Understanding a candidate’s true potential is one of the most challenging parts of interviewing, and I am having some success with approaching it this way (prior to publishing it on the Internet anyway). Also, every now and then someone looks at me confused when I ask it, as if to say “I don’t make mistakes. I was somehow born right”.
Weren’t we all.