The Greatest Interview Question of All Time

I'm on vacation with my family in Boston this weekend (Go Jets!) and so I thought I'd go digging for some "old fashioned" blog posts that might still have a lot of validity in today's market.


Kacey Claiborne, our Director of Talent Evaluation at HireBetter® suggested I look into this one from Lou Adler. Things that were happening when this was written:


-The World Trade Center in NYC had its 2 towers


-We didn't need to take out/off our laptops, belts, hats or shoes at the airport


-George Bush was sworn in as President


The year? 2001


What I found truly remarkable about this one, single post was how applicable it was back then (when no one had really heard of Topgrading®) and how it is even MORE applicable today. Enjoy!


Over the course of the past 20 years, I’ve been searching for — among other things — the single best question to ask in an interview. What I wanted to create was a One-Question Interview, a stand-alone query that would pierce through the veneer of generalizations, overcome typical candidate nervousness, minimize the impact of the candidate’s personality on the interviewer, eliminate the exaggeration which many candidates adopt as an interviewing ploy and actually determine if the candidate is competent and motivated to do the work required.


Through years of trial and error, I finally hit upon one question that did it all. If you were allowed to ask only one question during the course of the interview, this would be it: Please think about your most significant accomplishment. Now, could you tell me all about it? Imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select? Then imagine over the course of the next 5-20 minutes that I obtained the following information from you about this accomplishment:

  • A complete description of the accomplishment
  • The company you worked for and what it did
  • The actual results achieved: numbers, facts, changes made, details, amounts
  • When it took place
  • How long it took
  • The importance of this accomplishment to the company
  • Your title and role
  • Why you were chosen
  • The 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how you dealt with them
  • A few examples of leadership and initiative
  • Some of the major decisions made
  • The environment and resources available
  • How you made more resources available
  • The technical skills needed to accomplish the objective
  • The technical skills learned and how long it took to learn them
  • The actual role you played
  • The team involved and all of the reporting relationships
  • Some of the biggest mistakes you made
  • How you changed and grew as a person
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again
  • Aspects of the project you truly enjoyed
  • Aspects you didn’t especially care about
  • The budget available and your role in preparing it and managing it
  • How you did on the project vs. the plan
  • How you developed the plan
  • How you motivated and influenced others, with specific examples to prove your claims
  • How you dealt with conflict with specific examples
  • Anything else you felt was important to the success of the project

Just about everything you need to know about a person’s competency can be extracted from this type of question. Most people would agree this type of question is very revealing. But the real issue is not the question: it’s the information that’s given in response that’s most important. Few people are able to give this type of information without additional prompting from the interviewer. This is what real interviewing is about: getting the answer to this very simple but very powerful question. Don’t spend time learning a lot of clever questions to ask during the interview: spend time learning to get the answer to just this one question. The key: understand the accomplishment, the process used to achieve the accomplishment, the environment in which the accomplishment took place and the candidate’s role.

Views: 108

Comment by Paul Alfred on December 8, 2010 at 1:25pm
I would hate to see the results of a behavourial interview that included the answers to all of the questions listed from the first question ... They take me alreay 45 mins to 1hr to conduct already - can you imagine the time spent if we included all of those ...
Comment by Jonathan D. Davis on December 8, 2010 at 2:37pm
As a recruiter, you likely won't be spending this amount of time. However, for Leaders and Hiring Managers, this is a great example of how you could topgrade a bit quicker.
Comment by Paul Alfred on December 8, 2010 at 4:37pm
Jonathan I spend 45 minutes to 1 hour conducting a behavourial Interview I get a pretty detail document afterwards its that document that either recommends a hire or not for Sr Executive level professionals ... So not sure what you mean by "a bit quicker ...
Comment by Stephanie McDonald on December 8, 2010 at 4:54pm
Yep, this technique works very well - not with every position - task based positions are harder to quantify with this technique. Lou's book "Hire with your Head" is one every recruiter should read. I'm not a Lou-head as some are, but his recommendations of behavioral interviewing are sound.
Comment by Jonathan D. Davis on December 8, 2010 at 5:16pm
@Stephanie - I agree with your comment on Lou's approach to behavioral interviewing. On Task-based roles, I've found that by shortening this list it is still very effective. Where interviews "go off the rails" is that point where you start asking ANY questions that permit the interviewee to answer with their opinion and not their experience.
Comment by Brian Keith on December 9, 2010 at 10:21am
S.T.A.R. = Situation, Tasks, Actions taken, Results...I advise all candidate with whom I work to answer questions using S.T.A.R. followed by a brief 'benefit statement' pertaining to the company/hiring manager.
Comment by Jonathan D. Davis on December 9, 2010 at 1:15pm
@Brian - in our Senior Team meeting this morning we were reviewing timing of interviews and what you can expect to accomplish in 20 minutes vs. 40 vs. 60. What we realized was that this single question and its subsequent questions (based on your STAR acronym) are the single most valuable part of the interview and any questions beyond digging into this are just time consuming more than they are strong indicators.

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