If you could go back five years, what advice would you give yourself? Was there a moment in your career where you wanted something so badly that you wouldn’t stop pursuing it? Have you ever used data to make a decision with unexpected results?
These are all great interview questions that can showcase a candidate’s personality, ability and even tenacity. Questions like these allow the respondent to reflect on pivotal moments in their life and career, providing a chance to breathe success into past failures — or revisit past success with renewed breath.
But, if hiring managers hope to recruit the best talent possible and build strong, diverse teams like those found at major companies like Amazon, then they need to ask questions that allow for even better insight.
So what exactly separates the best interview questions from those that are just great? That’s a tough question (and this is a declarative statement).
Let’s start by exploring what makes an interview question worth asking in the first place. Fortunately, great interview questions aren’t terribly difficult to create.
First, great interview questions are open-ended. You want your recipient to respond with a story or have the opportunity to explain something in detail; yes or no won’t cut it. Additionally, you can use the length of their response to gauge their engagement with certain facets of the role. Ex: She loves talking about her code monkey days, but she didn’t have as much to say about her management experience. This candidate may not be a good fit for this management role.
Second, they give candidates the ability to showcase problem solving skills. Asking candidates to relive a failed project or particular challenge helps you understand what the candidate considers challenging, if they have learned from past mistakes, and if they have the ability to overcome future challenges. It also gives you insight into if your candidate has realistic expectations of what constitutes a failure or challenge and if that aligns with the sort of challenges they’ll encounter in their role.
Third, great questions keep candidates thinking on their feet. More formulaic interview questions are easily rehearsed. You want to ask questions that allow you to assess a candidate’s thought-process in real-time. At the same time, your questions shouldn’t be so unexpected that it causes the candidate to feel uncomfortable or uncertain about their place in the interview. A good mix of standard and unexpected gives candidates the chance to both sell themselves and provide authentic, thoughtful responses.
Great questions can also be limiting. Candidates are asked to recount achievements, display skills, and recall significant career events at a moment’s notice so that they can hopefully match their life experiences with the expectations of the interviewer. In the modern hiring space, this becomes especially problematic as hiring managers try to account for socioeconomic or cultural differences that may not always provide the same opportunities for workplace success.
For example, candidates may struggle to answer questions related to failure, especially if failure was grounds for termination at their last job. Or they may struggle to discuss challenges at work because they have been overshadowed by more significant challenges in their personal lives. Want them to tell you about a disagreement with management and how they reconciled it? That can be incredibly hard to answer if they felt mistreated and there was no reconciliation to be had.
In cases where a candidate’s life experience doesn’t align with the expectations of the hiring manager or recruiter, they may feel pressured to shape their response to match the prompt they are given. As a result, their answer can be seen as disingenuous or ineffective if it comes across as inauthentic.
While great questions provide interviewers with valuable insight needed to make difficult judgement calls, they can also unintentionally set up candidates for failure. These are candidates that may have the ability and talent required for the role, but they haven’t had the same opportunities to turn this talent into success.
The best interview questions are formulated in a way to avoid these scenarios.
We’ve covered the rules for making great interview questions, but the best interview questions break these rules to produce truly unique responses from candidates. While there’s no universal best interview question, the best one we’ve encountered comes from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — and it’s incredibly simple:
Do you consider yourself lucky?
At first, it seems unassuming, unfocused, and perhaps even pointless. It’s hard to immediately connect an abstract feeling of luck with anything related to hiring or recruiting tech talent. On the surface, the most one could say about it is that it may reveal some insight into a candidate’s character or beliefs.
But let’s examine it more closely. What is this question really asking, what does the answer convey, what makes it better than other interview questions, and what can be learned from it?
It’s really asking you if you’re optimistic, prone to success, or if you can recognize opportunities where others may not. Best of all, it’s asking all of that without giving it away. Also, because luck is an abstract concept, this question begs a follow up explanation; while it’s just a yes or no question, people are inclined to rationalize or explain what luck means to them and their relationship with it.
If someone responds, Yes, I’m the luckiest person I’ve ever met! There’s something immediately telling about that person’s optimism, as luck is a fortunate thing to have, as well as showing their humility. They are able to recognize that some of their fortune is caused by circumstance and, most importantly, they are okay with acknowledging that.
Similarly, if someone responds, No, I’m not particularly lucky. It can show a lack of optimism, or even humility, in a potential candidate. However, it can also indicate that the person simply views matters in a more practical fashion than other candidates. Luck simply isn’t a consideration in their life and they tend to focus on the future, rather than how luck may have influenced their past. While a resounding Yes! Is preferable to a No, how the candidate rationalizes their answer is what’s really important.
Here’s an example of a good rationalization: I’m a hard worker, but I’ve also had a lot of things go right to get me where I am today and I’m proud to say that I’ve taken advantage of my luck at every step. You’re looking at someone who, on top of being optimistic and humble, has a demonstrable record for recognizing opportunities and executing on them. Someone who can find opportunities where others can’t is going to be valuable at any company.
Consider this candidate’s explanation: I’ve never needed to rely on luck and have overcome all of life’s challenges by working harder and producing better work than those around me. This person sees their life as consisting mainly of challenges, instead of opportunities, and fail to recognize the contributions of others. This would suggest the candidate may have difficulty working within teams or sharing praise.
It’s deceptively simple, produces creative responses that showcase valuable character traits, and it isn’t framed around specific life experiences. Luck is a concept that persists through every culture and can be attributed and interpreted in different ways, but it is universally associated with success. While candidates may struggle to answer certain questions, everyone can answer this question with conviction and will be willing to explain their answer in detail. Also, while not explicitly asking for problem-solving skills, the question is a problem in and of itself that demands a solution: I’m lucky, here’s how I interpreted your question and why I came to that answer.
The best interview questions are ones that provide candidates with the ability to showcase how they use their abilities and talents to interact with the world around them, even outside of the workplace. These questions separate the success of a project in the workplace from the actual ability needed to execute it. They are also broad enough to be transferable to multiple facets of a person’s life, avoid exclusionary scenarios, and can still easily relate back to a person’s ability to positively impact their working environment.
At the end of the day, you’re looking to hire talent that genuinely produces successful results. You want to find someone who is authentically optimistic in their outlook, brings a unique perspective to their work, and understands how to be part of a cohesive team. In order to find star talent, take a page from Amazon’s book, and consider using interview questions that allow candidates to showcase successful outlooks, as well as outcomes.
With Wavely, you can chat with talent directly, which gives you an opportunity to learn more about them before an interview even begins.