Let’s picture two candidates for a critical role in your organization. One of them (let’s call him Adam) has been struggling greatly in his past three jobs, taking on roles that were too much of a stretch, lacking the energy and commitment to get the job done, and spending a lot of time in desperate job searches as a result. He reached out to you twice in the past few months, and his earnest pleading (and well-crafted cover letter) encouraged you to give him a shot. The second candidate (let’s call him Bob) has been, and still is, on fire—crushing his targets in his current role and working overtime to help drive his team to new heights. He became interested in your company at the urging of a close friend, who has encouraged him to take time out of his busy schedule to give you a look.
You bring them both onsite, and set them up with two interviewers. The first interviewer does a thorough review of each candidate’s career histories, diving deep on the relevant accomplishments and mistakes across their careers. In her interviews she very quickly identifies Adam’s serious liabilities and Bob's consistent pattern of above-par performance, and recommends proceeding with Bob only.
The second interviewer asks the following three interview questions:
1. Tell me about yourself.
2. Why are you considering joining our company/taking on this role?
3. What would you do in your first [X days/months] on the job?
Adam (the weaker one) loves these questions. He’s had plenty of practice on #1, because he’s interviewed with 15 companies in the past two years alone. His pitch is smooth, efficient and well-rehearsed. He nails #2 because he knew this one was coming and he’s had several days to prepare a brilliant response—one that almost sounds like your CEO might have said it. And on #3, he weaves a brilliant fairy tale of his future victories based on everything he completely failed to do in his last three roles.
Bob (the stronger candidate) wasn’t quite as smooth. He didn’t have as much time to prepare as Adam did, because he was busy delivering amazing results for his current employer. He also hasn’t interviewed as much—only once in the past five years, for his current role—a process that was pretty lightweight given he was pulled into the opportunity by his happy former boss. He manages to muscle through it, but because he's a passive candidate (i.e., not actively looking for a job), he's simply not as well-rehearsed.
What is most amazing about these three interview questions is not only how unreliable they are, but also the fact that they are arguably the three most common questions asked in interviews:
- I typically see #1 in organizations where the interviewer can’t think of anything better to ask. It’s basically the interviewer saying “I haven’t prepared any questions, so can you please fill the air for me while I form some gut impressions of you?”
- I see #2 absolutely everywhere—it’s not a terrible question, but it is so pervasive that a candidate may be asked this same question three, five or even more times during an interview process. Their response gets better and better with practice (and as they learn more about the role in each interview). By the time they make it to the all-important final rounds, their response is excellent and well-rehearsed. So in general, it's fine to ask this question in the right context, but do it sparingly, and don't put too much stock in a great response.
- #3 is arguably the most overused question with CEO/CXO candidates. If you were to ask me what I would do in my first 90 days on the job as your new CFO, I could probably weave a pretty decent story about using metrics to create transparency, securing new sources of capital and improving operating cash flow. Unfortunately, I have never worked in finance, and therefore lack the training and experience needed to do even 20% of what I am claiming. But my story certainly sounds good!
Do you want to free up interview time to gather useful, hard-hitting, insightful data about your candidates? Do you want to stop hiring bad candidates who weave stories that have zero correlation with their eventual on-the-job performance? If so, stop asking these questions, and focus on learning about their past performance.