The Interview Questions: #1 The Best Thing First

You know the drill, right? Whichever side of the interview equation you’re sitting on, you can count on being asked - or asking - the famous first question (which is not, technically, a question at all. More of a command.).

“So, tell me a little bit about yourself.”

After more than a few interviews where I was in the hot seat, it occurred to me to say, “What would you like to know?” Because, well, “tell me a little it about yourself” could mean a million things. Golf handicap? Birth order? My bucket list? Number of unpaid parking tickets?

Once I started trying to narrow the focus of the question so I knew more about how to respond, I figured out that most interviewers didn’t really know what they wanted to know. And, full disclosure, this was often true when I was the interviewer. We take this buckshot approach to beginning the interview hoping we’ll hit on something valuable, hoping that we’ll get lucky and the candidate will, in telling us “a little bit about themselves”, hand over some gem of information that will be beneficial as we weed out the field. Maybe even something we can't actually ask.

What often happens is that we eat up a big chunk of our interview time with a regurgitation of a résumé. We can read that for ourselves. And the truth is, we don’t really want to know a little about someone we might add to our team, we want to know a lot about them.

I’ve found a much better question for beginning interviews, one that shines the light at a slightly different angle, opens up conversation, and lets me see more of a person’s heart.

The conversation goes something like this: This is a really interesting résumé, lots of great experiences and opportunities. Tell me, of all the positions and activities on your résumé, which one is the most meaningful to you? (OK. Take a minute. How would you answer this?)

If you think about it, beginning in this way really gives the candidate the opportunity to start an interview by talking about the best thing first. And I am really interested in what candidates themselves think is the best thing. And why.

This approach relieves us all of the need to follow some chronological order right at the start, to assume that the current or last job is the most significant, to place more value on employment than community involvement, and to totally ignore educational experiences. All those things happen in most interviews.

Such a question gives candidates with numerous, diverse work experiences a chance to draw attention to the weighty one, the one most like the position they are applying for, the one in which they won the academy award. But it also gives young professionals with sparse experience an opportunity to point to student or community activities that highlight their skill, leadership, perseverance and so on. That is, it provides that opportunity if they think well on their feet, because this isn’t a standard interview question. I’m pretty interested in getting a glimpse of that “thinking-on-feet” skill, too.

And it does another rather magical thing. It invites the person across the table to show us what kinds of experiences are truly meaningful to them. What matters? What motivates? What makes something worth talking about? What causes them to stretch and grow? And if we, as interviewers, follow up with, "Why?" or "Tell me more about that.", this beginning can give us much to build on.

We can move along with other more standard interview questions (but I've got more non-standard questions coming), no doubt, because there are specific things we need to talk about, but starting here can dramatically change the tone and direction.

The best thing first.

Common People United