The Truth Is In The Standouts

Take a moment to recall your top three professional victories in the last five years of your career. That product you developed that vastly exceeded expectations. That new process you championed that saved your company millions. That smart-but-struggling team member you coached who became a top performer. Got it? Now unpack each victory, identifying the underlying traits, qualities and skills you exhibited that made each of them happen. Exceptional creativity and an ability to think like a customer? Check. Top notch analytic skills and intense loyalty to the cause? Check. Empathy and a passion for seeing others shine?Check. 

Review your list—if you are like most people, you have just created an 80-90% comprehensive list of your most important professional strengths—the most critical assets you would bring to any would-be employer. The same goes for your biggest mistakes by the way…if you list your three biggest whoppers over the past five years and what was behind each one, you should have a reasonably comprehensive list of your most important professional liabilities.

Now think about your top three victories related to generating revenue from new customers in the past 2 years. Hmmmm…a little harder, right?  There was that sales pitch you joined that went pretty well. There was that new role you created that made things a little more efficient in Marketing. And of course, that product tweak that slightly improved adoption amongst millenials. So…what were the traits or skills behind these “victories?” This list of skills/traits is likely to be far less comprehensive, and far less representative of who you truly are, than the first list.

What’s the point of all of this? When we interview, we should be seeking standout data—the most prominent events in a candidate’s career that really jump out as especially good or bad. These events are the ones that speak to our real strengths and limitations—and the way to get them is to ask broad, open-ended questions! For example, “What was your greatest accomplishment during your time at Google?” is a broad question that is likely to generate meaningful and highly-representative information about your candidate. Conversely, “What was the most difficult internal negotiation you had with a peer who resisted your influence?” is a far narrower question—one that may generate a less insightful, more contrived and less “representative” response from your candidate. In fact, the more "filters" you apply to your question, the more likely you are to hear a completely fabricated response!

It is tempting to put lots of filters on our questions to try to steer the candidate towards the skills and traits we care about. But this can lead to lackluster, uninsightful and mundane data points. A more powerful approach is to keep the questions broad to find out what makes the candidate really stand out, and narrow our questions only if we need to (e.g. to fill the few remaining gaps or unknowns in the story).