My 12 High-impact Interview Questions for Top Candidates

If you’re not getting exceptional hires, it may be because your traditional interview process is simply not designed to excite them. Instead of dwelling on the past, a superior alternative is to ask them to solve real problems, and to demonstrate that they are forward-looking and that they have solutions for the future. Top candidates routinely dislike standard interviews because they find them tedious and predictable. Most interviews are simply not designed to allow a top candidate to show off their capabilities, ideas, and innovativeness. As a result, if you are recruiting for a mission-critical job that requires an exceptional hire, you simply cannot afford to bore top candidates with standard interview questions.

Everyone who has done any reading about interview accuracy already knows that they are typically one of the weakest assessment devices for hiring. In fact my own research has uncovered no less than 50 different problems with standard interviews and more than 50 different alternatives to standard interviews. One of the weaknesses is that the interview questions that are typically used focus on historical situations that occurred at another firm. But what you need to know is how this individual will perform now at your firm. That requires getting them to demonstrate how they will solve the problems that they will face in your job. Most typical questions have already been anticipated and practiced for by the interviewee to the point that their answers are not authentic. So if you’re going to interview top professionals, here are 12 questions to select from that I have found will quickly reveal which one of your exceptional applicants is the very best.

12 High-impact Questions for Top Candidates

The 12 questions I have provided here are broken into four distinct categories. In this article, they are presented as interview questions, but they can also be provided in a questionnaire format, which can give candidates more time to think, while simultaneously saving some of a hiring manager’s valuable time.

I) Questions relating to identifying and solving real problems — these questions are known as content questions, and they are usually determined to be valid because they actually reflect the content of the job. In addition, they allow the candidate to show off their skills in problems solving. If you agree that the best hires are those who can first identify problems accurately and then are able to solve them, these questions can be effective. The following three questions work best if you pretest them on a current top performer to ensure that they can quickly understand the problem and that they can in a short period of time outline a solution to it.

  1. How will you identify problems and opportunities on the job? — “The best new hires rapidly seek to identify problems that must be quickly addressed in their new job. So, please walk us through the steps of the process that you will actually use during your first weeks to identify the most important current issues/problems, as well as any possible positive opportunities in your new job.”
  2. Can you identify the likely problems in this process? — “Our employees should be able to quickly identify problems in our existing processes, systems, or products. So please look over this outline of one of our processes and identify the top three areas or points where you predict that serious problems are likely to occur?” (Hand them a single page showing an existing process or system related to this job that you already know to have flaws).
  3. Solve a real problem that you will face–– “Because we need to know your capability for solving the actual problems you will face in this job, we would like to see how you will go about solving a real problem. “Please walk us through the broad steps that you would take in order to solve this problem that will be on your desk on your first day.” (Then hand them a half sheet with bullet points outlining the existing problem).

II) Questions that show us that you are forward looking If your firm operates in a fast-evolving environment, you will need employees who are forward looking and who anticipate and plan for the future. These questions can tell you if your candidate meets those requirements.

  1. Forecast the evolution of this job — “Because our jobs constantly change and evolve, being forward-looking is critical if you are to be successful. So please project or forecast at least five different ways that the job you are applying for will likely change and evolve over the next three years as a result of business changes, technology changes, and a faster, more innovative environment.”
  2. Forecast the evolution of this industry — “Because we operate in a fast-changing industry, our employees should be forward-looking, and anticipate and plan ahead for those industry changes. So, please tell us how often you sit down and focus on the future of our industry? Next, please forecast and project five trends in our industry and forecast how the top firms will likely have to change over the next three to five years as a result of these business changes, new technology, and the need for increased speed and innovation.”

III) Questions related to a candidate’s ability to innovate, adapt and learn — Many times our best hires are those who are rapid continuous learners, those who are adaptable, and those who can innovate. If you want to assess these factors, consider asking these questions.

