Use the One-Question Interview to Make More Placements with Fewer Candidates

You need to become a better interviewer than your clients if they’re excluding good candidates even before they meet them, or if they’re not too good at assessing competency. This was the reason I developed the one-question performance-based interview, just to prevent having to do searches over again. Here’s how it works.

After you complete a work-history review, ask the candidate to describe a significant major accomplishment. Then ask these follow-up questions to better understand the person’s actual role and the significance of the accomplishment:

  1. When did it happen and how long did it take to finish?
  2. What was your specific role and who was on the team? As part of this, please draw a work chart describing the people you worked for and those who worked for you. Also, describe those you worked with, inside and outside your department, or company.
  3. Describe the environment and culture. I’d like to know how decisions were made, the systems you used, how your boss managed the team, and what you liked and didn’t like.
  4. What was the actual impact you made? Please provide specific details and facts.
  5. What were the two to three biggest challenges you faced on this project? Walk me though step-by-step how you handled the most difficult one.
  6. Describe the technical skills you used and those you learned. Give me some examples of how you applied these.
  7. Give me two to three examples of initiative, where you went the extra mile, or where you exceeded expectations.
  8. What did you like most and least about this project?
  9. Give me a specific example of the biggest problem you had to solve, whether it was handling something technical, a team issue, or meeting a tough schedule.
  10. What recognition did you receive for this?

While these questions can take at least 15 minutes, they provide the interviewer great insight regarding the candidate’s abilities to handle significant accomplishments. Then ask the same questions for a few more accomplishments over different periods and connect the dots. By repeating the questions for different accomplishments, the interviewer can quickly observe the person’s consistency, performance, and growth over time.

To increase assessment accuracy, have other interviewers use the same questioning process, but have them focus on different job factors and time frames.

For example, one interviewer can focus on team accomplishments, while another focuses on technical accomplishments, while a third focuses on both from earlier jobs.

Organized properly, this segmenting process provides the hiring team a balance of detailed information to better predict the candidate’s competency and motivation to handle all job needs. (Here’s a formal debriefing form we use to gather and evaluate this information.)

Here are some other ways to re-phrase the “most significant accomplishment” question. Remember to follow up each accomplishment using the fact-finding techniques above.

  1. (Review the candidate’s resume and pick a project that occurred before or after the one initially described.) Please tell me about your most significant accomplishment when you were at (company).
  2. Please describe your most significant team accomplishment, where you were a key member of the team.
  3. Please describe your most significant management accomplishment, where you built and managed the team to achieve a significant task.
  4. Please tell me about the biggest project you’ve handled where you had the least amount of experience or skills. This will help me understand how you’ve handled projects that were way over your head.
  5. Tell me about an accomplishment where you took on a major leadership role, defining the project, getting the resources, and successfully completing the task.

You can use this type of questioning to describe the job to the candidate by describing one of the critical performance objectives as an opening to the accomplishment questions. Here are some examples:

  1. One of the major objectives for this position is to accomplish (describe the specific task). Could you please tell me about your most significant comparable accomplishment?
  2. A typical problem you’d be expected to handle on this job is (describe a common but significant problem). Please describe something you’ve handled that best compares with this type of issue.
  3. A specific challenge we’re now addressing on the job is (describe). Please tell me about something you’ve done that is most similar to this.

You can use this same type of questioning to look for gaps in the candidate’s background that your position fills. For example, if the person has not managed as big a team, ask something like this:

This position has a staff of 10 people through two supervisors. Since you’ve only managed six people directly, the job might be a bit of a stretch management-wise. To determine if the gap isn’t too wide, please tell me about how you built and developed your team and how you organized and tracked their activities and performance.

This technique is called the push-away, and if the candidate is strong, she’ll attempt to convince you why she’s competent. This is a powerful recruiting technique that can be used to demonstrate that the gaps represent growth opportunities.

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As long as the gaps aren’t too big, it forces the candidate to sell you, and in the process sell herself on the merits of the job. This helps shift the decision to accept the offer based more on the opportunity it represents, rather than the compensation.

With the one-question interview, you now have the facts, details, and examples you’ll need to persuade a client to meet a top candidate who doesn’t quite fit the job description, but can meet the performance expectations of the job.

You also have the evidence you need to defend a fully qualified candidate from a client who is making a superficial assessment. To minimize both risks, prep your candidate to ask questions that enable her to respond with a summary of her accomplishments.

Video Overview

After you watch this quick video overview of how to prep a candidate, you can also read some articles on this topic.

If you use the one-question performance-based interview from now on, and prep your candidates properly, don’t be surprised if you make more placements with fewer candidates.

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).


4 Comments on “Use the One-Question Interview to Make More Placements with Fewer Candidates

  1. It is Monday; I opened this article and connected immediately. One of my favorite people (Lou Adler) is talking to me. You, Lou Adler are able to connect to my common sense level. Thanks…
    How true it is to engage a candidate in conversation about what they know and do daily for a living; connecting the requirements requested by the client at a conversation level with your candidate!
    I agree whole heartily that combining the requirements into a conversation verses a question answer conversation you have created a unity concept of going for the same goal. This is a unique method of saving face for everyone…possibly the candidate is qualified—how do we take it to the next level? Easily use this method presented here. Combine your questions with the required information. While listening to the candidate, we have the opportunity to qualify the level of skill. We are able to understand more about the candidate.
    You run the gamut of finding out that the candidate is not at the same level that is required by the client. Yet, it opens another area for the recruiter to speak with the client, also at a different level. Saying things like, “I just spoke, in length, with Joe Black, interesting enough, he does not meet all of your qualifications but I found that…” If you recall the match is not always about the requirements it is about what this person can do for the client. Recall the clients do not always hire the best candidate! And we do not know the whole story behind the need to hire either…
    What have you done here, created a motive to hire someone! Possibly creating another position or allowing the client to know that you know your candidate! This can be a win – win- win for all three of you.
    Lou Adler You have done it again. Thank you for helping us remember to keep it simple, yet, learn your product(Candidates) and working as an extension of your client. Cut’s down on “cold calls” creates more business for everyone! See ya in line at the bank.

  2. I’d like your opinion on whether this technique is suitable for highly experienced candidates, already in senior positions?

    I’ve certainly seen situations where the candidate has trouble picking one particular “accomplishment” out of an apparently stellar career.

  3. Chris – I only use for heavily experienced if they are not naturally good interviewees. Since most hiring managers aren’t very good interviewers, it’s important that your candidates are well-prepared to handle meetings with weaker interviewers.

    Try it out for yourself to validate the methodology.


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