My current favourite interview question

success failure


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.

Views: 6175

Comment by Sandra McCartt on September 11, 2012 at 3:22pm

Good post.  I think we all interview so much that we can get stale and it's always good to have a new way or a new question to throw out there.

Comment by Mark Nelson on September 11, 2012 at 3:55pm

Thanks Sandra. I agree and it is part of the reason why I enjoy this site.

Comment by Tiffany Branch on September 12, 2012 at 9:44am

Great question. It acutally made me think and reflect.

Comment by Mark Nelson on September 12, 2012 at 11:28am

Thanks Tiffany!

Comment by Ankur Choudhary on September 12, 2012 at 2:18pm

It was not just the question which Catapulted me but the 3 reasons, inexorably unlocking  and adding a new dimension to the selection criteria. 

Comment by Sarah Calverley on September 12, 2012 at 10:08pm

This is such an important point to make, so many interviews ( I know - I have sat through atleast 20 poorly conducted interviews in the past few months) follow a ho-hum blueprint of STAR and general behavioural questions.  The most effective questions are barely brushed over.  It's even more surprising then to talk to the interviewer and they have made all these conclusive assumptions about the person they just met for 20 minutes!

To add to your point about article marketing becoming like childrens TV, I share the same frustration.  Just as with those who tweet the same dry blog article 50 different ways over 50 different days, so you end up clicking on it again only to realise it was a waste of time to begin with.  

Comment by Martin O'Shea on September 19, 2012 at 2:54am

Great article and interesting questions Mark, you find that this questions gives you more of an answer to determine whether the applicant is a good fit? or more for how they handle the reflection and think on their toes aspect?

Comment by Mark Nelson on September 19, 2012 at 10:31am

Thank you to Ankur, Sarah and Martin. I really appreciate your comments.


To answer your question Martin, a lot depends on what the role requires. There are times when an ability to learn and change on the job, to handle defeats or to be introspective are key parts of a position - especially more mid to senior management roles - and this is more where I am inclined to see this question as part of the "good fit" equation. Otherwise it is more about getting a good understanding of the person in order to give the client as clear a picture as possible.

Comment by Martin O'Shea on September 19, 2012 at 11:22pm

Perfect, thanks!

Comment by Lucille Conlon on November 1, 2012 at 10:07am

Great perspective.  Thank you Mark. 


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