Article Continues Below
  1. Show us how you would be a continuous learning expert — “Rapid learning is essential in our fast moving company and industry. So please select an important subject matter area in this job where you will need to continuously be on the bleeding edge of knowledge. Then show us in some detail how you will initially learn and then maintain your expert status.” (Alternatively you can ask how they maintained their expert status in their current job).
  2. Show us your adaptability when dramatic change is required — “In the fast changing, chaotic, and volatile environment we operate under, everyone and every process should be adaptable. So please show us how you would adapt to this situation that may occur in this job (provide them with a possible major change that requires adaptivity in this job) by walking us through the steps of how you would adapt to it.” (Alternatively you can ask, “Please show us a situation in your current job during the last year that required you to change rapidly and adapt with a completely different approach. Tell us the name of the situation that required this significant adaptiveness and then walk us through the steps of how you and your team successfully adapted.”)
  3. Show us how you will innovate — “Our firm is focused on innovation, so we need to know if each new hire has the capability of innovating. So please select a single important area in this job and walk us through the steps as to how you might innovate in that area during your first year?” (As an alternative, you can ask them to select an area in their previous job and then to walk through the steps on how that innovation was created and implemented and what their role was in each step.”)

IV) Help us better understand you Some interview questions that relate to individuals’ competencies or preferences can be improved by requiring the candidate to rank their answers from most important to least important. In order to ensure that you successfully “sell” a top candidate, the most valuable question covers the decision factors that they will use to accept this job. Other questions where ranked answers are superior in revealing their preferences involve their motivators, their strengths, and the best ways to manage them.

  1. List and rank your job acceptance factors — “We know that you have choices, so if we make you an offer, we obviously want it to meet your needs. And that requires knowing what factors that you will use (i.e. pay, job duties, fit with your manager, levels of responsibility, etc.) to determine if “our job” is the right job for you. So if you had a choice between two offers for your next job, please list the top five factors that you would use to evaluate and accept the superior job opportunity. Please list them in their descending order of importance to you.”
  2. List and rank your job motivators — “We want to ensure that we provide every employee with the right set of motivators. So please list the top five factors that you have found that best motivate you on the job. Please list them in their descending order of importance to you.”
  3. Tell us the most effective approaches for managing you — “We want to ensure that every new employee has the best chance of succeeding. You can help us to reach that goal by highlighting the most effective ways to manage you. For each of these how to manage you factors (i.e. feedback, rewards, closeness of supervision, communications approach, and leadership style preference), please explain to us the most effective approach for optimizing your performance.”
  4. List and rank the capabilities that you bring to this job — “It’s important to fully understand the strengths of each new hire and how they match the requirements for the job. So, given the four important categories of knowledge, experience, education, and skills, can you please list in descending order what you have found to be your strongest five capabilities that will make you a top performer in the job?” (As an option, if you are concerned about weaknesses, you can also add this question: “Based on past manager assessments, 360s, and appraisals, what is the top job-related area where you need to improve the most, and what actions are you taking to improve in that area?”)

Final Thoughts

Hiring managers should be aware that thanks to social media, interview questions are now easily available to the public. That means that if you work for a major firm,  candidates can now find the actual interview questions (and the best answers) that were previously asked by hiring managers in any job family at your firm on websites like Glassdoor. So if you rely on typical interview questions, you will likely get fully rehearsed answers. In contrast, the questions I have provided here are designed to make rehearsing more difficult. They work best on sophisticated professionals who know how to identify and solve problems. But don’t be surprised that if you ask these in-depth questions to an average candidate, they will respond with a blank look.

Obviously asking good questions is only the first part of the assessment equation; you must also prepare a range of answers from great to weak for each question, so that you know in advance when you hear a great answer. I have developed and used each of these questions professionally over several decades so I can vouch for their effectiveness. If you use them, you will find like I have that top performers and professionals prefer these types of questions over the mundane “tell-me-about-yourself” questions that they normally get. Whether you use my questions or develop your own, these types of questions are superior because they are focused on 1) real problems, 2) this job, and 3) your firm.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



17 Comments on “My 12 High-impact Interview Questions for Top Candidates

  1. Doc,

    Most of these are good questions, except when you’re asking for 5 examples of forecasting job and industry evolutions. Too many examples to ask for in a question.

    I also suggest you send these questions to all of the boneheaded internal recruiters, recruitment leaders, and HRVP’s out there who continue to ask arrogant, condescending, irrelevant, meaningless, and bunghole questions of candidates. My candidates come back with horror stories, and these are with interviews at the alleged top shelf companies across multiple industries.

