Five simple questions to Reveal a Candidate’s True Career Story

It has become almost routine to see interviews or articles featuring prominent figures revealing their secrets to the art of interviewing. Whether it’s the one pivotal question Elon Musk poses to every job candidate or Steph Curry’s strategies for interviewing someone as illustrious as Bill Gates, such content proliferates across almost every platform. While the value and relevance of some of these secret interview questions is open to debate—like asking about a person’s favorite childhood toy as one executive recommends—several questions appear to cut across most of them.

Here, we explore five (5) of the most prevalent interview queries and delve into the underlying rationale for their significance. These are simple questions but if posed of each job a candidate has held, followed up by questions such as ‘how’ and ‘why’ they can provide profound insight by which to make good hiring decisions.

By consistently applying these inquiries across all positions held by the candidate, interviewers gain a panoramic view of their professional journey and the themes that resonate throughout their work history.

  1. How were you made aware of this job and previous positions?

Uncovering the channels through which a candidate has found employment, be it job boards, LinkedIn postings, online listings, or job fairs, offers useful insights. For instance, if a candidate consistently garners interest from former colleagues or superiors who actively seek them out for employment, it could serve as a reliable indicator of their competence. Conversely, if a candidate has never been referred or recruited by someone from their previous workplaces after several job changes, this could raise pertinent questions. The follow-up ‘why’ questions behind these referrals is a particularly illuminating aspect to explore.

  1. Why did you apply for that particular role and company?

A candidate’s motivation for pursuing a specific job or company can provide insights into their values, intentions, and career aspirations. Did they apply as part of a broad job search, or was their choice deliberate and targeted? Exploring the ‘why’ behind their decision-making process is essential.

This question will help uncover the candidate’s underlying drivers and discern whether their alignment with the role and company is rooted in a genuine and strategic interest. Understanding the reasoning behind their choices helps paint a clearer picture of their career trajectory.

  1. What was your most significant achievement in your last role?

This multifaceted question invites candidates to share their proudest professional accomplishments. The beauty of this query lies in its ability to elicit a wide range of responses, each shedding light on the candidate’s perceived strengths and contributions. Some candidates may emphasize their role in fostering morale and shaping corporate culture, while others might highlight their involvement in orchestrating a turnaround or propelling their organization to new heights. Some responses are high level while others granular and focused on specific data such as revenues, market share or profitability when they started their roles and how those were impacted. Some firms look for data driven specifics while others are focused on values.

Importantly, the initial answer serves as a gateway to more in-depth exploration. Follow-up questions like “why” and “how” can be employed to delve deeper into the specifics of their achievements, extracting valuable details about their problem-solving abilities, leadership style, and the impact they’ve had on previous employers.

  1. What was the lowest point in that role?

Asking a candidate to discuss the lowest point in their previous role can be a valuable interview question for several reasons:

It provides insight into the candidate’s ability to handle adversity and setbacks. A candidate who can discuss a low point and how they overcame it demonstrates resilience and problem-solving skills. This is especially important in fast-paced and challenging work environments.

It also reveals the candidate’s level of self-awareness and humility. Candidates who can acknowledge their low points and mistakes show a willingness to learn and grow. This is indicative of someone who can take constructive feedback and use it to improve.

Asking about a low point in their previous role encourages candidates to be honest and transparent during the interview. This can help interviewers gauge the candidate’s authenticity and their willingness to share both successes and challenges. Also, how a candidate dealt with a low point can provide insights into their adaptability and flexibility. Did they pivot, seek help, or come up with innovative solutions? Their response can indicate their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Understanding ‘how’ a candidate handled a low point can help assess their fit with the company culture. If their response aligns with the organization’s values, it suggests a better cultural fit. Finally, the question opens the door for a discussion on what the candidate learned from their lowest point. Did they gain valuable lessons or skills? This can be a window into their growth mindset.

Note that the focus should be on how the candidate handled the low point and what they learned from it, rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of the situation.

  1. Who was your manager in your last role and what will they say about you when we contact them?

Asking a candidate about their previous manager and what that manager might say when contacted can provide valuable insights during the interview process:

This question essentially serves as a mini-reference check within the interview itself. It gives the candidate an opportunity to showcase their confidence in their performance and the relationships they’ve built with past managers. Candidates who are willing to discuss their previous manager and potential references demonstrate accountability for their actions and behaviors in the workplace. It suggests they are comfortable with their past performance and are not trying to hide anything.

It can help gauge the candidate’s fit with the company culture. If the candidate mentions positive relationships with their previous managers and colleagues, it may indicate that they are likely to adapt well to the new workplace. Asking why it was positive will also shed light on values and style.

If the candidate had challenges or conflicts with their previous manager, it offers an opportunity to discuss how they navigated those situations. This can provide insight into their conflict resolution skills and ability to handle interpersonal issues professionally.

Finally, asking about potential references encourages honesty and integrity. Candidates who are truthful about their previous relationships with managers are more likely to be viewed as trustworthy.

However, it’s important to handle this question with sensitivity and respect for the candidate’s privacy. Some candidates may not have left their previous roles on the best terms, and this question should not be used to pressure them or make them uncomfortable. It’s also essential to respect the candidate’s decision if they choose not to disclose the details of their previous manager or references.

Understanding a candidate’s true career story is essential for making a good hiring decision. By systematically asking the right questions of every job and delving into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind their answers, interviewers can gain valuable insights into a candidate’s motivations, achievements, resilience, adaptability, and interpersonal skills. These insights go beyond the surface and provide a panoramic view of the candidate’s professional journey, helping organizations identify the best-fit candidates who align with their values and culture.

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