Getting Smart Answers to SMART Questions.

In a world where “Dummy’s Guides” and “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” seem to be the rule, I’m pushing for SMART. Asking SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Result-based, Time-bound) questions has always been the best way to get an accurate picture of a candidate’s past performance — which, in turn, has always been the best way to judge that candidate’s future performance. It takes time — about eight to ten minutes of digging for details on each point as the candidate lists past accomplishments. It’s a bit like peeling an onion, following up with related questions to zero in on specifics. But it pays off. How else would I have known that the man who talked about setting up a completely new and revolutionary accounting system at his last job wasn’t quite the glowing gem he seemed — unless I kept on pressing? “How long did it take to get this amazing system in place?” I asked. “Three weeks,” he replied. Three weeks? That was much too rapid for anything but a superficial “quick fix” — which it did indeed turn out to be when I asked a few more follow-up questions. The more details you can gather during the fact-finding session, the more results you can have to assess past performance. My advice is to keep asking those SMART questions until you can match the results to what you need to know before making a hiring decision. A technique that works well for me is to ask a candidate, “Give me a snapshot of your most significant past accomplishment — what the circumstances were when you began and what they were like after you finished.” Then I listen carefully to the answer, to make sure it’s as smart as the question. Here are some basic fact-finding tips: 1. For each past individual accomplishment, ask for or about:

  • An overview of the accomplishment — what the scope and meaning of it is to the candidate.
  • The actual title and size of organization, and the candidate’s reporting relationship.
  • The bottom line or business impact of this particular accomplishment. Did it make or break a pattern of success?
  • When did this happen? Get duration and checkable dates.
  • Why: what was the original problem?
  • Get candidate to describe his or her actual role — keep peeling that onion until you feel comfortable with the answers.
  • Have the candidate describe the scope of the actual leadership role.
  • Why were they chosen for this role?
  • What were the biggest challenges?
  • Ask “Why do you consider this the most significant work in this job?”
  • Ask for the major deliverables involved in accomplishing the task.
  • Get details of implementation steps.
  • When exactly did each step happen?
  • How long did each step take?
  • Ask “How did you grow or change as a result of this effort?”
  • Was the task completed on time?
  • Find out how the candidate ranks the overall success of the task and why.
  • Ask “What aspects did you enjoy (dislike) the most and why?”
  • Ask “What was your real contribution or value-added to this task?”
  • What would you do differently?

2. If the candidate’s most significant accomplishment was part of a larger team effort, here are a few more specific points to follow-up on:

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  • Get details about the team – names and titles. Find out the reporting relationships. Who was actually in charge?
  • Rank each team member’s ability.
  • Describe how group decisions were made and get examples.
  • Ask candidate to “Describe the people challenges involved — and give me some specific examples.”
  • Get examples of the candidate persuading others.
  • Get examples of the candidate handling conflict.
  • Get examples of the candidate developing people into other roles.
  • Ask, “How did you change as team leader?”

Finally, remember to be skeptical. Interviewing is a fact-finding mission, not a popularity contest. As long as you know what you’re looking for, don’t give up until you find it. The best candidates won’t mind — especially if the job you’re seeking to fill is one that will make their lives even better.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


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