  2. I would submit that if a company is not getting quality people it is probably because the company does not know what they are looking for. If this methodology is to be adopted, the company should probably be in a position to answer these questions before they submit them to potential recruits. Past performance at a prior company which addresses the needs of the current company is the best indicator of future performance. In my opinion, the “how” question is asking the individual for his intellectual property without setting up any form of compensation, an acceptable offer or consulting agreement, should the company adopt the approach the candidate advocates during the interview process. Not knowing the support mechanisms, the capability of the company, the ability of the company to execute or innovate prevents the candidate from answering most of these questions unless the company is willing to subject themselves to close examination by the candidate to see if their are unrealistic expectations before formulating a response based upon knowledge.

  3. Dr. John,

    I don’t think anyone will disagree that these are outstanding questions, designed to extract the deepest thought processes from new hire candidates. I cannot see a way to improve the questions. However, I also cannot see more than maybe 2% to 4% of hiring organizations having the internal skills to develop the hiring side processes needed to ask these questions, and the hiring side analytical skills needed to score/rate the best answers. My personal experience covering 25 years of recruiting with mid-size U.S. organizations is that few have the requisite level of talent to roll such an approach out to Managers, or even Directors, involved in the hiring process. To be honest, a significant minority of Hiring Managers and Recruiters have trouble grasping a well-constructed Job Description, which is why we all see so many boiler plate descriptions, with their included nonsense requirements.

    Oops, I did find one error in your questions…at least, I hope it is an error: “you will need to continuously be on the bleeding edge of knowledge”. If that is a requirement, I don’t want to be there….


    Jim Cargill

  4. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. These are very good questions. At the same time, not being able to effectively answer a given question (or even not interviewing well) does not have a link (*as far as I’ve been able to tell) to actual job performance- a crappy interviewer can do well on the job, and a great interviewer can be terrible on the job.
    I think that whatever questions you ask need to determine just two things:
    1) Can the person do the job you need them to do?
    2) Will you feel comfortable working with this person for an extended period of time.
    Only hire the people you can answer “yes” to both questions.

    @ Edward: “Past performance at a prior company which addresses the needs of the current company is the best indicator of future performance.” IMHO, this is one of the biggest FALLACIES in recruiting, because it would apply only to the extent that the potential job, environment, etc. was like the past ones. The more different any of these factors are, the less true this is likely to be.

    @ Jim: I have to disagree. I don’t think it would be very difficult to determine the “Yes to Both Questions” people in the 3-5 people that should be F2F interviewed for any given position. (IMHO, a poorer interview/hire ratio than this indicates dysfunction or bad luck), and then to rank them. In “Think Fast, Think Slow,” Daniel Kahneman (who has some experience in selection) suggests having the interviewers score candidates on 5-6 criteria (including subjective ones) and automatically hiring the one with the highest score (presuming that this person has some minimal score)- this method is supposed to produce better-quality hires than more subjective methods. I do agree with you about the “you will need to continuously be on the bleeding edge of knowledge”: while it’s important to increase our knowledge and proficiency as recruiters, we don’t need to keep current about the latest “recruiting snake oil or “magic bullet” being peddled by slick hucksters with high-level connections to desperate and not-yet insolvent recruiters and their superiors who fail to recognize that in most cases they are futilely “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” of their companies’ ill-conceived, over-blown, grossly-dysfunctional hiring practices.”
    Fundamentally, whether we do it with a tweet from a tablet or a hand- shake face-to-face, we still “move the meat.



    *Folks, if you can find any serious studies/papers that talk about this one way or the other, send ’em my way.

  5. Keith,

    I disagree. Most positions today extoll job duties and responsibilities, not results. Company’s today are hiring the best available person rather than the best person for the job. If you participate in performance based hiring, the reason people change is because of a better environment, better support, opportunity for growth, challenge and perhaps a better compensation program. If you do not have any factors that have some commonality with the new opportunity, what criteria are you using to identify and hire the best person? If you examine individuals who have worked in different environments(products, companies etc.)and have excelled, there is a good probability that whatever challenge those individuals take on, they will probably succeed in the new environment. Their past performance is a good indicator of future success.

  6. Some good questions I agree, however past conditioning will extract varying quality to those responses. EG: For the first 3 questions, anyone who has completed a Problem Solving/Decision Making course run by Kepner Tregoe will have perfect answers down pat, even if they have never utilised those skills taught in the workshops.

