OK - what IS the best ever interview question?

Written by: James Dunne
Published on: 5 Dec 2016

OK, what IS the best exec-level interview question?

This is the third and final blog in this series looking at the best interview questions senior executives can ask, or be asked, as the final stages of an important recruitment competition are reached. Over the last two articles, I’ve considered some of the more innovative questions that interviewers can ask, and pondered as to what the ultimate interview question might be.

At executive level, I have stressed the importance of intelligent questions that, while they don’t necessarily have a “correct” answer, fire the imagination and test the speed of thought of your potential new colleague. In the USA, techies have been grappling with questions along the lines of “how many golf balls will fill a 747/bus/car?” but it appears that these are falling out of favour. However, there has seemingly been a revival of other random questions; like the following:

“If you had only six months left to live, what would you do with the time?”

"If you were a type of food/car, what type of food/car would you be?”                 

“If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?”

“What’s your idea of a good night out?”            

“If you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you want?”

"Who would win a fight between Spiderman and Batman?"               

“Who do you admire most and why?”

“Who would you most like to have a beer with, and why?”

“In the news story of your life, what would the headline say?”

“What do you think of garden gnomes?”

“If Australians were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it?”

“Pepsi or Coke?”

“What would I find in your refrigerator right now?”

“The last book you read was…?”

“Give me 7 things you can do with this pen?”

“If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title should be?”

OK, enough.  You should have got one or two ideas for your next session on an interviewing panel (or to let you consider possible answers if you’re on the other side of the fence).  But I did promise you “the answer” to the question of what is the most useful interview question ever.  Based on the Google searches described in the first blog in this series, “the one answer” was traceable back to 2001 at least.  It is attributed to Lou Adler, CEO Adler Group, and in my searches it came up more than any other. It is:

“What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?”

Adler describes why it is so powerful, explaining that, while it’s important to ask other questions, this key one allows the interviewer to develop a raft of other associated questions that should reveal almost everything you might want to know about that candidate.  For example, you can ask about the team involved, the candidate’s role in that team, the timescale, the challenges overcome, the mistakes made and the results achieved, amongst many other things. It is undoubtedly a great question, allowing you, whether interviewer or interviewee, to get deep into all the key elements of personality, ability, experience and outcomes.

While you’re at it, and bearing in mind that Adler stressed the importance of this not being the only question asked, for what it’s worth here is my favourite interview question.  It has always made the interviewee stop in his or her tracks, think hard and then tell me something that reveals more about their personality than all those standard “other interests” sections of their CV/resume ever can. I usually ask it towards the end of the interview.  The question?

“Tell me something about yourself that would surprise me?” 

You can use it at your next interview, after you’ve asked that other great question above. Good luck and I hope that your next interview, no matter which side of the desk you’re sitting on, is a roaring success.

James Dunne, exec-appointments.com