The Best Interview Question of All Time

Over the course of the past 20 years, I’ve been searching for — among other things — the single best question to ask in an interview. What I wanted to create was a One-Question Interview, a stand-alone query that would pierce through the veneer of generalizations, overcome typical candidate nervousness, minimize the impact of the candidate’s personality on the interviewer, eliminate the exaggeration which many candidates adopt as an interviewing ploy and actually determine if the candidate is competent and motivated to do the work required. I also wanted this question to begin the recruiting process, convincing the candidate by the question itself that the person asking it was sophisticated and professional, and that the company involved was a great place to grow a career. As a goal, this, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is not chopped liver.

Through years of trial and error, I finally hit upon one question that did it all. If you were allowed to ask only one question during the course of the interview, this would be it: Please think about your most significant accomplishment. Now, could you tell me all about it? To see why this simple question is so powerful, try it out on yourself. Imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select? Then imagine over the course of the next 5-20 minutes that I obtained the following information from you about this accomplishment:

  • A complete description of the accomplishment
  • The company you worked for and what it did
  • The actual results achieved: numbers, facts, changes made, details, amounts
  • When it took place
  • How long it took
  • The importance of this accomplishment to the company
  • Your title and role
  • Why you were chosen
  • The 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how you dealt with them
  • A few examples of leadership and initiative
  • Some of the major decisions made
  • The environment and resources available
  • How you made more resources available
  • The technical skills needed to accomplish the objective
  • The technical skills learned and how long it took to learn them
  • The actual role you played
  • The team involved and all of the reporting relationships
  • Some of the biggest mistakes you made
  • How you changed and grew as a person
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again
  • Aspects of the project you truly enjoyed
  • Aspects you didn’t especially care about
  • The budget available and your role in preparing it and managing it
  • How you did on the project vs. the plan
  • How you developed the plan
  • How you motivated and influenced others, with specific examples to prove your claims
  • How you dealt with conflict with specific examples
  • Anything else you felt was important to the success of the project

If the accomplishment was big enough, and if the answer was detailed enough to take 15-20 minutes to complete, consider how much I, or any interviewer, would know about you. The insight gained from this type of question would be remarkable. Just about everything you need to know about a person’s competency can be extracted from this type of question. Most people would agree this type of question is very revealing. But the real issue is not the question: it’s the information that’s given in response that’s most important. Few people are able to give this type of information without additional prompting from the interviewer. This is what real interviewing is about: getting the answer to this very simple but very powerful question. Don’t spend time learning a lot of clever questions to ask during the interview: spend time learning to get the answer to just this one question. The key: understand the accomplishment, the process used to achieve the accomplishment, the environment in which the accomplishment took place and the candidate’s role.

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To expand upon the assessment, you can ask this same question in the same level of detail for a variety of different accomplishments. Ask the candidate to describe two to three different individual and team accomplishments for the past five to ten years. Put them in time order to see the growth and impact over time in different jobs, and with different companies. Also ask about accomplishments that directly relate to job specific needs, for example, “Describe your biggest accomplishment in setting up manufacturing scheduling systems.”

With this approach to digging in and finding out about major accomplishments you’ll have all you need to make a reasoned evaluation of a person’s ability to deliver similar results in a similar environment to your own. Here’s just a little of what you’ll learn about a candidate from this type of questioning: initiative, commitment, team leadership, growth, potential, compatibility, comparability, character, true personality, applicable experience, ability to learn, and true interest and motivation to do the work required. Few candidates will give you all of this information on their own, so it’s the digging in that matters. It’s the interviewer’s responsibility to get this valuable information from the candidate, not the candidate’s responsibility to give it to the interviewer. By fact-finding this way, you put all candidates on a level playing field. And when you can get all members of the interviewing team to conduct their interviews this way, you’ll remove another key source of hiring errors: the tendency of most interviewers to talk too much, listen too little and ask a bunch of irrelevant questions. One question is all it takes.

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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17 Comments on “The Best Interview Question of All Time

  1. Thanks, Lou for yet another great bit of advice. I have been using a similar question in a written evaluation form I e-mail to prospective candidates for certain jobs. In the written version, it helps me get a sense of the individuals’ ability to think and express himself clearly, her writing ability including grammar and spelling, as well as an understanding of just what this candidate sees as his/her best accomplishment. The level of the accomplishment and the extent to which it is described can indicate quite a bit about the candidate’s readiness to take on certain responsibilities. It is, indeed, a powerful question.

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  2. great comments, and I have also “played” with this question
    and come up with another exciting way to learn about candidates
    with one question: “tell me about a time when you failed” and then go inside
    with the extended questions off the candoidates comments.
    Hang in there.

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  3. Allow me to offer a similar question, but from the other side of the desk. When I have interviewed for a new position myself over the years, the one question I ask that has never failed me is this (addressed to the person who will be my manager): “What do you think you’re like to work for?”

    No matter what they say, you will know, and I can offer 2 good examples. Back in my social worker days, I asked this question to the director of clinical services at a facility where I applied. His answer: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question”. After several attempts to re-work the question, the best he could offer was a rambling dissertation on his own personal work habits. I concluded he had a difficult time putting himself in other people’s shoes (a surprising failing for a therapist!), and couldn’t objectively evaluate his own characteristics. A second was the answer from the gentleman who became my sales manager when I moved into the private sector. His answer: “I am always blunt, and up front and to the point, and you will always know where you stand with me. And I am always right. But there may be times when we disagree, and both be right, and you may even be more right than I am”. Not only did I take the offer, many years later he continues to be one of my best friends.

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  4. Though I have read this artcile almost 2 yrs later… I think it still holds a lot of relevance. We use another technique in our organization from a book called Topgrading called the CIDS interviewing technique. But that is a very long drawn process. One simple questions, coupled with a few basic questions, I think, should be sufficient to be able to extract most of the information from candidates.

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  5. I agree.

    If I could only ask one question, this one would help me best. It brings out the candidate’s ability to communicate/interview, gives me good information about their ability to do the job, and the information to get the client interested in meeting them.

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  6. I was going to comment that, by the end of this interview you might know a lot about the interviewee, but not about whether they are right for the job. You still need a context to put it into.

    But in the process of registering with the site and getting back to the ‘question’, I find there is another more recent article on the ‘answers’ (http://www.erexchange.com/Articles/default.asp?CID={99A1166C-D6CC-432B-95D8-ADF3DB766768})

    So I’ll let someone say it for me – and better than I could 😉

  7. That’s a good question – one powerful question. Thanks for the tip. I’m a psychology major and I’m planning to specialize in HR management. I’m a little bit anxious on what is the best question to ask during an interview with an applicant. Good thing I was able to read your article. I learned a lot. Now I don’t have to worry if someday I’m going to interview some applicants. Thank you again. =)

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