Best Job Interview Question of All Time

If you were conducting a job interview for a senior position and could only ask one question, what would it be? I see one article suggesting the following:

Please think about your most significant accomplishment. Now, could you tell me all about it?

While I personally loathe that question — it’s cliched and over-easily anticipated — I understand its appeal. Nevertheless, anyone have a better example? I’m fond of short and blunt, like “Why do you want this job?”, but that admittedly has its own difficulties.


  1. willcommentforfood says:

    I always used this question in the context of many questions and I always felt it was a litle unfair. But it accomplishes two things. It separates those people who can deal with ambiguity and those that can’t. And it separates those people who get shit done versus those that need hand holding.
    “It’s your first day on the job, what do you do?”

  2. Yeah, same sort of thing as “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life?” — this one leaves a bit more room for creativity..
    Personally though, I hate the behavioural questions and logic questions/directions in interviews like, “Design an elevator”, which I was asked to do before.

  3. I like ‘If someone offered you $50 million for your company, what would you do? (presuming they say sell, what would they do with the money?’
    If you are in a startup environment (like presumably most of your readers), the answer can really offer a lot of insight into a person’s personality, motivations, loyalties, etc.
    Examples could include: share it with my friends & family/buy an island/start a new business/become an angel. It is even telling to see how much thought the person has given to that type of question (if they are like me, hours).

  4. I haven’t been in many interviews, but one question I was asked took up the entire time, it was “If oil was free, what effect would that have on companies”?

  5. Blech! You aren’t going to get any useful information from a question like that. You might as well be asking “Could you tell me all the good things about yourself?”
    A marginally better question: “Think of your most significant failure. Could you tell me all about it?” At least then you can get an idea of how the candidate has responded to challenges, whether she has learned anything from her mistakes, what kinds of risks she’s willing to take, whether she accepts responsiblity or lays blame, her abilities to analyze a situation, etc.

  6. “How much should we pay you, and why?”
    Yes, I admit that’s two questions…

  7. I got a good question when interviewing for a technical position: “How many liters of fluid can a 747 hold?”
    Obviously no one knows the answer. The point is to see if someone thinks like an engineer. The guy who says “Well a 747 is about 60 ft long and has a radius of 6 feet so using the formula for the area of a cylinder…” is a guy who is thinking technically. If someone tries to BS me or just gives up then I can at least see something about how they approach immpossible problems.

  8. What’s the last thing you did that you’re proud of?
    I don’t care what people say. They could tell me that getting to the interview was an accomplishment. I’m interested in eliciting a story.
    One interviewee actually said, “Nothing.” That was end of the interview. I don’t time limit it. It could be an accomplishment from 10 years ago, from yesterday, I don’t care. I’m interested in working with people who have a sense of accomplishment and can tell me about it.

  9. My favorite is “What’s your utopia? If you could do anything you want, what would it be?”
    It’s amazing to watch people who were just 2 minutes ago telling you of their lifelong dream to be a computer programmer launch into a passionate soliloquy on how they’d love to be in the opera. My sense is, if that’s what they’d love, they should follow that dream.
    On the other hand, people who speak with a passion and drive about what they’ve chosen to do with their lives are the most centered, and ultimately most successful, employees.

  10. The question should depend on the discipline and the position.
    How many Marketing people could answer the 747 fluid volume question?
    A better question for them might be, “How would you sell ice to the Inuit?”
    The choice of question also tells a lot about the interviewer. Are they risk-averse and more concerned about the candidate’s weaknesses, or would they let Shaquille be Shaquille and not worry about his free-throw percentage?

  11. Sean —
    Interesting way of looking at it. I tried to frame it as a senior management interview, but you’re right, even in that narrower context the question does say a great deal about the interviewer. SOme people stive too hard for conformity and won’t, as you aptly put it, let Shaq be Shaq.

  12. As a former start-up hiring manager, I can give you the worse type of interview questions- ones I had to deal with when passing around prospects inside the company. There’s nothing quite like a hair-brained CEO entering the room to ask top technical talent ‘brain teasers’. Those who lack brains should avoid the brain teaser genre in general. It greatly lowers your success rate in attracting talent.

  13. I’m quite fond of another cliche: “where do you want to be in five years?” You can get to know a lot about someone in the answer, and if you’re hiring for an entry level position, you can weed out someone who plans to hire in and park.

  14. Why spend time trying to figure out their weakness? Just ask them:
    “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Tell me, for this job, what is an area of weakness that you feel that you have?”

  15. Assuming they’re in a non-CEO position currently, and I’ve just asked them why they want to leave, then the next question is usually ‘If you were running your current department/company, what would you do differently and why?’
    If they don’t have any ideas, or their ideas are crap, then they’re not going to come up with much at your company either!

  16. Steve Duncan says:

    Joel, to answer your question from a marketing perspective: the answer is “0”. New airline regulations do not permit liquids to be brought on board 747s. 😉

  17. Only one question? I must reach back and paraphrase the question that General Pershing asked a young George Patton, on why the latter should be chosen for a key position in the Villa expedtion ..
    “Hundreds of qualified candidates for this position. Why should I pick you?”
    Patton’s answer? “Because I want it more than they do.”

  18. Franklin Stubbs says:

    It’s an annoying question (the significant accomplishment riff), and it only acts as a gateway question anyhow. The real exploratory value comes from the follow-up questions and interaction between interviewer and interviewee.
    So what it is, really, is a pompous conversation starter, with ego problems to boot. In a way it’s like asking someone to justify their self-worth through the lens of one experience. If you ask it of a 40 year old, you may embarrass them by making them feel inadequate. If you ask it of a 22 year old, they may not have anything especially dynamic yet. And the type of self-promoter who responds eagerly to a loaded question like that probably has a unique personality profile best suited for the sales or marketing department.
    The best and most versatile question, off the top of my head admittedly, seems to be “How do you picture your job if hired, and what specific skills and traits make you the right candidate.” You can ask that question of anyone, from CEO to part-time secretary. You can bypass all that “why are you the best” BS and get down to the brass tacks of personality / job philosophy / skillset. and you can go down just as many telling byways as you can with the demeaning “significant accomplishment” question.

  19. I always close interviews by asking the candidate to give me their 30 second sales pitch on why I should hire them. This helps me learn how well they understood our needs, their assets, and how well they can communicate.

  20. I like this job…