The experts weigh in: Seven killer questions to use when conducting interviews

January 10, 2017

Employing the right people in your organisation is key to its success.

But finding the ideal candidate to fill an important role in your company is fraught with difficulties. A survey by ERE Recruiting Intelligence estimated that each corporate job can attract around 250 CVs and out of those candidates only four to six will be interviewed, until one is selected for the position.

Think about that for a second: From 250 people down to one. Every hire requires a phenomenal degree of analysis and filtering with judgements and decisions made based on the information from a single short document and then a relatively short personal meeting.

Despite this enormous process undertaken for a single hire (that consumes resources including your time) still just under half of all new recruits will fail within 18 months. That’s from a study of over 5,000 hiring managers reported by Leadership IQ.

Typical reasons for an employee’s failure include: Not accepting feedback, unable to manage emotions, lack of motivation, wrong temperament, and not having the right technical skills.

Typical reasons for an employee’s failure include: Not accepting feedback, unable to manage emotions, lack of motivation, wrong temperament, and not having the right technical skills.

What’s interesting is that the only one of these you can really test pre-hire in a structured way is the technical skill level. The other problems are to do with personal attitude – so it’s key when interviewing to know how to read people from their behaviour when you ask them certain kinds of questions.

So let’s get into it and look at some of the questions top executives ask interviewees, and what you should be considering next time you bring someone in for that first face-to-face. 

Question #1: Why are you here today?

It sounds like such a basic one, but it’s so open ended that the candidate may not have had their first sip of water before starting to feel some vertigo creep in. According to Quartz business publication, it’s a favourite of Gordon Wilson, CEO of Travelport (travel search and booking services). While it seems innocent on the surface, it’s designed to weed out who is approaching the position purely from a ‘me first’ perspective, and who believes they can genuinely add value to the company through their presence.

Question #2: What am I not going to like about you in 90 days?

This one is a favourite question of Mitch Rothschild, CEO of Vitals (a company which helps people search for appropriate healthcare), which he spoke about in the New York Times. How should we interpret it? Well, it’s a difficult question for the candidate to answer. It could go many ways – the diplomatic non-committal answer or the honest answer. The follow-on question Rothschild uses is: ‘What do you think you’re not going to like about me in 90 days?’ He argues that he wants to get a sense of what makes a person crazy at work. So this one is all about assessing character, intelligence, diplomacy and honesty. 

Question #3: On a scale of one to 10, how weird are you?

This is a great one to try to see if the person might fit into your company culture. It’s from Tony Hsieh, CEO at Zappos (online clothing) in the New York Times. The right answer depends much on how your company sees itself on the sliding scale from ‘square’ to ‘quirky’. It’s a little like the ‘What is your weakness?’ question but asked in a more precise frame. It can certainly throw the candidate off balance and given that it sounds informal, it may just give the interviewer a valuable insight. 

The right answer depends much on how your company sees itself on the sliding scale from ‘square’ to ‘quirky’.

Question #4: How do you learn?

This sounds like a philosophical question pondered over by the greatest minds in history. But Aristotle aside, it could have its uses in modern business. The CEO of Attivio (creators of a data unification platform) Stephen Baker cited this question when discussing interviewing techniques with Brian O’Connor. Baker is essentially asking to see how disciplined, organised and curious the candidate is. It may stump some, while others will be able to articulate how they process information, deal with challenges and ultimately how they learn. Understanding the level of self-awareness the candidate has is highly valuable. 

Question #5: How many golf balls can fit into a school bus?

Whether this was an actual Google interview question or just an urban myth, it’s the kind of leftfield approach that would keep any candidate on their toes. Such questions are designed to test a person’s analytical skills, to judge if they can pinpoint the real challenges in the question, and what is needed to solve the problem. Asking a question like this is all about the candidate revealing how they go about solving something that seems at first impossibly difficult. 

Question #6: What magazines and books have you read recently?

This is a question that helps the interviewer understand what the candidate is learning, what kind of things they want to find out about. It’s a favourite of César Melgoza, CEO of business intelligence firm Geoscape, as described in the New York Times. Melgoza is keen to understand what the candidate does in their spare time in order to evaluate whether they are investing time well in themselves. 

Question #7: What was your journey like to get where you are today?

Hari Ravichandran, CEO of Endurance International Group (web hosting) described to Brian O’Connor how he feels you can learn a great deal about a candidate from having them explain the decisions they have made in their life and career journey. This is a way of asking the candidate to provide emotional input as well, so it’s important to steer them away from answers such as ‘I worked at this company, then at that company…’ and instead really ask them to open up about why they made the choices they did along the way. 

You can learn a great deal about a candidate from having them explain the decisions they have made in their life and career journey.

Asking questions and making new hires

At a basic level, interviews are about whether someone can integrate into your company to help drive it forward. New people need to work well with existing teams and have the right mindset. Therefore, the interview situation has to be a good enough test to reveal whether someone is truly going to fit and if that person cares about what you care about for your company.

The more crazy-sounding questions that catch interviewees off-guard are usually asked to get people out of their comfort zone, to see how they respond to a challenge within the interview, and ultimately to illuminate something about themselves.

Then it’s over to you to make the decision. Yes or no?

About the author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup
About the author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup

With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.