    The 2 questions under section II ask for abilities most of the politicians and leaders of the world don’t have. I bet no candidate asked just before the GFC happened would have been able to predict the impact of the GFC on their business at the time.

    I cringe somewhat with your last question. After seeing numerous posts canning the “what are your strengths” question this question appears to be exactly asking the same thing, just in a sexier, more 2013 accepted way. But it is still essentially the same question.

    Trying to get people to rank them in the interview situation however reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition. “our main weapon is”……

  7. @ Edward. How often have we been involved in situations where the manager and his/her team hired someone who was objectively not the best candidate, based on the manager’s and team’s own criteria? It’s fairly frequently. IMHO, people SHOULD be hired based on their ability and willingness to do what is required of them as well as their likeability, but the first is hard to determine and is prone to many inherent cognitive biases, and the second is completely subjective. BTW, I found a very involved discussion we had abouton ERE about 3 years ago:

  8. Keith,

    I agree that most company’s and hiring managers really do not know what it is they are looking for. Because of this and the usual assortment of job duties and responsibilities they traditionally want to discuss with us, it is imperative we find out what they want done or accomplished. Our job is to then identify, contact and recruit an individual who has already accomplished what the hiring manager says needs to be done, which the individual has already performed or accomplished. Having the ability(subjective) to do something leaves a big gap between what someone has the ability to do versus someone who has already done it(performed-factual). That is why performance based hiring makes sense. It also challenges the hiring company to be creative and innovative in establishing a role that will be challenging, stimulating and inspiring to attract that top performing individual to their company. This is a departure from the traditional job duties, responsibilities roles that company’s dole out, post on job boards and their corporate websites. This approach also requires an environment that empowers and supports the achievement of what the company wants to accomplish. Few company’s play in this arena and those who do probably to not find this individual through job boards, social media or through their company website.

  9. These are fantastic questions. As the owner of a boutique executive career management and recruiting firm I am constantly looking for companies that ask the right questions. I can prepare my clients until I’m blue in the face, but when they are faced with standard open-ended questions that have cliche answers, they are not given the opportunity to really show their value and what they can offer a company. Your questions allow for great conversations which will enable a hiring manager to see the unique value of a candidate.
    Thank you!
    Ken Schmitt

  10. Thank you again, Edward. ISTM that when situations are dynamic, fluid, and there is an employment shortage (the 1990’s), employers will be willing to hire for attitude and ability, and when that isn’t the case (the usual situation), they’ll hire based on what the person has done as shown in their resumes, because that’s the easy, conventional, and un-challenging thing to do. (It also often works.)

    “It also challenges the hiring company to be creative and innovative in establishing a role that will be challenging, stimulating and inspiring to attract that top performing individual to their company.” IMHO that only applies to companies who aren’t “employers of choice (EOCs) and who want to hire “the Fabulous 5%” or some other much-in-demand skill-sets, aka: “companies who want people *they can’t reasonably expect to get”.

    “This approach also requires an environment that empowers and supports the achievement of what the company wants to accomplish.”
    IMHO, most companies actually do this, and what the company wants to accomplish is to maximize the earnings of a very small group of executives.



    * To see who they CAN reasonably get, they should use the Corporate Desirability Score (CDS):
    You take a number of things that people want and companies provide (like, pay, benefits, etc.) and rate them on a 1-100 score relative to other companies. It’s like a Radford Survey with additional factors:

    Basics (what every company has to some degree or another)
    Growth/promotion/raise potential
    Interesting work/type of technology
    Overall importance of what the company does
    People (staff & management)
    Recognition (personal and/or group)
    Reporting Structure (reporting to CXO- versus manager-level)
    Work environment and corporate culture
    Work/life balance

    Bonuses (typical of some startups and a few others)
    Free food & refreshments
    Pre-IPO stock


    To use the CDS, get the most accurate and objective information you can (maybe from HR, maybe from other sources). Be suspicious of very high or very low numbers, and if you get these very high or low numbers, you should probe for the basis of them. If no one knows: guess. You add up all the numbers, and divide by 12 (you could have higher score than a 100). That‘s your CDS.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *