My super revealing interview question

I have somehow ended up doing more hiring for senior and board roles in the last few years than I had done in my entire career before. It is not all fun and games, because mistakes in senior hiring can cost an organisation a lot in terms of money, loss of strategic focus, corrective work and, last but not the least, valuable time wasted. But it is a really rewarding experience.

Various organisations prepare variously for the final interview rounds. In my best experiences, the members of the interview panel pooled questions that map to specifics that we were seeking the candidates to demonstrate in their experience or potential. Out of the long list, a shorter, more realistic list was picked and some flexibility on modalities agreed.

Under the provisions of both the Data Protection Act 1998 and GDPR, in the UK, a candidate can make a subject access request to see the interview notes. This focuses the mind of interviewers too as it encourages transparent note taking which helps comparisons before the final choice is made.

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Fellow members of the hiring panels I have been on have allowed me to ask every candidate one question at the end.

“Tell us why we should not hire you.”

What results is fascinating.

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Answers to the question reveal a lot about the candidates.

The first thing nearly all of them blurt is “well, I have never heard this question before” or “I was not prepared for this” or some variant of it.

Right away, the question is a test of equanimity under pressure.

Then comes the search for the answer. Nearly all candidates, those who had hitherto spoken like the TGV and those who had been quieter and more measured, ask for a few seconds to think about it.

The answers are all about self awareness. The best answers end up being an objective assessment of one’s weaknesses, not-quite-perfect qualities, needs for development, or even where one might need to lean on colleagues. They demonstrate the candidate’s ability to understand and foresee consequences of those weaknesses or gaps, while also showing us whether the candidate has visualised actually doing the job with its nice bits and the not-so-nice bits.

A couple of candidates tried that old schtick of “packaging” a humblebrag to look like it is a weakness. Goes without saying that it just looks disingenuous.

The question enables an insight into the candidate’s character the way preceding questions may not have made possible.

But nearly everyone says it is a question they have never been asked.

I wonder why not.

So here is my offer to you:

Take this question away and use it.

See what you find when you ask it in an interview, and how it helps you see the candidates in a new light.

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Has anyone ever answered this question in a way that showed their mental readiness for the ups and downs of the senior role they were pitching for?

One candidate so far — a woman — addressed this very clearly, in a way that resonated with the choices and the decisions she had made over her career, as well as the mission of the organisation. It showed profound self awareness as well as her solid understanding of what the job may entail including uncertainties.

Reader, we hired her.