Recently, I came across a blogger (can’t seem to track down the post) who said he’d come up with what he felt was the “ultimate question” that employers should ask candidates during the interviewing process.  This question was along the lines of “What are the biggest misperceptions you feel your former supervisors and coworkers have about you?”  His feeling was that the indirect, unexpected nature of this question would not only demonstrate how the candidate deals with pressure, but would also get the person to reveal some important (and often hidden) clues about their personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

Do I think this is the “ultimate” question for helping employers find their dream candidate?  Not necessarily.  But it’s certainly an interesting one and I can see how asking it could produce some intriguing answers along the lines of “people think I’m much more serious than I really am because I tend to focus on my work, rather than chit-chat” or “I don’t think I was ever given enough credit for working hard and staying late.”  Such answers might indeed give a truer reflection of somebody’s work style than a series of more traditional point-blank strength/weakness questions.

At any rate, this recent article reminded me of one of MY favorite interviewing questions of all time, so I thought I’d jot a quick post about it while the idea was still fresh in mind.  What is this killer question, you ask?  Well, as one might expect given my coaching focus, this question is designed to be voiced from the candidate’s side of the desk, as opposed to that of the employer as in the above example.  Over the years, I’ve recommended to many people (especially executive-level candidates) that they find an appropriate time during the hiring conversation to ask: “In terms of hiring for this position, would you say you’re looking more for somebody who can bring some great new ideas to the team — or for somebody to take the reins and implement a number of key ideas and initiatives you already have in mind?”

This question, in my mind, cuts through a great deal of clutter and immediately provides the applicant with some useful insights into the hiring manager’s personality, needs, and expectations.  Essentially, it communicates whether the interviewer wants a “leader” or a “follower” in terms of this new hire, a distinction that can radically affect a candidate’s interviewing strategy.  If asked early enough, too, this question also protects the candidate from committing one of two very common interviewing “sins” I’ve observed over the years.  On one hand, I’ve routinely seen eager interviewees come in and start rattling off tons of exciting new thoughts, ideas, and suggestions about all the great things they could do for the company — totally missing the fact that the future boss already has HIS OR HER OWN IDEAS in mind and is simply looking for a confident, effective person to implement them.  Conversely, I’ve seen candidates show up to interviews touting their flawless execution skills, but then get shot down because they didn’t seem to bring any real creativity, spark, or fresh thinking to the table.

Sure, I suppose that once in a blue moon, a hiring manager could respond with a non-committal answer along the lines of “both are important” or something similar, but the ideas vs. execution topic is usually pretty polarizing so I’d expect this to be a rare occurrence.  Additionally, even in cases where the interviewer starts out on the fence, they often reveal their bias in one direction or the other with follow-up comments such as “I mean, we’re always looking for new ideas here at X, Y, Z company, so don’t get me wrong, but right now I’ll confess I really need somebody who can first get this critical IT project wrapped up in the next 90 days…”

Whichever way the interviewer seems to lean, the savvy job hunter should pick up on this cue and immediately adjust course.  If they’ve found themselves across the desk from a stressed-out manager who’s got a bunch of “shovel-ready” projects that need implementing, they should put all of their brilliant ideas/suggestions on the back burner for the time being and focus, instead, on convincing the interviewer that they can pick up a shovel and start digging at a moment’s notice!  Alternatively, if the interviewer is a straightforward implementation type, him- or herself, and seems to be more in need of some outside-the-box thinking that challenges the status quo, that’s your cue to jump up to the whiteboard and start sketching out some innovative ideas you have that could help the company prosper, develop, and thrive!